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Nancy Sommers

Thank you, MLA!

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert May 25, 2016

Dear Friends—let’s welcome the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook, published April 1, 2016, a simpler and more flexible system for students to learn and for us to teach. Most importantly, it is a system that allows us to focus students’ attention on why writers use sources and how documentation extends a research conversation. WritersRef MLA Update.PNGThe emphasis of the 8th edition is not on rules; rather, it is on making documentation useful to readers and on helping writers to participate in an academic community—a community in which the exchange of ideas requires a system.


As composition teachers, the ones in charge of introducing our students to MLA, we approach these seismic changes in the MLA system with some trepidation. We need to learn a new system and be comfortable and conversant with it in time for our September classes. Yet we understand, too, from our students’ confusion in documenting digital sources, and our own challenges in teaching an overly cumbersome system, why the 8th edition is needed.


Here are the problems the 8th edition addresses:


(1) In its attempt to keep up with the rapid evolution of sources, the 7th edition presented models for each source type or format. As the editors of the 8th edition write, “we need a system for documenting sources that begins with a few principles rather than a long list of rules.” The 8th edition shifts attention away from models for each source type to documentation principles that can be applied across sources.


(2) Sources have become less stable and more mobile. Publications “migrate readily from one medium to another,” and are no longer contained in simple categories. An idea might start as a blog, for instance, develop into a TED talk, be published as an article, and reposted on a Web site. The source might be located or viewed in a format very different from its original publication, so guidelines are needed to account for that sort of migration.

Enter the 8th edition of the MLA, with its relaxed, more flexible approach to documentation. The 8th edition focuses attention on “simple traits shared by most works” that run across all sources:


  • Author
  • Title of Source
  • Title of Container
  • Other Contributors
  • Version
  • Number
  • Publisher
  • Publication Date
  • Location


These simple, core traits are recognizable to us as writing teachers, except for the new one, “container.” Here’s how to understand the container concept: A container is any larger work that contains or holds the source cited. A container might be an anthology, a print journal, a podcast series, an online discussion board, a Web site, and so forth. Containers can be nested: If a container is itself part of some larger container, such as a journal located in an online database or a photograph collection in a digital archive, then information about the second container--the online database or the digital archive--becomes part of the documentation to help readers locate it.


As writing teachers, we encourage students to enter a research conversation by engaging with the ideas of other writers who have explored and studied their topic. We urge them to look for debates, areas of disagreement, so that they can find gaps and entry points for themselves in this conversation and gain authority by consulting a wide range of digital and print sources. The guidelines in MLA’s 8th edition make it easy for us to extend documentation as part of a research conversation between writers and sources and between writers and readers. Rather than teaching documentation as a series of rules to memorize, we can teach it rhetorically, as decisions made by writers to guide their readers quickly and unobtrusively to the source of a quotation, a paraphrased or summarized idea, or other kind of borrowed material used to support an argument.


All of the Hacker/Sommers handbooks will feature guidelines and models based on the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook. Look for “2016 MLA Update” stickers on the covers.

Miriam Moore

All's Well That Ends Well

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert May 25, 2016

Ends of semesters can be fraught and frenetic, both for students and for faculty.  My students are completing final revisions to projects begun earlier in the semester, and they are preparing for a final assessment.  I, in turn, am managing feedback in multiple modes and for multiple classes.  As Roy Stamper pointed out in his blog post The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments, we are trying to review and reflect, knowing “there’s still work to be done.”  I am tempted each term to engage in “pedagogical cramming,” whereby I endeavor to introduce and review any concept I might have neglected or glossed over during the semester.

But cramming, pedagogical or otherwise, rarely yields the results I want.  I’ve sat through countless sermons and lectures during which speakers couldn’t seem to “land the plane,” circling above their distracted audience with facts and pleas and suggestions and invitations and reminders and just-one-more-thing and let-me-just-add.  What is crammed into those final minutes is also the very information I tend forget before I’ve made it to the restroom after finally being dismissed.

So, as we enter finals week, I am resisting that urge to cram and stuff, even if there are some boxes that will remain unchecked in my mental list of things to cover.  Instead, I will give the students an opportunity to reflect on their own writing and the threshold concepts underlying all the assignments I have given them.  Stamper calls such reflective opportunities “capstone assignments,” and he offers two examples.  Here is my own version:

This week, I gave my students the following list of concepts, which I called my “basic principles.”

  1. All writing involves choices that affect meaning: words, structures, details, punctuation, and organization.
  2. Effective writing pays attention to the needs and the knowledge of a reader.
  3. As writers, we seek feedback and use it to revise (not just edit) our work.
  4. People’s words and ideas are valuable; we must handle them with accuracy and care when we write about them.
  5. We can never out-write our reading ability. (Adapted from Cheryl Hogue Smith)
  6. Uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of our growth as writers.
  7. Specific writing tasks require us to follow the conventions of a discourse community.
  8. Reading and writing demand thinking and make us better thinkers.

I then asked the students to select any three of these principles.  For the final paper, they will write a letter to future students in our class, explaining and exploring the three principles that they chose.  Their exploration might include any of the following:

  • An explanation of the principle in their own words
  • Examples of how they have improved, developed, or changed their writing, based on this principle
  • A specific example from a paper they have written this term which illustrates this principle
  • A specific example from a comment I made or handout I gave which illustrates this principle
  • How this principle will influence the way they write for future classes or for a future job
  • Advice for future students, based on the principle

My hope in this assignment is that the explicit statement of principles and the associated task will help students reflect and review more deliberately, without the pressure and pace associated with an in-class review session.  Each suggested strategy for developing the assignment also reviews a course concept or skill:  paraphrase, self-awareness, levels of specificity, interpretation and use of feedback, planning for concept transfer, and recognition of progress.

I have lost a few students this term; employment changes, financial challenges, and family situations have kept some from completing.  But I believe those who have stayed with me to the end have grown in ways that neither they nor I would have imagined back in January.  Four began in ESL classes with me last August; you would be hard-pressed to match their initial, tentative pieces then with their researched-essays today.  I hope that when I receive their final letters next week, I will find that they, too, are celebrating their progress.  I’ll let you know what happens.

In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah and Teaching the Election: Gilbert) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. The last reading I want to offer is Arora. If you’re using the third edition of Emerging, you might want to select Duhigg instead.


Namit Arora’s “What Do We Deserve?” takes a close look at several models of economic justice in order to answer his titular question. Given that so much of any election revolves around questions of economics (both in terms of the national economy but also government spending and budgets), Arora’s essay can help students to figure out which model of economic justice resonates best with them and then use that to think about the various presidential candidates. One of the great things about Arora is that the models are clearly spelled out and defined, making them easy to acquire concepts that students can use with some facility.


If you’ve moved to the third edition, I would recommend instead Charles Duhigg’s “From Civil Rights to Mega-Churches.” Duhigg is looking at the effects of strong and weak ties on social change but, more fundamentally, he is looking at the ramifications of peer pressure. Using Duhigg in the context of the elections does double-duty: it helps students to think about mechanisms of social change and it also invites them to consider the various peer pressures exerted upon them in relation to voting and the election.


Ultimately, I feel compelled to teach if not the election itself then at least the issues that surround it. And I feel compelled to do so in a way that will equip students to make their own reasoned choices, to vote, and to become fully participating members in the political process.


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