What’s Important to Teach from the New MLA 8th?

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new-picture-13The familiar MLA Handbook changed recently, taking a new approach to bibliographic citations. Are you prepared? In this installment of her column Adding Friction: How to Design Deliberate Thinking into the Research Process, Debbie Abilock tells you what you need to know about introducing MLA 8th to your students.

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The preface to the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook (MLA) argues that accurate citation is more important than ever. Writers owe their readers precise pointers to the sources they use since “documentation is the means through which scholarly conversations are recorded (MLA Handbook x).  Yet digital sources migrate, merge, and mutate. It has become increasingly difficult to identify “the” original—or if a copy is faithful. Nor is generic credit sufficient. Only precise documentation enables “a curious reader, viewer, or other user to track down your sources” and evaluate “whose work influenced yours” (MLA Handbook 126).

Hand in hand with this new emphasis on precision, the handbook proclaims new flexibility. Rather than continue MLA 7th’s prescriptive models which itemize distinctive citations for each source type, MLA 8th proposes a series of principles in Part 1 to guide writers in identifying the common elements (author, title, etc.) among sources, a framework which can accommodate future “modes of academic writing” (MLA Handbook xiii). MLA’s new mantra: capture the information available, rather than require information that is not. The result is Lego-like assembly of core content elements grouped into nested “containers” (e.g., a website, anthology, database aggregator, digital archive) that modularly build a “reliable data trail for future researchers” (MLA Handbook ix).

The second half of the book, “Details of MLA Style,” is prescriptive: it cleans up some of the missteps of MLA 7th such as the omission of a URL; eliminates abbreviations to make citations more readable; and provides previously omitted instructions, such as how to cite copublishers. The MLA Style Center (https://style.mla.org/) will become an arena for discussing the ongoing application of its style, although many will continue to use accurate citation software. Superficially, “this new version of MLA style may appear to differ only slightly from established practice” (MLA Handbook xii). In fact, the style flexes readily to fit media types, for example, to accommodate attribution on PowerPoint slides or a video. Even so, a full list of works cited, perhaps relegated to an appendix, remains the gold standard because it “gives the reader an organized account of the full range” of the writer’s sources (MLA Handbook 128). In the last analysis, source documentation enables a reader to “participate fully in the conversations between writers and their sources” (MLA Handbook xii).

How Does this Change Our Teaching Practices?

Documentation is a rhetorical framework. Treat students as scholars-in-training who need to learn how to participate in a scholarly conversation by connecting, contrasting, and comparing ideas with their own. Students cite to build their authority through documentation; sources have varying credibility and one’s reputation is affected by the company one keeps. Their audience will want to return to their sources to question, acknowledge, or build upon their interpretation of the evidence.

Currently, librarians teach students to evaluate information based, in part, on the publishing context. They show students that a publication’s editorial practices can be cues to the quality and accuracy of information within and among them. Instruction is often formulaic. For example, traditionally vetted or edited sources (e.g., books, journals) are presumed to be more reliable than formats in which publication precedes an informal, crowdsourced evaluation process (e.g., blogs, tweets, citizen-contributed news, Wikipedia, etc.). As a result, librarians are frustrated when databases strip source cues from the content thereby “ungluing the content from the container” (Researching 3-4) because their students can no longer recognize the difference between, say, a journal and a magazine and are therefore unable to apply their checklist test of format-based authority.

It seems to me that MLA does not postulate that the outcome of “container collapse” (Cataldo) must result in “format agnostic” students (Researching 4). Rigid approaches to evaluation don’t match flexible documentation practices. Not that context has lost its relevance. Indeed there is new respect for online sources (Gibson). However, new formats will have new conventions and new publishers will develop their own distinctive reputations. MLA 8 celebrates the transformation of scholarly communication by embracing fresh forms of communication and innovative ways of doing research (MLA Handbook viii). They have freed us  to explore an understanding of “source literacy” (Murphy), teaching new containers and their conventions in an organic, nuanced way.

Summing up what to teach:

  1. Cite precisely including all the available elements, so that the source you’ve used is findable.
  2. Apply MLA’s general principles to arrive at the best means to document new forms of communication.
  3. Adapt documentation practices to fit the conventions of genres and media.


Cataldo, Tara T. “Container Collapse: How Students Determine Identity and Credibility of Digital Resources.” Orlando Annual Conference and Exhibition, CadmiumCD, 26 June 2016, www.eventscribe.com/2016/ala-annual/assets/pdf/265702.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2016. Lecture.

Gibson, Angela. “Angela Gibson Talks about the New MLA Handbook.” CMOS Shop Talk, Chicago Manual of Style, 18 May 2016, cmosshoptalk.com/2016/05/18/angela-gibson-talks-about-the-new-mla-handbook/. Accessed 6 July 2016. Interview.

MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

Murphy, Nora. “How to Develop Strong Source Literacy: Practice!” Voices from the Hill, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, 1 Jan. 2016, blog.fsha.org/develop-source-literacy/. Accessed 6 July 2016.

“Researching Students’ Information Choices: Determining Identity and Judging Credibility in Digital Spaces: Full Proposal Abstract, Narrative and Schedule of Completion.” U of Florida, 2015. Institute of Museum and Library Services, www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/lg-81-15-0155_university_of_florida_board_of_trustees.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2016.

“What’s New in the Eighth Edition.” MLA, www.mla.org/MLA-Style/What-s-New-in-the-Eighth-Edition. Accessed 6 July 2016.

abilock_debbieDebbie Abilock, MLS, is VP and cofounder of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service academic research teaching environment. She received her master’s degree from Simmons College and is a former school administrator and librarian. She currently directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, which has answered over 40,000 questions from educators and students, and she consults internationally on innovative curriculum design, thoughtful technology integration, and multiple literacies. She is coauthor of the book Growing Schools: School Librarians as Professional Developers in addition to over 50 book chapters and articles in Knowledge Quest, Educational Leadership, and other journals.

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