The best kind of citation

Even the strange and murky currency of academic citation throws up pleasant surprises sometimes.

Academics are in some ways regulated by their accumulation of this fiat currency, the citation mill, which requires them to write for the best (ie allegedly most influential) journals, and then subsequently incite references to their work in similarly published articles by others.

There are even aggregators now, from Google Scholar to Scopus or Orcid, which exist to compile the magical measurable impacts which academic administrators and hiring committees so adore.

But citation need not be reduced to this quantitative measuring tool. It was created and intended as a mode of acknowledging the influence of ideas, attributing merit to the previous work of other scholars on whose shoulders, as Newton said, we stand.

It’s of course true that the citation mill is now regularly hacked and gamed by the more cynical academics, in ways ranging from the utterly immoral (like the citation rings discovered in some journals in recent years) to the merely dubious (such as scholars writing deliberately provocatively.) But like many things, just because the system is abused and mispurposed does not entirely eradicate its importance or validity.

No, knowledge is not (or should not be) a popularity contest. But democracy has shown us the weird benefits of being governed by the wisdom of crowds. And similarly, a lot of well-cited papers are well-cited because many people legitimately are influenced by their ideas.

But not all citation need be reduced to this number-crunching game. And for me as a kind of purist, the best form of citation is an acknowledgement or engagement with something I’ve said or written.

I was therefore very moved to read Dennis Wise’s excellent new article on the alliterative turn in 20th century American genre poetry. I should note that I am not an expert on either alliterative poetry or American genre poetry. But I HAVE read a lot of James Blish, and I was able to have a great discussion with Dennis about a James Blish poem he was looking at.

It’s the sort of thing academia ought to be about, and increasingly isn’t. Chatting to another scholar, trying ideas and theories out on one another in realtime, and eventually happening across an interpretation that seemed to account for both my knowledge and Dennis’s.

I didn’t expect to be thanked for it, so I value Dennis’s citation more than any other my work has received, precisely because it was a purist kind of citation. It won’t boost my Google Scholar rating in the eyes of the number crunchers. It won’t impress those who seek to measure knowledge quantitatively. But for me it is a succinct and generous example of what citation was meant to do.

Dennis has astutely identified something in US genre poetry that no one has really discussed before. His ideas are excellent and should change how we understand the history of alliterative poetry and its intersection with modernism, science fiction and 20th century American letters. It’s a genuinely great paper. I’m flattered to be associated with it in any way. I really enjoyed talking with Dennis about his ideas, and I’m glad he valued my thoughts.

If only more encounters in academia took the form of chatting with people like Dennis about their ideas, rather than answering to bean counters about dubious metrics, I’d be a happier academic. I’m going to go and thank more people in the credits of my next book now.

Pulp Satori

This is, I suppose, the first evidence of the work on Buddhist Futurisms that I’ve been doing for the past half decade or so. It had an eventful pre-publication history, actually. At one point, it was destined for a book, but that failed to transpire. On another occasion, it was repeatedly sent back for corrections by Reviewer Number Two (accursed be thy name!) for failing to cite his (it was a he) own research. Which wasn’t remotely relevant.

Anyhow, this is the overly-detailed explanation for why this is only appearing something like four years after being written. I’ve not been lazy. There is much more to this project, including multiple other publications already scheduled.

But it is gratifying to see the first bit in print. Last year I missed out on a big scholarship, primarily because there was no evidence I knew anything about Buddhism or had ever researched it. So at least now that evidence exists, albeit a little later than useful, to me anyhow, but hopefully not for others.

It actually tells an interesting story, which is not something one expects of academic writing generally. It’s a positive story too, of negative stereotypical preconceptions being overturned by a cultural encounter which shapeshifted into an ongoing interaction of mutual benefit between Buddhism and the West, and America in particular.

I hope you like it, if it’s of interest to you.

The System is Broken

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” said Benjamin Franklin, who ought to have known as a highly successful businessman and politician. But the world no longer rewards us directly for our knowledge and intellect, or to put it another way, merit is no longer the metric, or even among the metrics now valued.

The academic system, which rightly in the past faced accusations of being a redoubt of privilege for certain demographics, is broken and all the attempts to fix it appear only to be breaking it further in some regards. The marketisation of higher education in places like Britain and America has led to reliance on precarious underpaid staff, the primacy of student as customer or client, and the incessant rise of a class of highly remunerated apparatchiks who dictate market values to academia.

Today I saw yet another inspiring and astonishing colleague out of work. Someone with multiple well-regarded books to their name, the recipient of international scholarships, with experience teaching in multiple countries. There’s no merit in this. If people like that are dispensable, one becomes baffled to see those who remain in position, despite losing fortunes in speculative ventures like foreign campuses, rash restructuring of institutions, and declining standards and institutional reputations.

Academia has really sickened me in the past few years. I’ve seen some truly horrendous things. Professors without doctoral theses. People who have literally never published a paper criticising the work of colleagues with multiple monographs. Demands that extend into the weekend, the evening, days off and even when staff are literally hospitalised from overwork.

I’ve seen some astonishing people laid off and let go from academic posts. Truly inspiring teachers, highly qualified, whose research is globally renowned. I’ve also seen cabals of admins backslap each other with ridiculous pay increases for shuffling reports back and forth at each other.

I don’t know how it can be fixed, or if it can, and I don’t know if everywhere is as bad as things appear to be in Britain. Maybe they’re actually worse elsewhere. The system is broken though, and if we don’t fix it we will literally enter a dark age – a time of ignoring experts, not checking facts, considering preening on social media to be preferable to learning about the world. At times I feel we are already deep into that process.

Today, I offer solidarity to my many colleagues worldwide, the ones who got hounded out, the ones who wouldn’t put up with it anymore, the ones who are still being ground down and bullied by the apparatchiks, the ones who literally died too young as a result of overwork. It’s all I have to offer, alas. But I can’t change the system. Only all of us can.