citations, authority, and communal knowledge
The other day, I had occassion to again talk about my issues with citational practices. This morning, I bump into an article discussing this issue within journalism. One of the things that is somewhat novel about looking at the context of journalism is that it draws out the issue of authority in ways that academic critiques of citational bias tend to miss out on.
In the article, the journalist makes it pretty clear that one of the reasons why men tend to be quoted more is that more men are in Important Positions and have Fancy Titles that serve as a short-hand method to establish authority. Again, this is explicit within journalism but the same applies to academia. Something Sara Ahmed does discuss when she talks about how intellectual thought must always be located within a male geneology.
This is all well and good, but as I’ve noted before, the issue goes much deeper than this. The problem is not only that within academia (or think tanks, policy orgs, whatever) certain kinds of bodies and voices are granted authority and others are not, but the greater issue of – in general – academics being over-valued as authoritative knowledge creators.
Just the other day, a friend online was asking for resources about a certain subject that another friend had blogged about extensively. And this other friend had done so in a deeply analytic and insightful fashion. The problem is that it was on a blog and the person needed a citation for an academic paper. Thus, a meaningful critique has to be relegated to the obscure corners of the internet simply because some professor has bought into the idea that only academics produce knowledge.
Likewise, in my own writing on philosophy I am constantly asked for book, article, etc recommendations. And then I have to say, again and again, that I have no educational background in queer theory, gender theory, feminism, critical race, post-colonialism, etc and so on. I literally took one survey class in my 2nd year of university that covered this kind of critical theory. So, at best, I have a shallow, general knowledge of the ideas of some of the key thinkers.
But since then, it isn’t like I’ve done much additional reading. I think I read Gender Trouble on my own time. And… um, I think that might be about it. The most I’ve ever read about Orientalism, for example, is the introduction to the book. That’s it. So when people ask for recommendations, I have very few to give.
What gets me is the assumption that simply because I talk about certain subjects in ways that people find critical and meaningful, I must have some knowledge of the ‘authorities’ on the same subjects. It is an assumption that irritates me for two reasons. First, it assumes that I can’t actually think for myself and reach these conclusions on my own. Second, it assumes that I couldn’t have learned the exact same things via online discussions and whatever.
Now… One could then shift domains and ask me about blogs, tweets, and other ‘informal’ resources. But this has its own issues. Many of the people who’ve taught me many valuable things are quite explicit that their writing, words, and expressions online are personal and not intended to be educational tools. These are individual humans talking about their lives… which isn’t the same as consenting to be situated within a larger – often violent – academic discourse.
Recently, I bitched about being at the starting line again. Of course, as happens every single time anyone expects that oppressors do their own heavy lifting, comments about how expecting people to read articles and such creates barriers to participation. What gets me about this is that you don’t need to read a single academic anything to learn about racism and white supremacy.
Many of the things I currently discuss and know about come from simply interacting with people who are different from me. For example, I’ve learned a lot about anti-Blackness because I have Black friends who talk about their lives. Some of whom also will occassional theorize in a general way. Sure, yeah, I can name some of the prominent works and scholars in anti-Blackness, but I can also name several of the Black women and femmes who’ve helped bring this discourse into the ‘informal’ world of social media. Which group of people is the greater authority? Who is worthy of citation?
An ongoing lament from more than a few academics is that they’ve lost hegemonic control over teh discourse. They no longer can position themselves as the sole authorities in their respective subject areas. More importantly, many are now able to be directly interrogated by the populations and people they theorize over. They have, in a word, become accountable to the unwashed masses.
It suddenly strikes me that any social media context where a person’s offline identity isn’t immediately discoverable actually has a feature that many academics feel is crucial to ensuring rigourous research. Namely, double-blind peer review.
To speak of tumblr, for example, very few tumblr users associate their URL with their offline identity. So when a person writes a blog post on a subject, they are immediately and directly exposed to an environment where double-blind, peer-review is the default mode of engagement. The reviewers are unknown to the writer and the writer is unknown to the reviewers. And so without the usual markers of class and prestige (things like credentials, job titles, etc), each and every post and critique must then be evaluated on the quality of the ideas and argument, rather than the perceived prestige of the writer1.
Tumblr is an especially interesting example given the perception that it is filled with young girls who clearly could never be knowledgeable experts about anything ever. There is a reason why there are shorthand terms like ‘tumblr social justice’ as a way to denigrate certain discourses. And – to be very clear – this sort of attitude isn’t only held by the reactionary asshats at r/TumblrinAction. I’ve seen similar things espoused by academics, progressives, etc.
And, of course, it goes further since context confers authority just as much as personal credentials. As noted, tumblr as a context generally means that most people react to tumblr posts with a base assumption that they aren’t credible and must be critically engaged. To the extent that even when a person is articulating their idea from a position of mainstream credibility (eg, has the right credentials), what they say can be mockingly dismissed by noting it was a expressed in a tumblr post.
My most notably and personal example of this is the time r/TiA mocked and dismissed one of my posts about logic because, according to them, I was a philosophy major. And, thus, could not possibly have any real or authoritative grasp of logic. For those who don’t know why this is a ridiculous reason to dismiss one of my posts about logic: logic is a branch of philosophy. Logic is philosophy. Within the white academy, it is taught within philosophy departments. Nonetheless, my ideas can be dismissed by people so ignorant in the subject that they don’t even know which discipline it belongs to, simply because I articulated it on tumblr.
Interestingly, I actually think this is a positive outcome. And would be entirely fine if people held the same attitude to the same extent towards knowledge produced within the academy. One of the things that I hear over and over again from people in higher ed is that part of the educational experience is learning how to critically engage in the world.
Except that the scope for critical engagement tends to be very narrow. For those of us in the information profession, we know from info literacy that most professors require students to cite peer-reviewed journals, monographs, and other Academy Approved(tm) knowledge products. And so as we are allegedly teaching students to think critically, we are also indoctrinating them into a belief that only Academy Approved(tm) knowledge products are credible.
Given that I’m a failure at most things, save for academic shit, I still occassionally entertain the notion of doing a PhD. Except… I know that I’ve taken too many steps outside of the academic brainwashing I got in my eleven years in higher ed. It would be impossible for me to do a PhD on the terms that I’d feel are aligned with what I currently value.
Could I write a dissertation citing only open access resources? Including monographs? Could I write a dissertation where random person x’s blog post is examined as being equal to, idk, anything by Foucault? How would I incorporate – in an ethical fashion – the knowledge and insight I’ve gained via participating within certain communities and discourses. What happens if refuse to locate my philosophy within a geneology of white men and instead choosing to recognize the various qtpoc who’ve been influencing me for the past five years? How would I negotiate my comps with supposed ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ on a subject who aren’t even aware of the vast diversity of voices and resources that now exist? Could I assert and win the right to only read women of colour with varying overlapping marginalizations? Would my dissertation and work even be remotely considered ‘good’ even I failed to cite even one white man?
Honestly? I don’t think any school would admit me based on a proposal that was explicit about the above. I guess in a different way, part of what I’m suggesting about academia is that the institution – since it is an oppressive one – is designed to prevent academics from revolutionary praxis.
You can be an Asian studies scholar but only if you are willing to locate yourself within the white, Orientalist tradition. I know this from my own experience studying Chinese logic. At no point did my white, male supervisor actually consider it important or worthwhile for me to engage in Chinese scholarship about their own intellectual history. This is a bias that is visible within my resulting thesis… Although, because of my own insistence, I do engage some Chinese scholarship. But that was because I thought it was important.
I end up looking at these expressions of citational practice and the impact it has on ‘scholarship’ and… its always so limited and so narrow. Because citational practices go beyond just who we consider to have authoritative or legitimate voices. By its very nature and the context in which it occurs, its also about regulating the production of knowledge and perpetuating systems of academic elitism.
I don’t want to suggest that there are no markers of prestige or credibility used within this context. Indeed, I’ve discussed the problem of how people in this context construct authority and credibility via identity. ↩