Wednesday, November 02, 2005

How Do You Show What You Know?

I have been surrounded by bibliographies today. These lists of books, articles and the other desiderata of academic writing are how we indicate to others that we know how to do research. They indicate the sources of our knowledge and tell of how we arrived at our present positions. Although they are important, they are often ignored or considered poorly.

The process of writing a dissertation or thesis is supposed to inculcate in one the significance of a properly compiled bibliography. Looking through it the reader follows the writer's intellectual journey. The reader can see the paths taken and those passed and not traversed.

As we write, we have to be aware from where we are deriving ideas. We have an ethical duty to avoid plagiarism, not to claim as ours that which belongs to another. We litter our texts with authors' names and dates showing our facility in synthesis as we weave together disparate ideas into a new theory. Are we hedgehogs or foxes? Have we read deeply or widely?

The ways of citing others' work are many and varied: Turabian, Chicago, Harvard are a few. But once one has selected a style, the structure of the style does the work for one. Students seem to have a hard time appreciating this. I have had two PhD students who were less than careful with the citation styles or referencing and their bibliographies to an extent that the examiners refused to pass them until they were put in proper order. And the biggest argument I had with my masters' students recently was over how to choose a style and why one should select one at all. But they also added a twist that was new to me. What exactly should a bibliography contain?

To me it's straightforward: what is cited gets placed in the bibliography. Anything else is superfluous. However, their take on the role of the bibliography, and therefore its contents, was that it should reflect everything they had read in conjunction with their research regardless of whether it was cited or not. When I said no, they argued for two bibliographies, one of cited works and the other of read works. Again, no. They weren't happy with my rejection.

Nowadays there is software to compile references and bibliographies, but there is still a pleasure in doing it manually, of seeing the list emerge. For me, I like to do it as I write, then as the paper grows so does the bibliography. It has a nurturing sensation about it.

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