• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Which Works Should We Cite?

Knowing whom a journal expects us to cite in our work is often almost impossible. How, then, can we expect our students to know whom to cite?

December 11, 2011

I received two email notifications, on back-to-back days, in regards to two articles I had submitted for publication. The first email was a rejection, the second a revise-and-resubmit with minor changes. I’m finally at the point personally where I don’t take rejection personally (I used to – badly) and my career is such (off the TT) that I’m not looking at the calendar to make sure I have enough publication before a certain date, so the rejection didn’t sting at all. In fact, I was kind of expecting it, but not for the reasons outlined in the reader report.

Apparently, the paper was weakened because I had included too many of my own observations about the texts in question.  I’m still at a loss as to what that means. No one has looked at how the translation of Dany Laferrière’s work into English has impacted or influenced both his image as an author, but also the critical reception of his work. Whom, then, am I supposed to be quoting?

It might be that I had submitted to a publication overseas, but somehow the comment struck a cord with a tension that often exists within academic publication; at what stage in your career is it ok to stop relying on what everyone else has written and start speaking for yourself? Reflecting on it now, I am in the process of revising another essay that wants me to do a little less textual analysis and a little more literature review. When you only have a certain number of words to do both, what get left out?

(There was recently a blog post somewhere about the difference between the writing and research of junior versus senior scholars with a great analogy that I can’t find anymore. If you know which one I’m talking about, please share it in the comments.)

In the comments of second paper, in a complete reversal, I was asked to remove some of the external references, in order to include more quotes from the primary texts. This was funny to me because in reading past issues of the journal, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough outside criticism. I wasn’t, however, given much indication which references were superfluous (or as they put it, “purely criticism”). Seeing as how I tend to err on the side of less external references, I’m having trouble figuring out which ones I seem to have included just to say I had included some external criticism.

It seems that no matter how many editions of the journal I read before submitting, I can’t quite get it right. Young scholars today (and perhaps they always have, I don’t know) receive so many mixed messages when it comes to our research: be innovative, but not too innovative; have ideas, but make sure you are using everyone else’s too (or at least whoever we deem significant). I always feel awkward trying to essentially shoehorn someone else into my arguments simply because I need someone. I’ve written about this challenge/problem before, but I’m still struggling with it, especially because I work in two languages (thus “doubling” the number of critics/criticisms I can access).

Perhaps I’m still “suffering” from the trauma of my first academic conference as a graduate student. I recognized in one presentation (English Canadian) the echoes of a Québécois (and thus French) theorists. I excitedly asked the presenter if she had ever read the theorist in question, and I was quickly dismissed with, “I don’t read French.” I realized right then that my own academic development was very different from most others. In other words, I would never know who the “right people” were to quote. Even within the same country, the language you spoke dictated the critics you were expected to use.

My take-away from this, though, is that at the end of the day, particularly with the proliferation of journals, each essay will eventually find a home. I’ll take what feedback I can use and revise my rejected essay (in fact, I’ve already submitted the abstract for the paper to another call at a more relevant journal) and I've moved on. I’ve given up on trying to divine who is going to want what in the essays I submit. My very first publication was initially rejected by a book about transculturation because…it had too much about transculturation. But it eventually found an obscure home, like much of our writing eventually does.

I push this piece one paragraph longer because I often wonder about this phenomenon when we teach writing to our undergraduates. If I can’t even figure out who I “should” be citing, how can we expect them to do so? Is it any surprise that they often parrot back what is the most popular search result on Google when we ourselves do the same thing in our own writing (mind you, it’s not Google, but the citation index)? We want them to think for themselves, and we are told academic freedom is about taking chances. As long as we all cite the approved sources.  


Back to Top