From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Styling Culture (5a)—Chicago Style Footnotes and Endnotes

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture."
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
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during August and September. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter. They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

5a—Chicago Style Footnotes and Endnotes

a. Use Chicago-style footnotes or endnotes, not APA or MLA style citations. It is standard practice among historians to use CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) formatting, and all professors in the Beloit College department of history are in agreement on this point. I ask students of anthropology and other disciplines (e.g. all of you) to use Chicago-style notes, as well, if only to throw annoying little rocks at the in-text behemoth.

b. Footnotes and endnotes have exactly the same structure. The only difference is where they appear. All footnotes should appear at the bottom of the page, and should appear in ten-point font. Endnotes should appear at the end or your text, after a page break. 
        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:   
          Zhonghuashuju,1956), 2027-2028. 

***  ***
Let's start with the most important point. Citation is absolutely vital to scholarship and has a central place in all academic writing. It is the lifeblood of inquiry, allowing sources to be reread, pondered, and reinterpreted. If you are going to write in an academic setting, you need to master several citation styles. You should not "wing it" and try to copy what you think you have seen in most of your books. You need mastery of one citation form and competence in the others. Do not misinterpret what I am about to say (below) as an "anti-citation" approach. Far from it. I wish it were richer and fuller than it is in non-academic writing, and cannot see why even popular nonfiction could not have, say, a web page devoted to bibliography and source matters.

Citation matters.

[b] Learnin' RF
Having said that, only Chicago-style footnotes and endnotes will cut it in my classes. Let that sink in. Only CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) footnotes and endnotes. No exceptions. Period.

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)[1]

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
Do not use in-text citations in papers for my classes—ever. I care about your writing, and I want you to learn to create flowing, daring, analytically rich sentences and paragraphs. I want citation, to be sure, but I refuse to let you let it intrude upon your duty to write well.

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
So there are two major problems with in-text citations. Still, if it were just a matter of aesthetics (they are ugly) and their utter uselessness when dealing with archival materials (something that should not only be the concern of historians, after all), I would try to let it go, and just shake my head at the folly of it all. When you come from the Red River Valley between North Dakota and Minnesota, you learn to value social harmony. I would probably have tried to be good.

I can't.

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.

***  ***
There is only one nod I will make toward in-text citation, and it comes now, at the very end of this post. I will acknowledge that I understand well why in-text citation systems were created. They are flawed to the core by their utter cluelessness about knowledge and its creation, but they are born of frustration—often very legitimate frustration. It grows out of the abuses of morons who mimic brilliant scholars. Academia is filled with that sort of thing.

[e] Notes RF
Surely—if you have read some good, old books—you have had the experience of learning from a master through her footnotes. Surely you have found yourself immersed in the deep learning that they represent. Surely you have followed the footnoted sources to a major university library and "followed" them as you deepened your knowledge, not only of her sturdy argument but of the actual materials she consulted. Surely you have seen the power of one of her "substantive" footnotes, which detail the clash of opinions from conflicting sources. Scholarly masters show their greatness in their footnotes as much as in their prose analyses. This is one of the great joys (and deepest learning experiences) of an academic life. Only footnotes and endnotes can accomplish that. In-text citation can only create little bracketed burps of sources and dates. 

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.
[2] I will teach you how to do so if you are unfamiliar with them. Stay tuned.

[1] 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).

[2] 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.


  1. These are great points, and I think I still have your style sheet from Cultural T&T!

    Solid noting at the end of a paragraph--as Chicago seems to prefer--works well unless the author lumps all the citations together without distinguishing which point was made by whom. I'm looking forward to seeing your advice on how to avoid that issue!

    1. Good observation, Patrick. The short answer is to write solid, "substantive" footnotes that contain complex information. This does take practice, and the best way to get better is to read very fine academic prose written by consummate scholars.

  2. I may just assign this to the History Workshop, if that's okay.