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.
As a librarian, I work with students who are worried about citing their sources. They commonly perceive citation formats as a set of complex and arbitrary rules, deviation from which will not only hurt their grade but also put them in danger of accidentally plagiarizing. I try to frame citation for students in two ways: first, as a rhetorical strategy by which writers position themselves in a larger scholarly conversation and, second, as a collegial gesture intended to make it as easy as possible for readers to access the sources referred to.
Because student writing rarely has an audience beyond the teacher, the second framing is often lost on students. However, we should encourage students to think of their citations as functioning in the same way as their prose: as a means of communicating rather than as a product that conforms to a set of rules. Citations in scholarly writing have readers and serve a purpose for the writers who use them.
The simplified system of documentation in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook makes it easier to emphasize the communicative purpose of citations. The slimmer volume looks a lot less like a bristling forest of rules covering every publication format imaginable. Instead, this edition sets out the philosophy behind the MLA documentation style and places greater emphasis on a flexible set of conventions that students can adapt to document both common and unusual types of sources. Students can benefit from becoming better readers of citations, both for practical reasons and because it impresses on them that documentation has an audience. In the teaching resources I plan to develop this semester, I will focus on exercises that involve reading citations—not just writing them—which can give students a reason to appreciate well-crafted and accurate citations and help them see past the minor differences that distinguish various citation formats.