02 June 2015

The Perils of Citation

In my review of John Clute's collection Stay, I had some fun at Clute's expense with his passionate hatred of certain types of academic citation, and I pointed out that often the problem is not with the official citation format, which usually has some sort of logic (one specific, perhaps, to its discipline), but rather that the problem is in the failure to follow the guidelines and/or to adjust for clarity — I agreed that some of the citations used in Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction are less than helpful or elegant, but the fault seemed to me to lie at least as much with Milner and Liverpool University Press as with the MLA or APA or University of Chicago Press or anybody else. Just because there are guidelines does not mean that people follow them.

I now have an example from an MLA publication itself, and it's pretty egregious, though I may only feel that way because it involves me.

The citation is in the book Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Other Works edited by Laura Wright, Jane Poyner, and Elleke Boehmer, published by the MLA as part of their Approaches to Teaching World Literature series. It's a good series generally and it's a good book overall.

But in Patricia Merivale's essay "Who's Appropriating Whose Voice in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K", we see this passage on page 153:
Most Coetzee critics seem more committed to the "movements" [of the mind] than to the "form." Teachers of Coetzee should attempt to redress the balance, perhaps by following Michael Cheney's blogged example: "I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K, as if I were marking up a poem ... lots of circled words, [and] 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book ... an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance" (my emphasis).
The sentiment and some of the phrasing in that quotation seemed familiar to me, as did the writer's last name. Could there be a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee? Sure. (I recently met Michael Chaney, a wonderful scholar at Dartmouth. We had fun trying to decide who's a doppelgänger of whom...) But I was suspicious. I looked at the Works Cited section of the book and found this:
Cheney, Michael. "Review of Life & Times of Michael K." J.M. Coetzee Watch #12. Matilda. Perry Middlemiss, 22 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.
Apparently, there actually is a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee. Good for him! But what is this J.M. Coetzee Watch? Sounds like something I'd be interested in. And Matilda? And Perry Middlemiss? Huh?

After a few Google searches, I found the source. It is this: A blog called Matilda run by Perry Middlemiss, with a series of linkdump posts titled "J.M. Coetzee Watch". In "J.M. Coetzee Watch #12", we find this paragraph:

Review of Life and Times of Michael K.
Michael Cheney, whose "The Mumpsimus" weblog is one of the best litblogs around, has been teaching Life and Times of Michael K. for his course on Outsiders, considers what appeals to him about Coetzee: "As I read Michael K. this time, I tried to think about what it is in Coetzee's work that so appeals to me. It's no individual quality, really, because there are people who have particular skills that exceed Coetzee's. There are many writers who are more eloquent, writers with more complex and evocative structures, writers of greater imagination...And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem. I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace, from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of circled words, lots of 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on rhythms in a way that isn't particularly meaningful in itself, but that contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters."

Well, golly. Michael Cheney is me! Thank you, Perry Middlemiss, for the kind words. I don't even especially care that my name is wrong there, because at least the post includes a link so that readers can follow it back to my own post "Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. [sic] and Others". (I've added that [sic] there to point out my own mistake of adding a period to the title of Life and Times of Michael K, which I unthinkingly did back then. Merivale changed at least one of those periods to a comma when [mis]quoting me. Mistakes upon mistakes upon mistakes...) Michael K, Michael Cheney — easy to see how such a mistake could be made. People make mistakes in blog posts; it goes with the territory of writing quickly, sometimes haphazardly, without an editor.

But I'm less forgiving of Patricia Merivale's mistake, because hers is not in a blog post but rather a book — a book published by the major professional organization for our discipline — and it's a mistake that would have been at least ameliorated if she had taken the minor effort of actually following the link back to its source. Which is what you are supposed to do, especially if you are a scholar. ("Whenever you can, take material from the original source, not a secondhand one." MLA Guideline 6.4.7, both 6th and 7th editions of the MLA Handbook.) I make first-year undergraduates do this, and they whine and complain, but the value is clear. Trace the source back to its origin if at all possible, because if you don't, the chance of replicating somebody else's mistakes, or at least their assumptions, is much greater.

If Patricia Merivale had made the tiny effort of clicking on that link and tracing the source back to its origin, she would have discovered that 1.) my name is Matthew Cheney, not Michael Cheney; and 2.) it's not a book review, it's an informal, scattered blog post that I happened to write on my birthday in 2008.

Even though the MLA guidelines for citation of electronic sources changed a bit just as Merivale was writing her essay (the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook came out in 2009), Merivale's citation is wrong in multiple ways under any version of the MLA guidelines — she didn't go back to the original source, she mistakes a subheading for a title in Middlemiss's post, she italicizes the name of the post (should be in quotes, with the title of the site italicized), she throws in Middlemiss's name without indicating why (at the least it should be "Matilda. Ed. Perry Middlemiss." — though that would be nonstandard, it at least would be clearer). And though the current guidelines for MLA do not require that a URL be included, it's allowed (see 5.6.1 or the Purdue OWL), and in this case it would have been helpful — I tell students that if they're struggling to figure out what to do with a web citation, to include the URL just for good measure, since it may save a reader time in tracking down the source, even if the URL changes (because maybe the Wayback Machine got it).

Anyway, the point is: Merivale's citation is unambiguously, absolutely wrong.

And it got into an MLA publication. Mistakes happen, and in a book like this one with 20 pages of Works Cited, mistakes are almost inevitable. Merivale's original citation is a disaster, and more careful editors would have caught it because it is nonstandard and can't be parsed according to any MLA guidelines I know.

Does it matter? Not much. Sure, I'd like my name to be known correctly. I'd also like as many citations as I can get, since in academia, highly-cited writers have far more success than less-cited writers. But there's no way that one blog post being cited in one article in one book in a large series of books is going to have a big effect on my life or career.

But it's annoying. And it's disappointing. Scholars should be better than this. We should be especially careful with our citations, because we all know that we live and die by citation. Merivale's and the editors' failures here were easily preventable. That citation is flat-out wrong because nobody took the time to do it right, and doing it right would not have required a lot of effort or even special knowledge.

Trace your sources back to their origin if at all possible, double-check people's names, follow the basic guidelines in the MLA Handbook.

Here, for the record, is a better version of that citation:
Cheney, Matthew. “Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. and Others.” The Mumpsimus. 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 June 2015.