27 October 2010

On the "fetishization of citation"

Thursday's keynote at ISSoTL10 was by Jude Carroll, whom I met for the first time face-to-face after scores of email exchanges. She is best known for her work on dealing with plagiarism, of course, but in this case she was addressing issues around a transcultural approach to curriculum issues.

I was delighted to hear her inveigh against the "fetishization of citation". I've also touched on this issue here. Jude went so far as to say that this obsession with "correct" referencing was a phenomenon of the last ten years, and implied that it was symptomatic of a crisis of confidence on the part of academics in their own authority in a post-modern world. It's not so much an issue in the STEM* world, where there are real, objective and positivistic criteria for judging ideas. Like, "does it work?" If it does, who invented it is a matter for the historians and the (patent) lawyers.

Moreover, it is an approach which devalues the contribution and opinion of the student herself. Jude's piece suggested to me (she may well have said something like this, but I don't want to put words in her mouth), in the context of the internationalisation of the curriculum, an inability to handle the different ways in which prior knowledge is or may be dealt with by students of different backgrounds and from different disciplines.

She played with the manner in which direct quotations from other scholars had been used in presentations within this very conference.

Which set me thinking about the concurrent sessions I attended, and the ways in which such scholarly material had been incorporated and used. I caricature slightly when I say there was in a number of them a ritual obeisance to the literature, as part of what was frequently explicitly identified as a "literature review" section (many papers followed the traditional pattern of a published research paper or dissertation). Nothing wrong with that, except that in Perkins' term, the knowledge was often "inert". Not much was done with it. It was introduced in order to confer academic respectability on the session and then--with some notable exceptions, of course--it just lay there...

I think I detect that this is becoming ever more common, possibly because of search engines; it is so easy, with basic search skills, to go straight to an article in a peer-reviewed journal which bears in some measure on your subject. It will probably be a contribution to a discussion, in your own discipline, and very up-to-date. And it will probably say very little of interest, or ever have been heard of by anyone else. Your session may be the only citation it will ever get!

I actually made a note of several promising leads, and since getting back I have followed up some of them, to my disappointment.

I would have been much more interested in people making use of some "golden oldies" (my preferred strategy because I was always too lazy and too easily bored, and too busy, to keep up with new stuff unless someone used it or recommended it); or illuminating their arguments from parallels outside the immediate confines of their own disciplines.

In a "soft" discipline like "education", it is all too easy to build foundations merely on successive bundles of reeds, rather than rocks. But one may feel the need to be seen to be imitating academics in harder disciplines.

* Science. Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

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