I’m taking a break from my main task today: going through the 49 paper proposals that my second-year students have sent me (I’ve managed 37 so far… yupiii!!! And it’s only 16:00). This is the first time they write an abstract, which makes their difficulties to firmly state what they aim at doing quite understandable. Perhaps it’s my fault for describing abstracts as an announcement of intentions rather than what they are: a summary of something which still does not exist (I thought they would be mystified by this). So, I’m getting abstracts in which students write sentences such as ‘In this paper I will analyse the role of the narrator in Oliver Twist” instead of ‘In this paper I argue that the narrator in Oliver Twist matters more than the central character’ because… (add arguments here).
What I don’t quite understand are the difficulties with the bibliography. The choices made are quite good, generally, and the quotations submitted for my supervision quite apt, considering the subject matter of each paper. What 90% students disregard are the basic conventions of how to edit a bibliography: alphabetically by authors’ surname, obeying the rules about when to use italics (basically, volume titles) and quotation marks (the rest), and providing all the required information (such as in which journal an article has been published…). We do provide guidelines and, what’s more, in preparation for this year’s paper (the students’ first with secondary sources) we ask them to produce a bibliography in the first year. This bibliography is thoroughly inspected down to the last comma, students asked to resubmit if conventions are not followed. It doesn’t work, though. Many students complain that we teachers are a bunch of fusspots (um, nothing as savoury as ‘tiquismiquis’ in English) and seem really puzzled as to why this matters at all.
Having edited some journal issues and a collective volume, I know first hand that too many academics have exactly that very same attitude. This is why editors need to threaten authors with returning their work if not properly edited. A shame, really. Everyone knows that editing a paper or a book is a real pain in the neck, particularly when you have written it using MLA and for whatever strange reason your editor prefers Chicago. Yet, it must be done. Not only because there’s a crucial difference between referring to Oliver Twist (character) and Oliver Twist (book) but also because these conventions are universal and help us to keep knowledge neat and tidy. Just imagine the chaos if anyone used bibliography and referenced quotations as they pleased…
So, it does matter, my dear students. As much as giving your teacher a good impression of your ability to follow guidelines. I can’t say too often that when a teacher is going through piles and piles of exercises a neatly edited one is truly welcome as a rest for the eyes and the mind. It is, besides, sure to attract more interest and, hence, a greater willingness to help the student in question.