Have you ever noticed how impersonal the process of citing another scholar is? Surname. Initials. Year of publication. It’s as if the ideas and findings you are citing just appeared on paper, produced by some cyborgian scholar-bot, completely devoid of personality, subjectivity, and voice.
But when I think about the scholars who came before me, and the rich tapestry of intellectual connections they wove, I can’t think in terms of J. Bloggs or Doe, J. I have to humanise them. I need an awareness of where they work/ed, which other scholars they associate/d with, and what subjects they work/ed on.
If they are still alive and employed, I check their faculty profile on their institution’s website. If they are long gone, I read – don’t judge me – their Wikipedia page. In other words, I learn about their intellectual lives. I sort of make friends with them in my head. I even put caricatures of them up in my office, if I can find them – like this one of poet Matthew Arnold from Punch magazine.
See, Matthew Arnold is not central to my research. He argued for the arts in the so-called “Science Wars” in 19th century England, when arts and sciences vied for their positions in the education system. This is a topic only slightly related to my thesis, so I haven’t read read up on Arnold in great detail. I’m very likely to forget about him, to be honest. But seeing this cartoon of him in his classical garb every day helps to implant his perspective in my head. If the Science Wars come up in my oral exam, I’ll be grateful that I know which side Arnold was on.
Getting to know the scholars in my field also helps me to see connections. (Oh, Denis Dutton slated Jean Baudrillard’s prose? Juicy! N. Katherine Hayles was published in a George Levine essay collection? Fascinating.)
Plus, because I’ve become familiar with lots of living scholars in my field, I have a lot of ideas about potential examiners. Should my supervisor ask for my opinion when thinking of potential examiners, I can give it confidently.
Most importantly, making friends with those I cite helps me to visualise my future self as a scholar. Thinking of my sources as people makes me realise that I can be one of them.
I just have to watch myself when meeting these “friends” at conferences. Because there’s a way to fit into the academic community, and approaching someone who is technically a stranger while yelling “Katherine, daaaahling, how are you?” is not the way to do it.