Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One Documentation System to Rule Them All

This morning a student in my English 2020 class was complaining to me about how difficult it had been for him to learn APA this semester. He said he had liked MLA much better when he had learned it in 1010. He asked me: "Why can't there just be one documentation system that is used by all the academic disciplines so that we don't have to constantly learn new systems?"

I gave him my standard answer: "Well, that's like asking why don't we all speak Esperanto? It makes a whole lot of sense to have a universal language that is easy to learn and understand. It's completely logical. But to think of a language as just a system for conveying information is to miss the point. Each of the world's languages were developed independently by groups of people in similar geo-political regions. As such, each language contains that culture's history, their values, their political beliefs, and their most cherished traditions."

I explained to him that most of these documentation systems have a long history dating back to the late 1800s (or sometimes even earlier). The history of these documentation systems is very closely tied to the history of the academic disciplines from which they emerged. In that same vein, these documentation systems can tell you a lot about what is valued by that discipline.

For example, APA wants you to indicate the year that something was published in the body of your text because having current, up-to-date evidence is extremely important in their field of inquiry. Current research is important, but not quite as vital in the humanities and so MLA doesn't stress it as much.

Furthermore, MLA seems to have embraced the realities of doing research in the age of the Internet, whereas APA represents the old guard. Websites are volatile, meaning that their content can change rapidly. Because APA values resources that are static and reproducible, APA discourages using websites as a resource. They do this fairly subtly---by not offering a specific section about how to cite websites in their 6th edition, for example.

When you learn to use your discipline's system correctly, you show the peers in your discipline that you understand their values and practices. I personally prefer MLA over APA quite a bit. But that could be because MLA is what I was "born and raised with" academically and so it's become second nature to me. I've learned to "think in MLA," if you will. It's been much more difficult for me to grasp the internal logic of APA this semester. (Because it's like learning a new language in many respects.)

So I told him that to suggest that we use a universal system of documentation is a politically charged statement. It would be like someone from the United Nations coming in and telling us that our country's official language will be Esperanto now and we're going to all learn it in school. It's not very likely to happen. No matter how logical it may be.