Rethinking the Value of MLA

MLA may seem like a type of busy work to some students, a meaningless task to perform so they can please their teacher.  However, MLA is not just a personal teacher preference.  Rather, MLA is specifically set up to perform certain tasks.  And understanding what some of those tasks are may help you to master MLA style.

The Main Reasons to Use MLA

  • It’s a standardized style so readers know automatically what information they are looking at or where to find information.
  • Using the standard helps you to present yourself as an insider in the field.
  • MLA helps authors to give attribution to their sources and to avoid plagiarism.

The Reasons Behind Some of the Details

The in-text citation (Page and Line Numbers)

These tell readers where to find the quote you cite in its original context so they can determine if you quoted it accurately, interpreted it correctly, etc.  This means you should be as specific as possible.  Use a page number (download the PD F version of an article rather than using the HTML version so you have this) if available.  If not, you may see that the paragraphs are numbered–use that number.  If referring to a play in verse (like Shakespeare’s), cite the scene and line numbers.  If quoting a poem, provide the line numbers.  Don’t just give a page number if referring to something with line numbers because that means your reader has to scan the entire page to find the relevant quote.  Make it as easy for them as possible.

THE IN-TEXT CITATION (Authors and Titles)

Author names should appear in the text itself if possible, so you will not normally need to add them to the in-text citation.  However, you may find it necessary to add a title to an in-text citation.  In this case, you shorten the title if necessary.  Writing a full title of “The Disparities Between Chickens and Fish as Examined Through the Lenses of Several Authors and Interspersed with Poetic Interludes” makes your text look sloppy.  Provide enough information for the reader to find this title in your Works Cited.  “Disparities Between Chickens and Fish” is sufficient.

The Works Cited

This should be in alphabetical order so your readers can find sources easily.  Use the rule of “making it easy on your readers” to determine how to handle situations that you might feel the guidebooks on MLA do not sufficiently cover.  For instance, if you think they will likely look for the writer name while looking for a graphic novel, lead with that.  However, if you were prioritizing the artist in your paper, you might lead with the artist name.  Also keep in mind that your in-text citations and Works Cited should match.  That is, don’t refer to “(Writer 99)” but lead off with the artist in your Works Cited entry.

The Header

Your last name and page number are meant to be on the top of each page so that if the pages are separated they can easily be identified and reordered.


MLA is not taught by instructors simply because they are oddly obsessed with the details of how your paper looks.  Rather, the details perform specific functions.  Readers expect proper formatting because this formatting allows them not only to check a work for accuracy but also to use that work to find other interesting or relevant sources.  

Further, it’s important that students gain an eye for detail and an ability for correct formatting because formatting (even if not MLA) will likely play a future role in many individuals’ lives.  From sending in a resume that includes all the relevant information in an expected manner to submitting manuscripts to publishing agents or submitting articles to academic journals, students will find that formatting affects their chances of professional success.  Sending in a document correctly formatted presents the individual as conscientious and easy to work with.

Finally, many readers are very concerned with stylistic issues.  Even though the content of a document should be more important than how it looks, many people equate surface features with intelligence.  That is, a paper that is written with correct grammar and looks like a professionally-formatted piece will be rated higher by some readers than a paper that is not written with correct grammar and is not formatted the way the readers in the field expect.  This may not seem fair or right, but you can use it to your advantage by taking the few moments necessary to format your documents correctly.

MLA matters.  More than you might think.

Do you have insights on how other citation styles work?  Share with us your citation insights and preferences below!

Why Is It So Difficult to Be Accepted Into an English Grad Program?

Discussion Post Stars

Since the 1960s and 1970s American colleges have become more democratized, opening their doors to more students and offering in many cases what are still known by some as “remedial” courses to students who come in not “college ready.”   The hope is that such measures will help those who have not shared the same advantages of their wealthier peers to obtain a college degree.  At the same time, English graduate programs are shrinking their acceptance rates so that is is not uncommon for a program to take on five to eight new students a year.  A larger program might take fifteen students.  As a result, competition is fierce and to be accepted applicants must demonstrate a commitment to the discipline by explaining their specific professional goals and demonstrating a level of competency through submitting writing samples, indicating that they have already begun to professionalize by publishing or attending conferences, etc.

This may sound elitist–why can’t grad schools be more democratic and accept more students into their English programs?  Why only select those who have already demonstrated professional competence in their field?  Why not offer “remedial” courses and allow some students to stay a few more years in the program learning what others already learned when they earned their BA?  (Please keep in mind that “remedial” is the term many colleges use simply to describe what is part of the democratization process, and it’s not meant to be read as pejorative.)  Surely it’s worth spending more money, even a couple tens of thousands of dollars, on such a project.  The answer is bleak and it has to do with the job market.

Everyone “knows” that jobs in the humanities are hard to get, especially if you’re talking about jobs for someone with an English Ph.D.  However, the numbers are worse than you probably think and, when you see them, it’s hard not to wonder why people bother putting themselves through the agony of English Ph.D. programs at all.

To begin to understand the academic job market for English graduates, we first have to understand that colleges in the U.S. have a hierarchy.  The hierarchy  looks something like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts
  • grad students/GAs/TAs

Full professors and associate professors are typically tenured, meaning they have job security until they retire.  Assistant professors are tenure-track, meaning they can achieve tenure by publishing, conferencing, heading committees and doing other service, and receiving positive student and instructor reviews.  Lecturers are non-tenured.  Adjuncts are non-tenured, part-time, receive low pay, and typically receive no benefits.  GAs and TAs are grad students who receive a small stipend for teaching (maybe $18,000/yr, slightly more if they are lucky or in a better-paying field than English).

Tenured jobs in the academy are increasingly shrinking (and English departments are shrinking, too, because they have trouble competing for spending money when they go up against STEM departments).  Adjunct jobs, meanwhile, are increasing.  A study on adjuncts, or contingent faculty, The Shifting Academic Workforce: Where Are the Contingent Faculty?, notes that in 2013,” contingent faculty accounted for at least half of all instructional faculty across all types of institutions, ranging from 50% at public research universities to more than 80% at public community college.”  Graduates from English PhD programs will more than likely end up as adjuncts initially, maybe for years.

Adjuncts used to be what their name implies–additional faculty who held full-time jobs in their field or industry, who then taught a class at a college on the side.  But now adjuncts are being used instead of full-time, tenured faculty.  Why?  Because they’re cheap.  In 2013, NPR reported that adjuncts make between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. In March of 2016, Inside Higher Ed reported that adjuncts, on average, receive $2700 per course.  At this rate, if an adjunct somehow manages to get four or five courses, they’d still only be making up to $13,500 a year, and that’s without any benefits.   Plus they often work without being offered office space or a voice in the department when policies are debated, and they have no stability from one semester to the next as they can simply not be rehired for no cause.  Further, adjuncts often only achieve as much money as they do by working more than one job.  Kevin Birmingham notes that 89% of adjuncts work at more than one college and 13% work at four or more.

The personal stories offered by adjuncts as they try to live are often moving.  In June 2015, a piece in The Guardian revealed how the writer received $15000 and no benefits for teaching five courses.  He made better money and got benefits working retail.  Kevin Birmingham in “The Great Shame of Our Profession” tells of one adjunct who reported selling her plasma twice a week so she could send her child to daycare.  Slate reported in 2015 that up to 25% of adjuncts may be receiving food stamps (and these are people with MAs or PhDs, remember).

Keeping  in mind that tenure-track jobs are nearly impossible to get these days, grad schools can’t afford to take in students who under-prepared and may sink to the bottom of the job market pool.  They will spend their lives as adjuncts, working multiple jobs for low pay and no benefits, and without any job security.  If they become sick or pregnant, they could lose their job.  If not enough people sign up for their class at the last minute, it could be cancelled without warning.  If their university has a policy that they could be considered for a higher-ranking job after teaching, say five years, the university has the option of randomly not rehiring them the year they would have achieved enough experience to ask for a promotion.

Maybe grad programs wish they could be more democratic, but they know that that is, in a sense, unethical when the market is glutted with qualified candidates and that only three job postings or an entire eight postings! might go up that year* in a specific field .  So they accept maybe five to eight students a year, knowing the competition is fierce and they can only send the best of the best.  Some graduate schools accept more than eight students, of course, but there are some who believe that these schools are contributing to the problem of the overcrowded job market and providing their students with false hope.

If we want graduate programs to become more democratic, the entire academy would have to be overhauled so that there were more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjunct jobs.  Or at least decent pay for adjuncts.   Contrary to what you might read on the Internet, however, soaring university costs are not a result of overpaid tenured faculty.  Most tuition money goes to administrative costs such as athletics, student organizations, counseling, etc.  Do you think students would be willing to either pay more tuition or lose some administrative costs to pay adjuncts more?  Will we ever see students protest for increased adjunct pay?

Krysta 64

Is the Ending of The Call of the Wild Positive? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!

Is the Ending of The Call of the Wild Positive?

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Spoiler warning for the end of the novel! (Though that’s probably obvious….)

This is a tough question for me because I think the answer is entirely dependent on what one most values, and valid arguments could be made for both positions.

Buck faces a tough life and a large number of challenges throughout the novel, but by the end, he has found a truly good master, a friend.  Various men had tried to beat the wildness and passion out of Buck, but Thornton is kind to him, and the two have a great relationship.  Ultimately, however, Thornton still ties Busk to civilization, and one of the primary questions the book asks is “Is that tie to civilization good?”

The ending is at least a little sad because Thornton dies and Buck is left on his own.  The narrator writes: “…He knew John Thornton was dead.  It left a great void in him, somewhat akin to hunger, but a void which ached and ached, and which food could not fill.” Yet because of Thornton’s death, Buck is able to join a pack of wild wolves, and he appears to thrive.  He becomes a prince among wolves, the head of a pack that the humans tell legends about: “They are afraid of this Ghost Dog, for it has cunning greater than they.”

So the question is really about whether you believe the “returning to the wild” is a positive or a negative.  For Buck, it seems to work out.  He seems to regain his “true nature,” to be able to develop a prowess his human masters often stunted in him.  In that way, the ending seems decently positive to me.  However, if the question is whether “returning to the wild” is good for all animals, or for humans (a question the book definitely raises in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a dog), the answer is probably more complex.

You can read my review of The Call of the Wild here.

What do think? Link us to your post or tell us your answer in the comments!


Nature vs. Nurture in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Spoilers)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

As I was reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (yes, I just got to it in April), I was struck by how several of the characters believed that if Voldemort ever had a child that the child would inevitably be bad.  They have such a revulsion to Voldemort (understandable) that they assume his child would inherit his villainy—basically that evil is inherent and determined by one’s parentage.  I don’t think this is Rowling’s or any of the co-writers’ opinion (well, it could be, but I have no way of knowing), but I find it interesting that in a series where characters are often not what they seem and villains are sometimes redeemed that there seems to be no room for the thought that a child of Voldemort’s might be anything other than a new Dark Lord (or Dark Lady).

Case One: Scorpius Malfoy

The book opens with the rumor that Scorpius Malfoy might the son of Voldemort.  When Rose Granger-Weasley and Albus Potter meet him on the Hogwarts Express, Rose is distant and suspicious from the start.  When Scorpius introduces himself, she is noticeably “cold” and blurts, “Your mum and dad are Death Eaters!” (16).  However, this is not the sticking point for her, and she finally has to spell out her discomfort to Albus:  “The rumor is that he’s Voldemort’s son, Albus” (17).  With this point clear, she turns on her heel and denies friendship with both Scorpius and Albus, if he’s going to associate with such a person.

Though Harry, Hermione, and Ron deny that they believe this rumor, there’s evidence they do.  Harry admits near the end of Act Three to Albus that he was against the friendship between the two boys because of it: “Well, I was wrong too—to think Scorpius was Voldemort’s son.  He wasn’t a black cloud” (203).  All these characters would presumably have enough reason to be suspicious of Scorpius for being Draco’s son—but Draco is semi-reformed since the end of HP 7, and the boy clearly wasn’t raised as a Death Eater.  They are all suspicious that he might be Voldemort’s son, and that this would make him a terrible person even though his mother was a decent person, even though he was raised in a normal household because simply being related to Voldemort would make him bad.  For them, nurture trumps nature.  Albus makes this clear when he tries to comfort Scorpius’s own doubts about his parentage: “I don’t think Voldemort is capable of having a kind son—and you’re kind, Scorpius.  To the depths. Of your belly, to the tips of your fingers.  I truly believe Voldemort—Voldemort couldn’t have a child like you” (143).

Admittedly, however, there is some argument for the important of nurture; Scorpius states explicitly that his friendship with Albus has made him a better person.  When Scorpius has to make some tough choices in the alternate universe where Voldemort succeeded, Snape reminds him: “Think about Albus.  You’re giving up your kingdom for Albus, right?  One person.  All it takes is one person” (193).  I don’t think the point is that friendship with Albus has made Scorpius a more virtuous person, however.  When the audience first meet him, he’s an eager kid trying to make friends with sweets and talking about his lovely mother; there’s no evidence he was ever tempted to the path of evil.  Friendship with Albus simply makes him more outgoing, more confident, more courageous.

Case Two: Delphini Diggory

Delphini is a somewhat less complicated case, in part because readers don’t see much of her after the “big reveal” of her true identity.  There are a couple things that we know, however.  The first is that she was raised by Death Eaters.  As she’s toying with Scorpius and Albus in revealing her true intentions for using the Time Turner, she casually drops this line about the woman who raised her: “She didn’t like me much.  Euphemia Rowle…she only took me in for the gold” (219).  Scorpius is concerned and slowly observes, “The Rowles were pretty extreme Death Eaters” (219).  It is this revelation that makes him most suspicious of Delphini, and—without knowing she’s Voldemort’s child—he realizes she’s probably up to no good.  Nurture is the issue here, as someone raised by practicing Death Eaters was probably raised to value Dark magic.  However, Delphini’s childhood never comes up again.  From this point forward, the driving point is that she’s Voldemort’s daughter.

And it is her parentage that alarms everyone.  When Harry and company raid Delphini’s room and discover (through an absurdly convenient message) that she’s Voldemort’s child, they panic.  When Hermione shares the news with the rest of the wizarding community, their reaction is “A child! Anything but that!”  They seem to subscribe to the view that Albus expresses earlier, that a child of Voldemort would undoubtedly be evil.  No one thinks for a moment that she could be otherwise.  They assume, without proof, that she’s up to no good with Albus and Scorpius as hostages.

The audience gets little explanation for Delphini’s personality and values beyond this, except in the scene at Godric’s hollow.  Here we learn that Delphini wants nothing more than her father’s approval.  She repeats “Farther!” frequently when speaking to Harry-disguised-as-Voldemort and then tells Harry, “I’ve studied to be worthy of him!” (290).  Is the desire to follow in her father’s footsteps nature or nurture, though?  Is this an idea she got from being raised by Death Eaters?  From having heard a prophecy that she could be a powerful Dark witch?  Or is it simply that a daughter of Voldemort must be like Voldemort?

There’s some nuance in the play, but the characters appear to strongly believe that nature trumps nurture and that a child of Voldemort’s must be evil, no questions asked.  What do you think?


Do you Identify with Holden Caulfield? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!

Do you identify at all with Holden Caulfield?

catcher in the rye

It’s been a while since I’ve read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  I’ve read it twice, however: once in high school and once a few years later.  The difference in enjoyment was stark for me.  I don’t think I was an angsty teen at all, even in retrospect, and no one I knew as a teen ever characterized me as such; nonetheless, I did relate to the book and Holden’ frustrations far more as a teen than I did even a few years later.  I think this is a book most people would most appreciate while they are in high school.

So what was so appealing? Holden may have been a bit angrier than I was as a teen, but I identified with his general frustration that a lot of people are “phoney.”  Maybe that sounds cynical.  But high school is filled with people trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.  There are people who do things they’re uncomfortable with just to be cool.  There are people who pretend to join clubs they don’t care about just to put it on their college applications.  And then there are adults–people who keep telling you things like “Your teachers next year won’t stand for this” and “Next time I’m not accepting any late work,” and none of it ever actually comes to pass.  There are your parents who say one thing to you and another to other adults.  Basically, there are a lot of reasons to think the world might be “phoney.”

I don’t know how I would feel about the book today, and perhaps a second re-read is in order.  Maybe I’ve just accepted what seems to be the ever-present adult mantra that “life isn’t fair,” but I would hope I could continue to sympathize a bit with a character who’s frustrated that it seems so unfair and sometimes fake.  That doesn’t mean that all of Holden’s gripes are necessarily valid, but I think critics who dismiss him as a whiny crybaby and nothing more might be missing something.

What do you think? Comment with a link to your post if you participated this week or just comment with your opinion of Holden!



5 Reasons I’m in Favor of Required (Classic) Reading

Discussion Post

The topic of required reading in high schools often comes up for criticism and intense debate.  Why must students all read the same books?  Why must they all read those books (those old, musty classics by dead white men?)  Isn’t reading supposed to be about enjoyment? the critics ask.  Shouldn’t we be simply encouraging students to read anything, rather than dictating what they must read and killing their joy?  After all, the classics are hard, boring, and completely unrelatable to students.  They simply have to go.

 I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that reading should be about pleasure, and I believe that the last thing a school should accomplish is making students dislike reading.  However, I disagree with the assertions that reading classic literature—old literature, challenging literature—is pointless and has no place in our schools at all.  Below I list five reasons in favor of required (classic) reading.

1. The Classics Are Not Irrelevant to “the Real World”

Although the classics are often dismissed as irrelevant to everyday life, as knowledge one will never actually use, the truth is that literary knowledge is fundamental to many fields—and many careers.  Literary allusions makes their way into art, theatre, history, and other literature.  A knowledge of Shakespeare or Virgil or Plato may, in fact, be useful.  Students should be given a foundational literary education so they can apply it other fields, if they choose.  It’s simply not true that the only people who need to know about literature are people who end up being literature teachers.

2. Reading Classics Enhances Your Complexity of Thought and Writing Style

While I believe in the value of reading in general (any type of reading, of any genre or any text), studies keep suggesting that there is distinct difference between reading complex literary fiction (like the classics) over other books or other writing.  Studies have, shown, for instance, that people who read literary fiction are more empathetic than those who do not.   They have shown that people who read “good” writing are better writers than people who read primarily content on the Internet (like Buzzfeed, Reddit, etc.)The fact is that there’s a difference between just reading anything and reading something “good.”

3. Required Reading Introduces Students to New Things

When people argue against reading classics in the classroom, they often point out that teenagers simply aren’t interested in classics. The books are too old. They’re not about teens. They’re about unrelateable situations. And so on.  The proposed solution: Schools should assign books like YA novels, things teens like to read.

The problem with this solution is that it suggests schools should spend valuable class time teaching books that…teens are already reading by themselves.  If everyone at High School X is reading The Hunger Games, that’s great. But then the school doesn’t need to assign it.  One of the goals of required reading is to introduce students to texts they are not already familiar with. Hopefully, some students will discover that, even if they don’t like all classics, they really like Renaissance drama or Romantic lyrics or twentieth century naturalism.  “Classics” come in many genres and styles, after all.

4. Required Reading Challenges Students and Helps Them Grow

Reading classics, it is true, can be difficult.  The writing can seem foreign and the situations portrayed totally removed from the present-day.  However, this is exactly why classics need to be taught in schools.  Teachers know that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton may be new and challenging to students, that students may have to struggle and take hours to slog their way through the text.  But that’s the point: they are teaching students to read Shakespeare so that, next time, getting through an early modern play won’t be so hard.  The books are assigned because they are difficult, not in spite of that.

One’s “reading level” (often a loaded term in education, I know) only improves when one reads challenging texts, texts above one’s current ability.  To argue we should assign only books in high schools that are easily comprehensible to students is to do high schoolers a disservice.  By assigning difficult texts, we teach people to be better readers.

5. Required Reading Is a Practical Classroom Tool

Finally, there is one practicality surrounding required reading that is frequently overlooked: Literature classes work best when all the students and the teacher have read the same book(s).  Imagine how difficult it would be to hold a class discussion when everyone in the room had read a different novel.  Or how challenging it would be for a teacher to lecture on several difficult books at once. Or how impossible it would be for that teacher to fairly grade 100 essays about 100 different books.  Literature classes function on the assumption that the students and teachers have something in common, which means there will probably always be some sort of required reading in schools, even if the assigned texts are not all classics.

Possible Compromises

Despite my belief in the value of classic literature as required reading, I do recognize that reading the classics isn’t everyone’s “thing” and that expanding the curriculum to include a variety of genres and categories of books could be beneficial to help students learn that they probably don’t “hate reading;” they only hate reading certain types of books.  I think that high school classrooms could expand to incorporate, for instance, YA books alongside classic literature.  (Maybe the class could read a classic and then a YA adaptation.)  Alternatively, teachers could assign an independent reading project where students can choose their own book(s) to read.

The only complication I see with this compromise is that it requires students to read more than they do currently.  The amount of assigned reading high school students are asked to complete for one literature class can vary widely by school, or even by teacher within one school.  However, I know that it is not uncommon for high schoolers to read four or fewer novels per year in a literature class.  They may take a few months to read one Shakespeare play.  If this is the case—that a high school student will read only three novels in their junior year English literature class—I don’t think we should remove one of those classic texts and replace it with a John Green or Marissa Meyer book.  The goal should be to read YA (or graphic novels, or memoirs, or whatever genre) alongside the classics, rather than replacing the classics.

What are your thoughts? Are you in favor of required reading?  Was it ever beneficial to you?  Did you ever come across an assigned book you actually enjoyed?


Favorite John Steinbeck Novel (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks
Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!

What is your favorite John Steinbeck novel?

To date, I have only read three Steinbeck novels: The Grapes of Write, Of Mice and Men, and Tortilla Flats.  I enjoyed the first two, but Tortilla Flats is supposed to be humorous, and I just didn’t get it; it’s not my brand of humor.  If I have to pick a very favorite, it’s The Grapes of Wrath.

I was not always a Grapes of Wrath fan. I read it once in high school and thought it slow and generally odd.  It has “interchapters,” which are chapters about the general state of the country, which separate the chapters that are actually about the novel’s characters or the “main action.”  Teenage me thought this was stupid, including the infamous “turtle chapter” where readers simply read about a turtle crossing the road.  Good times, right?

However, I reread the book last year, and I think I “get” it more now.  The interchapters are important.  They’re interesting.  They offer great commentary on the main action and the message of the novel, and I don’t think it would be complete without them.  And I find the main characters and their story interesting, as well.

Steinbeck occasionally gets on a soapbox about his pet causes and the messages of his own novels, but this is not a huge deterrent for me.  It’s the style of some books, and I’ve learned to roll with it (I’m looking at you, 1984.)  Altogether, I think this is an engaging and fascinating read.  It looks long, but it’s worth it.

Are you participating this week? Leave us the link to your post in the comments! Or just comment with your favorite Steinbeck novel.