I ran into a slight snag in class Friday. I’ve been afraid of this kind of snafu since I started teaching, and it has only now surfaced.
When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who loved him some MLA format. He loved it. He knew it backward and forward and inside and out and sideways and longways and upways and downways and diagonally and—well, you get my point.
When he said something about MLA, you listened. He was the kind of professor that if a period were out of place in a citation, it was points off. If a quote were misformatted, points off. God help you if a comma were used instead of a period (or vice versa). So we learned very quickly that when he had one of his “MLA Instructions” nights, we took notes, paid attention, and did the very best we could to abide by what he said.
So when he told us how to properly and professionally format an ellipsis, we listened. It was no longer the “dot dot dot” we had known for years—“…”—but now it was a “square bracket, dot, space, dot, space, dot, square bracket,” or “[. . .]” We thought he was crazy, but it was what he wanted, so we went with it so as not to lose points. He told us that it was the MLA way of formatting an ellipsis. And we took him at his word. Or at least I did.
When I began reading more professional and scholarly articles, lo and behold, he was right. I would see “[. . .]” in quotations instead of the lowly “…” I had always thought of. So when I began teaching composition, I figured I’d give my students a heads-up I never had. And everyone had listened and done as I instructed in their papers.
As I was going over mistakes in their first papers and how to correct them, I had a student who, as I spoke, looked up what I was talking about in our college’s grammar handbook, Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook. (I’m not a huge fan of the book itself anyway, but it’s what the department uses, so I muddle through and do my job the best I can). As I’m talking, she raises her hand and said what I’ve feared for a year now: “But that’s not what the handbook says. It doesn’t say anything about brackets.”
As a professor, I’ve reached a crossroads, and I’m not sure what to do. Do I tell them the handbook is wrong? Do I tell them that I am wrong? Or do I simply ignore what she says and tell them to do it my way because, after all, I’m the teacher?
I went with the “that’s a new edition that just came out in July, and they might’ve changed the MLA in it with the new update, but this is the way I was taught and see it in professional journals” route. Now, I’m not an MLA acolyte, and I generally won’t deduct points for having a misformatted ellipsis (it’s truthfully not that important to me), but I want the students to learn how to do things the right way. And when a handbook contradicts the way I was taught to do something, I’m not sure how to handle it, especially when a student calls out the discrepancy in front of the whole class.
I feel a little undermined in my own classroom, and I don’t want to lose credibility as an instructor, especially over something as minor as punctuating an ellipsis. But it’s the small things that add up to something that matters. As new as I am at the school, I definitely don’t want to get the reputation that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
How would you folks have handled being called out like that and basically being told that you’re wrong in your own class? Did I handle this the right way? Or am I reading way too much into the situation (as per usual)?