Requiring Students to Use Chicago Style (or Turabian or Whatever)

While talking in class tonight about forthcoming papers, I heard from several students that many of their professors haven’t cared which system they used, as long as it was clear and they could retrace the student’s steps if necessary. That’s also long been my implicit attitude, even though I ask students to follow Chicago or Turabian and I correct their papers accordingly. Lately, however, I have come to think that teaching a specific style is actually important, even if I have done little more than point students in the right directions for style guidelines, much as I was told to use a given style manual back in the day.

But why does it matter if they use Chicago or whatever else? The historian in me says that they should learn the trade as I learned it. On the other hand, I am dealing with MA students, few of whom plan to go the PhD route, so I should not necessarily treat such classes as mini-apprenticeships for future historians. If most are studying for other reasons, why does enforcing a specific style matter?

First, all educated people need to know how to use the scholarly apparatus (footnotes or endnotes, bibliography) of any text they read, because information crucial to the author’s argument is there: evidence, intellectual debts to other scholars, and so on. I learned some of this by reading a great deal of history, but writing it helped me even more. And to do this work, I needed to follow a specific system that my professors understood, just like I had to write in English and follow a bunch of rules and customs associated with that. With that experience in mind, it seems to me that students can grow intellectually by acquiring more practice in such citation habits, even if they are not in my class as apprentice historians.

Second, my work as an editor has shown how far too many professionals ignore style sheets when they submit their written work for publication. For me, that merely creates a hassle and consumes time, but I can imagine much worse consequences in other writing contexts. Submit a job or grant application without following the directions? Forget it. Get an article through peer review that ignores the basic conventions of the discipline? Never. And so many other writing tasks—whether internal to a profession or organization or for publication the wider public—require one to follow specific guidelines and conventions. Indeed, it seems to me that we educated professionals should be able to learn and adapt to the specific style and formatting requirements of whatever writing task comes our way, even if that requires decoding seemingly arcane directions. From this point of view, too, mandating specific citation styles for graduate students can make sense.

I’m sure there are other good reasons, but it’s past midnight. Maybe readers have some ideas, whether for or against?

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