MLAPA Citations: A Reference Mess

by Liz

As an English and Writing tutor, I am in charge of dutifully repeating lessons that the students should have learned in class, but for a myriad of sometimes fantastical reasons, they have missed or forgotten. I repeat vocab (“obscenities,” not “cuss words”), drill them on grammar (“In” is what kind of word?), and teach them the difference between “unite” and “reunite.” One of my biggest challenges, however, isn’t the spelling or the grammar; it’s the paper formatting itself. Having spent more time playing Angry Birds than fiddling arround in Microsoft Office, most students come in, panicked, begging for guidance. How big are my margins? How do you change a margin? What is a margin?

This is not a margin. Please try again.

These sorts of questions can easily answered by patient teaching: Click, Explain, Repeat. Eventually, after copying your on-screen actions and asking permission before every click, the students get the basic fundamentals of Word formatting together: font, margins, paragraph spacing, indents, etc. There is no shame in having to plod through a program you’ve never worked with before. Heck, hand me a video game controller and half of my actions will be jerky failures and the other half will be happy accidents.

Suddenly everything is....purple?

The hard part is when I ask, “So, what format would your teacher like you to use?”

Now, for those of you who have lost track of all the writing styles, here’s a sample:


Why is my screen filled up with letters?

What are those?! They look like a mash-up of venereal diseases and Dungeons and Dragons manuals. And that’s not even half of the styles available worldwide. The British, the Chinese, the Canadians– all of them have different styles and variations on those styles. Oh, and for added fun, the styles are often updated every few years, making many books obsolete, even if they were printed only a year ago! All this adds up to a mess of reference texts. Each writing style has its own guide which is updated and revised periodically, so you have to either toddle down to the bookstore and shell out $50 every year, or pray that you find a reputable website for your format. Even professors and researchers often have to rely on guides to show them through the maze of citation placement and formatting.

Of course, each type of writing style has a purpose, usually specific to the field which is being written about. The styles are specifically set up to emphasize certain information that the field values, such as citing authors’ full names in MLA style (which is used in literature studies) or indicating dates in APA (which is used int he sciences where research is constantly changing). In a general college education environment, however, students will probably take many different classes in many different areas of study. If their teachers have to rely on guides for reference,  that dependence is ten-fold for a student. They squint at their books, struggling to remember first how to spell the author’s name (usually something exotic like Grigory Yefimovich Grumm-Grzhimaylo) while also trying to recall the lesson I gave them yesterday in how to italicize book titles.

So when they slam down in one of my chairs, hang their head, and mutter obscenities under their breath, I know that I’m dealing with a writing style problem. Unguided, they completely shut down. There is too much info to find, too many rules, I don’t know the rules, myteacherisstupidiwannajustbea(insert job here)andwewontevenneedthiscrap!

Of course references are numbered in the text in ACS style. Would you like fries with that?

Most of the difficulty is that the institution at which I tutor recently decided to ease the burden on their teachers and students by standardizing the writing style across the curriculum. The majority of students attending this particular community college are working towards nursing, manufacturing, science, or teaching careers, so they have to learn APA formatting anyway. Simply put, working purely in APA would make things easier on the students because they only have to learn one citation style and teachers only have to teach one style instead of having to deal with styles falling willy-nilly all over their desks. So, instead of individual teachers or departments deciding what style papers should be written in, all writing in all classes in all departments would be formatted in APA style. Sort of.

As I explained before, each style has a different purpose and field attached to it. For the science folks, APA was the norm. They’d been teaching it for years and had pretty much kept up with the variations and updates through the years. The English folks, however, had grown up on an entirely different system– MLA– as did many of the more advanced-level students who actually stayed awake in high school and learned an earlier version of MLA formatting. Throw APA at these folks and they have to tickity-tap their way to a reference website or dig through mountains of old books until they find a dusty, horribly outdated reference book.

So we have a delightfully disastrous mix of people: teachers who know APA, teachers who know of APA, teachers who knew APA and are still using an outdated version, teachers who are using an entirely different system, students using an entirely different system, students who don’t know there’s even a system, and folks on both sides who just flat-out don’t care.

What has emerged out of the chaos is a blenderized smoothie of formats that has been lumped under the label APA, but has no cover page, no subtitles, no abstracts, and no mini-titles by the page numbers. The turmoil was especially frothy in the English department where, I finally gathered, they had frappéd APA and sprinkled the shreds into their existing MLA format. What they birthed is an entirely new format that is neither APA nor MLA but a brand new alphabet soup monster: MLAPA.

MLAPA formats the paper in MLA style with the four line “name, class, teacher, date” heading and the “last-name, page number” combo in the upper right hand corner, but instead of the citations following the MLA “author, work, place of publication, publisher, date, medium” citation format, it follows APA’s “author, date, work, place of publication, publisher” format. It’s not a terrible format, but blanketing the format with the name APA is a blunderous misnomer.

Unrelated picture of adorable baby tigers!

Is this new MLAPA format the recipe for success or disaster? The teachers reason that there is no need for APA’s cover sheets in most college papers and that MLA’s paper formatting allows for quicker identification of individual student’s work while the APA citations meld more precisely with the school’s general tilt towards the sciences. The pairing makes sense in the immediate environment, but what if a student decides to transfer and continue education elsewhere when they’re only familiar with one half of each style? What will happen to them when they are asked to write a formal proposal in APA and turn it in without a marked abstract or cover page? Will an academic journal still accept their literary research paper?

And if they can survive in their college careers and real-life jobs knowing only MLAPA’s halfway mash-up of styles, what does that say about the potpourri of writing styles? Bibliographic pages once served as a search tool for researchers, providing all the information needed to find the work in vast print and audio libraries. In an information age of “googling,” “threads,” and “wikis,” where a single word typed into a box can yield thirty-five million pieces of information (many anonymous) and any person with an internet connection can become a research scholar, expert, and published author on any topic currently known to man, the purpose of the citation/ bibliography/reference page stapled haphazardly to the back of the three-page report starts to seem less like a necessary information portal and more like one of those crispy etiquette books full of convoluted instructions on how to leave calling cards so as to not offend the stranger whose work you visited.

Don’t misunderstand, I would appreciate credit for any of my work you recycle as much as the next author. I just wish there was simpler, more direct way of recording citations that doesn’t take more time to write than the actual paper itself. As we move towards an electronic age and away from the printed word, shouldn’t we try to standardize citation styles instead of branching them further and further into oblivion? As frightening as it may seem to my fellow print-lovers, perhaps the future is less a matter of MLA, APA, MLAPA, etc. and more a matter of hyperlinks, pdf. attachments, and a brand new, website-based writing style where a quick click on a bit of hyperlinked text can eventually take the readers directly to the bottom of page 105 in January 1984’s National Geographic:

So there we would stand, Jaume pressing the shoulders of his maroon sweater against the doorjamb, sucking on a black cigarette, plying me with mineral water, fruit juice, or wine. Jaume invested in several periodicals every morning, and he always had a favorite article to show me. “Look at this craziness,” he often began, slapping the paper with the back of his hand. “Look at what the bigshots have done now!”

Until that day, I will somewhat-patiently scoot closer to the computer screen, point, and say, “Look! There where you capitalized the title! It should be all small letters. No, no, I understand that it is a title and anywhere else it would be capitalized, but here we have to ignore what the rest of the world calls common sense and just do exactly what we’re told.”