Start the Semester in Style: A Look at the New MLA

No doubt about it, one of the most persnickety aspects of literary studies involves understanding and executing MLA citation—especially with the advent of the 8th edition of MLA. It has taken both students and scholars time to adjust. To paraphrase Peter Moe (yes, my brother), Professor Dallas Liddle hates it. Professor Dara Rossman Regaignon likes it. Professor Peter Moe (same brother!!) argues that “we finally have a handbook that has writers thinking more critically about citation than ever before” (see his full article here).

Indeed, the new MLA moves students past simply learning citation in order to avoid plagiarism. Like all citation styles, it reflects the values, habits, and expectations of a given discourse community—its decorum, in short. But the new MLA is one of the first citation styles to embrace (and therefore value) the fact that our reading and writing practices have drastically changed in light of the digital revolution. Texts circulate differently now, and though citation styles in the past have tried to capture the circulation of a text through a community of readers in print/digital spaces, the new MLA style seems constructed around this premise.

One quick example. I teach a course on Emily Dickinson. One poem can be found in myriad “containers”—as the new MLA calls it—including Franklin’s Reading Edition of the poems, Franklin’s three volume Variorum Edition, Miller’s recent Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, the collected letters of Dickinson as she sent her poems to her friends and loved ones during her lifetime, the online archive of Dickinson’s work, the Poetry Foundation, YouTube clips from movies on Dickinson or the movies themselves, and more. Depending on the rhetorical situation (you, your argument, your audience), you might want to highlight one or more of these specific containers. The concept of a “container” helps us to think about how a text circulates through communities of readers (see “rhetorical velocity” for more on the theory of a text’s circulation through society). Dickinson’s work has been circulating for decades upon decades. The container that one cites matters, but it is not based upon purely the “most definitive” source. Rather, it’s based upon what source makes most sense to use in light of one’s argument and audience.

Rather than giving users a list of strict prescriptions, the new MLA empowers writers to make wise decisions based upon the rhetorical situation of their work.

That said, I have found teaching the new MLA to be difficult, and in effort to head off 1,432,576 glitches, I drafted up a style guide that I will be using in my courses. Though a guide, it provides specific instructions about how to write in the new MLA citation style. At this point, not all professors who use MLA across the college call for students to use the 8th edition. That said, the style guide below is (I hope) a step in a good direction.

The style guide below includes information not only about “correct citing” but moreover descriptions and examples of the art of quoting. In the end, what matters most is the art of integrating a quote into an essay. To undergo the art, though, one must simultaneously know the basic protocol for in-text citation. I also include guidance for formatting the header, title, epigraph (if used), and so forth. Such guidance is not from MLA but rather is specific to the classes I teach. That is, I value epigraphs, so I need to provide guidance as to how to format them so they are clean, crisp, and professional looking.

They need, simply put, style.

Moe’s MLA Style Guide

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