Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.
Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.
Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.
Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.
In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.
For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.
While more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”
APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)
For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.
APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”
Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”
So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:
1. Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.
2. Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.
3. Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.
4. Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”
Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.
Thank you for reading this, and your comments are always welcome. What is your best tip for teaching research writing?