impact effort

It occurred to me recently that we don’t give students enough credit when it comes to citation. If you ask faculty and librarians about student citation practices, they will bemoan students’ inability to cite correctly in the format of the faculty’s discipline. The faculty and librarian feelings surrounding this perceived inadequacy range from frustration (it’s a simple formula!) to condescension (if you can’t follow a simple formula, I really can’t help you) to superiority (if only you knew how important citation is, you’d do it properly) to punative (you can kiss those “easy points” goodbye). One possibility for students perceived inability to cite properly we haven’t considered in all of these really unattractive feelings is the role of basic incentives.

Consider your typical rubric. How many points out of the total are assigned to citation? Five out of 100? Given that small incentive to spend extra time after completing the more point-valuable requirements, is it possible that students aren’t incapable, but are simply making a calculated decision on where their time is best spent? Could it be, that rather than spending 30% of their time on 5% of the points, students are instead applying a rather effective impact/effort matrix to their assignments?

Faculty and librarians are often blinded by their own learning styles and motivations when it comes to interacting with students. While it would be unthinkable for many faculty and librarians not to actively attempt to exceed the instructor’s expectations, most students aren’t aiming to get 110% on an assignment. They’re just looking to get through. For many students, the possibility of achieving a max of 95% on the assignment is still a really great outcome. In that context, is it the fault of the students for not attempting 110%, or the fault of the faculty for not adjusting their rubrics to place higher value citation in context of the other requirements?

There is something to be said for properly valuing information and individual’s contribution to scholarship, the role of citation in a scholarly conversation, and other performative aspects of scholarship, but at the same time we as academics must unpack our own motivations behind citation. We cite because journals require us to cite. We cite because we are afraid of our scholarly communities calling us out for not citing. Both of these fundamental motivations are a much stronger incentive for us to cite than for a student to cite. Keeping our jobs is a pretty strong motivator. We expect that students will cite based on our own incentives, but we forget that their incentives are radically different than ours, especially when take on the whole of a life.

Maybe instead of condescending to students about their perceived inability to cite properly, we could instead acknowledge that if our incentives were theirs, they’d likely step up to the plate, too. And if their incentive were ours, on the whole we would be spending less time worried about correct citation too, professional ethics be damned.

(Don’t even get me started on the various citation formats, which, from a student perspective, are simply arbitrary and exist to make things complicated. I make it a point to never “teach citation” any longer, but when I do talk about citation in classes I point out how various citation styles highlight what’s important to a particular discipline, like I did in this long ago class. Providing an explanation isn’t going to change the incentive equation but it can demystify, which I believe is valuable in itself.)

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