MLA Handbook 8th Edition: A Change in Focus of Teaching Citation

The 8th edition of the MLA handbook came out recently, and the edition is very different from the 7th edition that we know so well.  Although it appears that there is not a free online guide to the 8th edition just yet, you can order the new version and/or you can check out the Purdue OWL’s list of the major changes between the 7th edition and the 8th edition.  The Purdue OWL will be updating all of its resources by June 2016.

From looking at the Purdue OWL, along with this Pearson blog post, it seems like the biggest change between the 7th and 8th edition is the shift from a prescriptive approach for specific types of sources to providing a heuristic to use for any type of source.  According to MLA, the shift occurred because “Works are published today in a dizzying range of formats.”  The authors of MLA have stepped away from trying to name each type of source and providing a citation formula, and instead have suggested that authors use the information that they know about the source (author(s), title, version, publisher, publication date, location, etc.).  Upon gathering the necessary information, the 8th edition suggests that writers order source information consistently throughout the works cited/referenced page.

In fact, this shift away from prescriptive guidelines has been adopted by various text books before the 8th edition was released.  Writer/Designer: A Guide to Multimodal Projects (Arola et al, 2014), for instance, provides a comprehensive heuristic for students to make their citations rather than attempting to create a format for specific types of sources.

The Purdue OWL gives the following as an example of the difference between the 7th and 8th edition style guides:

Difference between 7th and 8th editions

In terms of pedagogy, (I think) it is supremely helpful that MLA has adopted this heuristic approach in its latest style guide. Many students see citation, particularly in the rigid forms we have traditionally mandated, as an arbitrary convention that must be done.  Given the nature of the 8th edition, and just to unpack this genre convention of citation, we can use this opportunity to ask students: Why do we cite our work?  For what purpose?  This can lead to a discussion about intellectual property, credibility of sources, and the audience of a text having access to its references.  Students can begin to consider: Who is my audience?  What does my audience need to know in this citation?  What genre am I writing in?  What are the affordances and expectations of that genre for citation representation? These types of questions could lead students to consider their citation practices with an attention to audience and genre considerations.  For example, a student might intend to write an academic blog and decide upon using hyperlinks within the text (just like I did here) rather than parenthetical citations. She might still put a works referenced note at the end of the blog entry if it was for an academic audience (just like Ann Shiver-McNair’s recent post for the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative).   This kind of attention to audience, genre, and the ideologies embedded within our citation systems will (I hope) be helpful for student learning.

If you have more information or would like to give your opinions about MLA’s most recent style guide, post to the comments.

By Jacki Fiscus