03 April 2009

On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing

A course with which I am associated has just received an external examiner's report. It has one general paragraph at the beginning--confirming the level of the course--and another short one at the end, deploring the little actual use made of theory, but the rest of the two pages is entirely given over to criticism of the standard of referencing in the sample of assessments, and to the failure of the markers to pick it up on each and every occasion.

The course leader and I, who are both external examiners in our own rights, frequently joke about referencing as a standby if one happens to be at a loss for something to say in a report; "If in doubt, you can always complain about the use of the Harvard system..." But this report was bordering on the obsessional.

I am something of a stickler for correct citation. I am frequently thanked by readers for the automatically generated references at the bottom of my web pages. But in the context of a professional course, I wonder whether colleagues do not sometimes lose sight of the wood for the trees. Note the qualification, "a professional course". One of the reasons cited by the examiner for the emphasis on correct referencing concerned the possibility that course participants might proceed to a higher level academic course where correct protocol would be obligatory, so better for them to learn to do it correctly now. Indeed, but... that applies to a limited number of students, whose referencing is usually OK anyway. The course in question is a professional course, undertaken by most students because it is now a condition of employment; some do happily get the bug (up to doctoral level, even), but the majority want their licence to practice and will be content with that.

So I am puzzled by this disproportionate attention paid to referencing. I am particularly puzzled by the insistence that it always be corrected. We emphasise the quality of feedback we give to our students, and we are keen that they should read it, discuss it with us in tutorial, and learn from it. And of course that will include correction of poor referencing practice, up to a point. What does obsessional attention to every detail of punctuation in a bibliography say about what we think is important about an essay or project? Indeed, what other aspect of marking should get less attention in order that this can get more? As I remember, the examiner suggested that work could even be referred until it was re-submitted with an immaculate list of references; what does that say about what is important?

(Incidentally, I have recently re-read Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger, which was first published in 1966, and I was interested to note that while she occasionally uses the name (date) flag within the text, she more frequently cites works as I have done hers, with full name and book title. Nor would her bibliography be acceptable to our external examiner. The Harvard system apparently originated in 1881--and is not referred to, according to Wikipedia [sorry!] in any of Harvard University library's web-pages. Not many people know that. But just when did it take over the world? It was not common practice in my undergraduate days.)

I suspect that referencing has become a shibboleth for ulterior reasons. It is one of the few respects in which a submission primarily on the practice of teaching can be "correct" or "incorrect", so it becomes where the academic credibility of the work resides when confidence has been lost in passing professional judgement. The Harvard system of course is correct/incorrect because it is a wholly artificial (but nevertheless sensible and effective) system. Practice is much more muddy.

The scholarship of teaching and learning is in danger of becoming the scholasticism of teaching and learning as its insights are overtaken by its proxies.

The examiner wants more evidence of theory being used. Why? I'm far from saying it should not be used. I do tend generally to agree with the examiner on this (after all that is what I teach), but we do need to go back to first principles and ask what the theory is for. Is its absence from our students' work evidence of their ignorance, or of the theory's irrelevance? (Usually, both, and other things, of course.)

I tell students at the start of one of my modules that we shall be exploring some fascinating ideas, but in the final analysis it does not matter whether or not they can attribute an idea to Bernstein, Bloom or Bruner, Pavlov, Piaget or Poppleton, any more than it matters whether a gardener can say who made his/her spade. It does matter what they do with it; whether they can use the essence of that idea to inform their practice. "Informs practice" is of course a very difficult criterion to assess. "Able to cite theorists in support of practice" is much easier.

At one of the institutions for which I act as an external examiner, I was struck by some tutor notes on the sample of assignments I received recently. (They were generally helpful notes, in the spirit of "feed-forward" [Race, 2005]) "You need to make more use of journal articles." Again, why? The implication seems to be that it is what proper academics do, and that is reason enough. No; articles are useful for what they say and how you can use that (or argue with it), not just because they are usually inaccessible, both in terms of finding them and reading them, so that the act of citing them is an indication of your academic dedication!

And since this has developed into a fairly substantial rant, I might as well include my incomprehension at the use of quotations in much academic writing. I shall now break my own rule and quote, but from myself;
Only use quotations when:
  • the author has made a point particularly well, and probably more concisely than you could say it, or
  • you are going on to discuss in detail what she or he has said at this particular point.

Do not use quotations simply as a way of proving that you have actually read the book or article!

(Atherton, 2008)

In short, it's about time we looked anew at some of our hallowed academic conventions, particularly in the context of professional learning; I suspect that they are symptoms of "mission creep". Under the guise of guaranteeing the legitimacy and authority of material submitted for assessment, they are actually directing attention to a sterile academic game, in which superficial and peripheral characteristics are being elevated in importance beyond personal critical thinking, reflection, argument and evidence of developing practice.

And as Mary Douglas implies--but does not directly argue--where ritual categories and acts are most fiercely defended, it is often precisely because of their lack of meaning in any objective sense. It is because of what belief in them says about the believers; that they are characterised as people who share these particular beliefs. Failing to share the belief is not simply being "wrong"; it is an act of heresy or treachery.


Atherton J S (2008) Doceo; Assignment Presentation Guidelines [On-line] UK. Available: http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/assignment_presentation.htm Accessed: 4 April 2009

Race, P (2005) Making Learning Happen London: Sage

oh, all right--you may after all want to read it;

Douglas M (1966) Purity and Danger; an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo London; Routledge and Kegan Paul