How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt

The first page of Steven Watts's article "Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century."

Following up the small group activity I described last week (“Reverse-Engineering a Scholarly Article”), I developed a similar classroom exercise this week. The new activity was a “scavenger hunt” designed to help the same students become more comfortable using footnotes.

(I’m asking this class to use footnotes to cite the sources in their final projects, and I was aware that some students had very limited exposure to this form of scholarly architecture.)

I based the activity on Steven Watts’s article “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” which was published in 1995 in the Journal of American History.

I printed enough copies of Watts’s article for each student to have one—but with a catch. Each student would have only part of the article. They would have to pair up to compare their versions. Some students got “Version A,” which included the first half of the main body of the article. Others got “Version B,” which included the second half. Both versions included the introduction and conclusion.

This was my way to make sure the activity would involve plenty of interaction.

I also gave every student a copy of the following scavenger checklist. It took up both sides of one sheet of paper:

  • Source published inside another source (both cited) 
  • Source “as cited/quoted in” another source
  • Archival source that can only be accessed in person
  • Footnote with more detailed version of something in main text
  • Footnote that cites sources in order to disagree with them
  • Repeated citations of the same source in several footnotes
  • Source that is paraphrased, not quoted
  • Source cited only as source of facts, not interpretation
  • Source of a type you can’t identify
  • Footnote citing unpublished research by another scholar 
  • Footnote that changes the meaning of the main text  
  • Footnote citing three or more sources
  • Footnote that significantly changes the meaning of the main text
  • Source you would physically visit the university library to examine
  • Footnote acknowledging assistance or influence from another scholar  
  • Footnote acknowledging assistance from librarian or archivist   
  • Source that seems suspect to you
  • Footnote citing author’s own work
  • Source you would request through Interlibrary Loan to examine
  • Non-scholarly or non-academic secondary source
  • Primary source that is not a written document or archaeological artifact  
  • Footnote that makes you doubt the validity of the author’s argument 
  • Source that serves as a “smoking gun” to prove the author’s argument 
  • Footnote that puts the article in historiographic context 
  • Source cited in an English translation from another language
  • Source cited as “ibid.”   

To do the activity, I explained, each student should go through their checklist, writing the appropriate footnote number next to any item they found in the article’s footnotes. Whenever they found something, they should also inform their partner and briefly discuss what they found. That way, both students in the team could keep an updated joint checklist, and both students could make sure they were in agreement about each item, since some would involve judgment calls.

I also explained that some items might not be present in this article at all, and some might require doing some quick digital research, such as looking up a source in our library’s catalogue to see whether we have it.

I gave students about half an hour to conduct the scavenger hunt.

The students got really invested in this activity. From the start, it required enough problem-solving to be interesting. Students had to figure out how to decode the footnotes to determine, e.g., whether they were citing published or unpublished sources; how the footnotes related to the main text; or whether a secondary source looked like a scholarly source. Overhearing their conversations, I sometimes offered hints—not to solve any specific problem for them, but to help them learn the language that would let them decode each footnote for themselves.

(When the activity was done, I explained exactly what “ibid.” means, in particular.)

Finally, we compared results. We found that each group had checked off about half the items in the list.

I asked open-ended questions about what students had found: How did engaging with the article this way—combing through its footnotes instead of reading through the main text—change the way you experienced this secondary source? Does this activity give you more or less confidence in the author’s argument? What ways of using footnotes did you see in this article that were new to you? What practices did you see that were confusing? Which items required extra thought or outside research to identify? And what footnote practices in this article would you like to adopt in your own research paper?

The participants had many insights to offer, and a truly organic conversation ensued. In a later class period, a student remarked that the hands-on nature of this activity, together with the previous exercise, made academic history articles seem a lot less intimidating.