Friday, November 25, 2011

On bibliography-dumping

A widespread form of feedback to a junior colleague is what I hereby name "bibliography-dumping."

This is the practice of naming books and articles that you think a junior colleague ought to read, usually in response to hearing about that junior colleague's work. (This occasionally happens with a peer, but it's much more common with a junior colleague or a student.) Sometimes we recommend just one or two books, but all too often it's several. It's an incredibly common practice, and for a long time I've thought nothing of it (an occasionally engaged in it), because I think it's generally well meant.

I've been on the receiving end of many a bibliography dump in the past, of course, especially in grad school. But it's only recently, as a witness to (and occasional inflicter of) bibliography-dumping, that I've started to see it as problematic. It's taken me a little time to figure out why the bibliography-dump isn't necessarily the helpful gesture it's meant to be, but after some pondering, I believe I've detected a reason or two.

When I bibliography-dump, I might think I am saying: "Hey, I am interested in your work; it reminds me of a bunch of things I read! Let me name some! Enthusiasm!"

But the student in question hears: "I, your senior colleague, very strongly suggest that you read ten books only tangentially related to your actual project."

We're nerds; we relate to one another by talking about books. And it's usually in the spirit of bonding that we start naming books that a colleague's work reminded us of. So we're having a good time free-associating about media theory (or whatever) and at the same time patting ourselves on the backs for being so helpful, while our students frantically scribble down the titles we're spouting off.

But let's be real: most of the time, we're not helping. The truth is that it doesn't take that much work to suggest books; suggesting books is basically an associative process. It doesn't require deep engagement in the way that a truly good question does. So when we start naming books, it may be well meant, but it's actually a little insulting if we're doing it in lieu of taking our colleague's argument head on.

Of course, it is helpful to name relevant books. But the operative word there is "relevant." But do I, having just sat through my junior colleague's formal or informal presentation, have a good enough sense of the project to know what's relevant? Related is not the same thing as relevant. It's easy to find books that are related. It's hard to find books that are relevant. And nobody needs help doing their very basic, first-pass, the-keyword-is-in-the-title research. If I think I understand the project well enough to name resources that are relevant, then I should understand it well enough to ask an actual question. So, y'know, I could try that.

I can think of two situations in which the bibliography-dump is actually useful.

1. The person giving the presentation is actively looking for resources on [X]. Sometimes, despite diligence and all our catalogue-fu, it can take a lucky break to strike the article or bibliography that will let you into the world you're looking for. Usually such a need will be made apparent through the use of sentences like "I am looking for resources on [X]." By the way, if there is any feminist scholarship on the creepy oeuvre of Anne Geddes, I wish to enter that dark underworld, so tip me off.

2. You need to save the presenter from ignorance of a resource so foundational that your failure to mention it would be scandalously irresponsible. For instance: someone writing about feminist approaches to objectivity who has never heard of Sandra Harding.

If either of these two situations presents itself, we should go for it. Otherwise, by bibliography-dumping, we are only contributing to student angst and scope creep, while failing to really interrogate the project at hand.


Timothy Burke said...

So I think in one sense you underestimate the degree to which scholarly projects don't ever incubate independently of this kind of demand for intertextuality, in either the best-practices optimistic sense or the depressing canon-enforcing gatekeeping sense.

Imagine no one bibliography-dumped on anyone. Would you reliably find, through your own discovery heuristics, everything that was relevant to the path that your project ought to take? Maybe my discovery practices are more bushy than most folks, but I think even very narrow specialists find and discard many false leads. No humanist entirely arrives where they were always going to go via the shortest path. So in some way, bibliography-dumpers aren't doing anything that different from what you do to yourself, and sort through their dumping is just a matter of using the same heuristics you're using in self-guided discovery.

I think you're underrating how much some senior scholars are trying to warn junior scholars about a gap or lack that's going to cost them reputation capital. It's hard to separate that out from *enforcement*--the difference between person warning you about other people and person who IS other people is pretty slender sometimes.

But that's maybe because bibliography dumping is also a form of argumentation--a way of participating in the collective production of knowledge. When it's seniors to juniors there's no way to escape how power intercuts that shaping, but even in an ideal or horizontal world, we engage in argument and analysis both before and after a work is "finished". I don't actually think it would be preferable to just bibliography dump on someone after they've published--that almost inevitably has a sharper edge to it. Saying that people should never do that is saying that they should never engage in critique that argues that it is important to say something more or other than what a particular work chooses to say.

Natalia said...

Thanks for your comment, Tim. There's much to respond to here, but for the moment I'll leave it at this.

As far as I'm aware, before I wrote this post, nobody had a name for this practice or was thinking out loud about how and why we do it. Feedback is almost by definition meant to be useful, as I observe in the post. You seem persuaded that bibliography-dumping is always as useful as it's meant to be. Very well; carry on.

I am, as my post makes clear, less persuaded. For my part, if a few people stop for a moment and think about how they're responding to their students and junior colleagues, and try to up their game a little, I'm a happy camper.