Note: This post relates to content in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook. For up-to-date guidance, see the ninth edition of the MLA Handbook.

This semester, I am teaching a course in which we are test-driving the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook and working to shift from a “right” model to a “strong” model of dealing with sources in academic writing. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in the preface to the new MLA Handbook, challenges us to do this. Opening with reference to what Tim Parks calls “an element of fetishism” in scholarly citation practices, she notes the MLA’s “shift . . . from a prescriptive list of formats” to an emphasis on “the writer’s decision making” (xii).

I plead guilty to having sometimes fallen prey to the “fetishism” that can make the mapping of intellectual conversation seem rigid, convoluted, and obligatory rather than flexible. In my efforts to demarcate the academic conventions that can help students claim intellectual authority, it has sometimes seemed easier to teach right answers than to foster the messy spaces in which strong critical thinking can be practiced. But at its best, such mapping allows a writer to critically engage the larger worlds of ideas.

And one of the most important things we do in teaching the humanities in the higher education classroom is foster a shared understanding that scholarly practice is just that: practice as much as product.

I think a lot about practice in my research on contemporary conversations about scholarly reading practices. Work on, for example, surface, distant, descriptive, suspicious, and paranoid reading has been, sometimes fairly, characterized as “disciplinary navel-gazing” (Best). But scholarly conversations about reading practice are often also, implicitly or explicitly, conversations about pedagogical practice.1 Since the scholars plumbing these disciplinarily self-referential depths are frequently the people teaching scholarly conventions for reading and writing to students in the higher education classroom, curiosity about reading practices is also curiosity about the writing practices that allow us to make the methods of our thinking explicit to others.

Teaching the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook this semester is requiring me to step back from lectures on the right ways to a cite a book, an article, or a website and, instead, to teach texts, contexts, and our engagements with them as processes. I am trying to teach the citation of sources as a potentially messy but always important representation of the complex web of ideas that shape the ways we read and write. The handbook now emphasizes frameworks over formulas, allowing for more of the kind of flexibility that scholars at all levels need to navigate our increasingly, and constantly shifting, digital world. So, this semester, I’m asking myself these three questions:

  1. How can we treat scholarly practice in ways that facilitate rather than proscribe?
  2. How might treating scholarly practice in ways that facilitate rather than proscribe more fully reflect the intersections between our own work as scholars and the work we help students produce?
  3. How might engaging the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook head-on further these kinds of explorations and integrations of practices?


  1. Evelyne Ender and Deidre Shauna Lynch’s guest column in PMLA, “On ‘Learning to Read,’” and the cluster of articles on reading practice and the Common Core it introduces helpfully frame a relation between “scholarship devoted to reading,” a “scholarship initially conceived in academia,” and the pedagogical implications of such scholarship both within and beyond the bounds of the university (540).

Works Cited

Best, Stephen. “‘Well, That Was Obvious’: Response to the Representations special issue ‘Denotatively, Technically, Literally,’ number 125 (Winter 2014).” Representations, 1 April 2014,

Ender, Evelyn, and Deidre Shauna Lynch. “On ‘Learning to Read.’” PMLA, vol. 130, no. 3, 2015, pp. 539–45.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Preface. MLA Handbook, 8th ed., MLA, 2016.

Parks, Tim. “References, Please.” NYR Daily, New York Review of Books, 13 Sept. 2014,

Photo of Livia Arndal Woods

Livia Arndal Woods

Livia Arndal Woods is a teaching fellow at Queens College, City University of New York, where she teaches composition and British literature. She is working on a book project on reading practices and pregnancy in nineteenth-century realist fiction as well as a series of articles on digital pedagogy.