Learn the Rules to Break Them!
(except in this case)

by on March 29, 2012 in Reflections with No Comments »


Sometimes as teachers, we pull from our ever-expanding bag of tricks all sorts of odds and ends that we hope can catalyze a student’s comprehension, inquiry or motivation. These tools can be nuanced, direct, or bluntly manipulative. The weirdest such oddity I recently “pulled out” was in an APA workshop for a CA class: I actually found myself telling students to refer to the MCNY APA guide as their holy text while students here. How corny. What’s worse, I repeated the same line in three such workshops.


My justification?

Instilling fear (of course!), as many folks feel that disregarding the rules of a holy text can mean serious consequences. Here is where I speak about plagiarism, F grades, a student record being permanently marred, and other seriously scary scenarios that can result from a break with APA rules.

Thusly (it seems), students are inspired to use the APA guide and recognize the power of plagiarism to ruin a paper . . . or a professional reputation. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, let us remember that following citation and grammar rules does not make good writing—it only makes it legal. In my writing classes, I review grammar rules, and then, once tight, I ask the students to break them wherever it is justified. In this way, they practice taking full command of the language, becoming artful in the use of a well-made fragment, strategic shifts in tense, epic run-on sentences for effect, etc.

While it can be an awkward stretch for a teacher who likes to teach rules to break them, the LEC is actually the clearinghouse for standardized use of APA at MCNY. Even with this noble task, we know that, at the end of the day, proper citation is but a fraction of the larger work at hand: to make innovative, powerful ideas come to life in our writing. To make meaningful connections between life and field and text. To know how to use the host of literary devices to move a reader to profoundly connect with our work.

Yes, avoid plagiarism and uphold high academic ethical standards by learning the rules of APA. But do so in service to your higher calling of mastering great academic writing. Click here for a commentary on the topic from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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