In Praise of Citation. Seriously.

The other day, I saw a professor of my acquaintance offer anyone on Facebook a billion dollars to teach a class on citation for him.

I couldn’t blame him. Because I teach our department’s gateway course, Intro to History, I have the annual responsibility of ensuring that our new majors and minors understand the intricacies of The Chicago Manual of Style. But no historian went to graduate school hoping one day to help 18-year olds understand the difference between Chicago and MLA — let alone between the two distinct systems of Chicago (the “notes-bibliography” version beloved of historians and the “author-dates” system used by political scientists, to the perpetual confusion of our students who double-major in those two fields).

I don’t love Chicago-style pizza, but Chicago-style footnotes… They just feel right to me.

But if it must be done, I want to do it well. So this year I attempted two distinct approaches to teaching citation.

First, silliness and competition. I broke the class into teams for a pub quiz-style trivia contest, with six questions of varying difficulty testing their knowledge of Chicago citation. (Plus selections of Hamilton for interstitial music!) For a Friday morning, that seemed to go over pretty well. We even had to bust out my tiebreaker question: “In which year did Kate Turabian die?”1

But that still left about 10 minutes for my second strategy: preaching.

Well, more like exhortation and admonition, pleading that we fight the instinct to roll our eyes at citation and instead let it remind us of what it means to practice history. In other words: it’s not really about citation, so much as what citation signifies.

History as truth-telling

Most basically, going to the trouble of attributing our sources with nitpickingly proper citation (“Yes, you need to include a page number”) reminds us that historians are in the business of telling truth: we make claims about the past that we believe to be truthful because they can verified or falsified empirically. Whether I write critically about Charles Lindbergh or admiringly about my favorite Pietists, I can’t just imagine them as they might have been. Citation is a nagging reminder to ground my interpretations in evidence.2

History as community

I often tell students that providing citations is like leaving bread crumbs, creating a trail that future researchers can follow. Having found such markers in the footnotes and bibliographies of books and articles written by historians who walked that path previously, we can do the same for historians who come after us.

Citation, then, is an act of courtesy and an expression of gratitude. And it’s a reminder that history is a solitary-seeming discipline practiced as part of a large community spanning the continents and the decades.

More than that: a discipline practiced according to the particular standards that its community has set. So I do think that part of the courtesy is using the citation style preferred within the discipline. We’re not just dropping bread crumbs, but bread crumbs that fellow historians will have no trouble identifying and following — i.e., providing the relevant information in a way that your fellow practitioners are habituated to recognizing and absorbing as quickly as possible.

History as craft

In those first two respects, I told students, history is showing its roots in the sciences, with whom we share assumptions about verifiability and falsifiability, empiricism, and inquiry as a collective project. But citation also suggests how history is not just a science. If not an art, at least a craft.

Talking about citation in this way made me think back to an illustration from Kevin Brown, an English professor who once took his students to Wells Cathedral. Their guide drew their attention to a statue of a knight and pointed out that if they were to look through the narrow slit of the statue’s helmet, they would see bright blue eyes: “The craftsman clearly knew that no one would ever see inside that slit, yet he worked on the eyes as diligently as he did the parts of the knight everyone would see.” Just so, most footnotes — almost none of which will be checked by readers.

Here’s more Wells Cathedral craft for you: a column topped by a carving of a farmer bonking a thief on the head with a garden tool – Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Now, that’s necessary but not sufficient: if your craft as a historian extended no farther than providing immaculate footnotes that point back to sloppy research, it would mean little. But having to attend to the proper place of periods or commas, or the appropriate use of italics, is a nagging reminder that historians need to pay close attention to small details. And perhaps if we care enough about that relatively minor element of our craft, we’ll invest even more time in the others.

Learning as a vocation

Finally, I suggested that my students treat citation as a reminder of their vocation. It’s the kind of knowledge they’ll use for a year, then maybe never again. But for those few years, that they need to know it may underscore how their calling is not that of their future profession, but that of student.

And they need such reminders. The way we increasingly talk about college has habituated students to thinking of themselves instead as customers and employees more than anything else. So perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to have something so esoteric and archaic as citation disrupt that identity long enough to make them step back and recognize that they’re primarily here to engage in education — not vocational training, but the vocation of learning about the world and one’s neighbors in it, the God who created the world and who is glorified by its study, and ourselves, some of God’s most remarkable creatures.

1 Kate Turabian being the woman who edited the streamlined user’s guide to the full Chicago manual that almost no non-editor looks at. See her obituary at “Kate Turabian Dies; Author of Stylebook About Dissertations,” New York Times, October 26, 1987,

2 Of course, this has little to do with blogging, which operates by different rules than academic writing for journals and publishers. While I added two footnotes to this post for giggles, blogs fulfill the goals of citation through links: either to specific articles or other sources, or — as when you’re commenting in passing on a topic that’s been covered at greater length earlier in the blog’s run — with tags and categories.