One of the major parts of the curriculum I spend most of my time teaching is the research process and essay. This process relies heavily upon the very step by step linear processes today’s students supposedly eschew. (I prefer to think they’ve simply “yet to come to love them,” but that’s just me.) Long ago, I prevented the Works Cited page from being a formatting nightmare by assigning the Annotated Bibliography project, a project near and dear to my heart because I think its vetting process emphasizes the skills I hope students gain from the entire project. However, even though students’ Works Cited entries would be fairly well formatted, their parenthetical notation would reveal misconceptions about the relationship between the in-text citations and the Works Cited page. By the time students turn in the research essay, few of them care to hear more about the process. I realized that, ironically, while the Works Cited page might be one of the last steps in the research process, the time to teach about it needed to be early on.
I prepare students for the research essay by assigning a short essay where students must quote from an assigned reading long before we even say “research paper.” This mini paper lets them practice parenthetical notation and the Works Cited page. However, because they only quote from one source, they don’t encounter some of the more complicated variations of the Works Cited. I designed the mini paper purposefully to be MLA-success oriented, to let students get their feet wet with some accomplishment. (One of the many obstacles to student success on the research paper is feelings of being overwhelmed/discouraged.) This semester, I’m trying a new activity, ingeniously named The Backwards Works Cited Activity (truly, one would think I named my son, Kid Number One). Essentially, using the same sources available to my students (the Internet, an online subscription database through our school library), I put together a four source Works Cited page. Then I wrote about ten questions that students can only answer by using the Works Cited page to get online/into the library website and find the four sources in their full versions.
Students try this assignment for the first time this week. I’m hoping they gain a few concepts from this activity. First, I really hope they learn that they can use the Works Cited page at the end of a source to research additional sources. Being able to read a Works Cited, decode the quality of sources used, and go find those sources are academic, critical skills I wish for my students to gain. Also, I’m hoping this query will help the MLA formatting of a Works Cited page and parenthetical notation seem less arbitrary to them. I made a few errors on purpose; one source has the wrong name in the parenthetical notation, making it difficult to discern from which source on the Works Cited the material actually came. Finding another article on the Works Cited reveals that the student writer used only an abstract; the full version of the article isn’t available on our library system. These are the kind of mistakes students would make that I would discover at the very end of the process. I’m hoping now students will have an increased sense of the pattern these research elements make together.
Though it may reveal a serious mental illness on my part, I really enjoy teaching the research process. It feels very important to me, as someone who prepares the majority vote in our nation to read and think critically. MLA has less subjectivity than other aspects of teaching writing; it fosters affection in all the students who prefer math. I’m hoping this activity will underscore the pretty, crystalline order a well-executed Works Cited page can bring to my students own essays.