In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.
|[a] Pushing the broom of knowledge RF|
5a—Chicago Style Footnotes and Endnotes
1Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1978), 107.
2John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 55–56.
3Sima Guang, Zizhi tongjian [Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling] (Beijing:
|[b] Learnin' RF|
Having grown up in the American midwest, I usually seek compromise and middle ground. I rarely see things in terms as stark as "right" and "wrong." Life is complicated, and I am usually respectful of other ways of doing things. Usually. In a half-dozen matters (large and small), I see things through a distinctly "right/wrong" lens. This is one of them.
You see, I despise in-text citation. If it were only a matter of my personal aesthetic interpretation, I could probably let it go, but it is not and I cannot. This is bigger than moi.
In-text citation (MLA and APA styles are among the most common) are ruining writing. I cannot believe that any self-respecting prose stylist could look herself in the mirror after writing something beautiful and profound, followed by an ugly appendage that breaks the analytical dream and insults the lover of words and language (Smith 1977). It is also a terrible thing to do to kind scholars and word lovers who would never want to intrude upon the middle of your text and your argument. Yet there they are, tromping through your text like a big, angry (parenthetical and dated) elephant.
...and, following the cosmological architecture articulated by the earliest sage
kings, sacrality rushed down from the Pole Star, through the imperial city, and
out in each of the four cardinal directions, though the city gates and into the
moral space under heaven. (Wheatley 1968a)
It is so ugly and so unwieldy that I look away whenever I can. I cannot believe that my colleagues who study literature can use in-text citation, yet that is what the Modern Language Association (MLA) demands. How can they read some of the most beautiful prose and poetry ever written and then write about it with the annoying intrusions of "(James 1898)" and "(Booth 1961)"? Self-respecting lovers of literature (and the analysis of it) should have rebelled long ago at this practice. It is shameful that they have not.
|[c] Sources RF|
There is no good writing when in-text citations are used. They chop up even the finest prose and destroy both art and analysis with little clumps of crabgrass on otherwise elegant lawns of prose. Pull 'em up, root 'em out. Find yourself some Roundup® in-text citation control.
They are worse than "ugly," though. If that were the only problem, I would merely detest them. I explained all of this one day during a history department faculty meeting. My colleagues listened patiently, if a little incredulously (I am usually a little bit more measured in my opinions). One colleague, looking unflappable, had another take on the matter. She said, simply, "just work with documentary sources, and there is no other choice." It is a perfect message, and it carries a great deal of power. What she was too polite to say, I will say in her place. In-text citation is a peculiarly weak form of citation, useful only for pushing around secondary sources and other documents that do not come close to the level of complexity needed for sustained scholarship into rich and diverse lives—the kinds that have not yet been "written up" into books, articles, or web pages. Playing on the concepts of secondary and primary sources, I call those "processed" sources, reflecting only a tiny slice of what is "out there." Whole grain sources come in boxes and crates and were stored in barns outside of Doylestown, Pennsylvania for fifty years. Whole grain sources stick to your ribs, and are often handwritten on crinkly pages without numbers. Whole grain sources require powerful citation methods. MLA and APA are woefully ill-equipped to deal with them.
I would probably be more measured in these opinions had it not been for a conversation one day at lunch, many years ago, with a visiting social scientist from a large midwestern university. He spoke of his "sources." I politely asked him for a little more detail; what, exactly, did he mean by "sources?" Oh, what a blow was there struck (as we say back home...sometimes...when reading Shakespeare). He railed and fumed. I thought his carotid artery would burst as he leveled the full force of his invective at me. The gist of it could be summed up in something like "I am so sick and tired of you historians and your petty little sources. Primary, secondary—get a life. A source is whatever I say it is—today's newspaper, an article in American Sociologist, or a (expletive-deleted) novel."
My colleague would learn very quickly why historians (and anyone else who cares about working through everything from handwritten letters to published articles) care so much about citation and documentary sources. If you want to cite a letter and then a memoir, followed by a recent book and decades-old article, well, you need footnotes and endnotes. Get over it. That is what I told him, and he was not amused.
|[d] Complexity RF|
They are not just ugly and useless in anything beyond an almost laughably simplistic range of source materials. In-text citations are disturbing on an epistemological level, as well. It is not, to my mind, just a matter of opinion—some prefer one and others prefer another, sort of like ketchup and mustard or the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
No, in-text citation is flawed to its conceptual core. The disturbing epistemological message that it sends is that scholars are just pushing the broom of learning across the big gymnasium of knowledge. It implies that we are all just engaged in knowledge-slowly- a-building, putting brick and mortar together as we learn more and more about the world until it finally towers above us. It reflects a ridiculous and indefensible positivism, as well as a startlingly amateurish perspective on how scholarship "grows."
This is utter nonsense, and it doesn't take Thomas Kuhn to say so. In-text citation implies that citation is a simple matter of acknowledging where you got "your idea." This won't even hold up in a serious essay for junior high school social studies. Sure, if in-text citation were only used directly after long quotations, it would be fine. Citation needs to do a great deal more heavy lifting than that, though. More often than not, there is a serious clash of sources, and the ability to engage several bibliographical threads in one citation cannot be underestimated.
I know, I know. I have heard all of the defensive arguments, such as "that is what bibliographical essays are for." I don't buy any of it. Serious scholarship requires serious citation that can incorporate the full range of complex materials that a researcher encounters. You will be joining the big leagues when you start using Chicago-style footnotes and endnotes. You will have made it to the show.
|[e] Notes RF|
Now we reach the legitimate criticism. Have you ever read a book by a distinctly second-rate scholar who sought to ape all of the things the gifted writer above did? Have you ever read a scholarly book that seems to use footnotes to pontificate, to showboat, to brag, and to intimidate? Have you ever read three or four mediocre sentences followed by a page (or more) of idiotic pseudo-analysis and postured depth of learning in the footnotes? Yup, I thought so. It is worse than dreadful. It is an abuse of the best citation system ever devised, twisting it into unreadable attempts to look intelligent. Academia is filled with that sort of thing.
It is the reason why MLA and APA style haunt our work. A few people got so tired of the poseurs that they created a simplistic system to combat them.
I have another solution (this is hardly difficult to see). Why abandon a fine citation system for the tinny and narrow worlds of APA and MLA citation? Why not just use footnotes and endnotes well? Why not just cite your materials clearly so that they reflect the full range of documents you have considered and some of their interpretive challenges? Why not use the flexibility of footnotes and endnotes for useful "substantive" discussions of source materials that will engage the reader? Why not avoid being a second-rate poseur? This is not difficult.
Use Chicago-style footnotes and endnotes. I will teach you how to do so if you are unfamiliar with them. Stay tuned.
 This is a purely fictional example, although the citation references Paul Wheatley's masterful study of the ancient Chinese city, Pivot of the Four Quarters. You will notice, as well, that this kind of engagement (what I am writing now) is impossible with in-text citation. "They" will tell you it is a good thing, but I beg to differ (bitterly).
 You may wonder how it is possible for someone with strong opinions on these matters to function in academia, where little rule-making principalities abound like so many Italian city-states. "What am I supposed to do," you may ask, "when an anthropology or sociology professor says 'use APA citation in my classes?'" This is simple. Do it. Listen to your teacher, and learn to use both systems perfectly. That is what I have done, both out of necessity and an almost ethnographic fascination with how "in-text natives" think. If I am publishing an article in American Anthropologist, I must use in-text citations, no matter how much I loathe them. This is what grown-ups do. I do have a few—just a few—pieces of writing on which I will not budge. I refuse, for example, to use in-text citations in my book about the five sacred mountains of China. I will find another publisher before I do that. With the rest, I am just trying to change the world, one young scholar who loves footnotes at a time.
Building (Chicago Style) Citation Skills
Learn the system, master it, and become a first-rate academic writer.