How to Conference: Writing the Paper 3

Citation is Political

You know who they are: the two or three academic stars that get cited in everything. They have their own boxes on the conference bingo card, their names come up so often. And they may be the nicest people in the world. They may actively use their position and platforms to make other scholars and scholarship visible – but that’s them, not the people citing them.

When looking to other work to support your own (conference papers and essays alike), it can be useful to remember that the academic ‘star system’ privileges certain kinds of scholars: almost always white, more often than not men. Happenstance circumstances are typically behind their success: maybe they were (among) the first to do work in a given area of study; maybe they worked with established scholars who advocated for them; maybe the entered academia at a time when whatever they were working on was in vogue (or on the cusp of being so)… and the list goes on.

By which I mean to say, academic stardom is not (necessarily) those ‘stars’ fault or their responsibility. But such stardom does reflect more entrenched biases in academia – towards men, towards white people, towards middle class and above scholars – and citing them can reinforce those biases to the point that they overpower the work of more marginalized scholars.

Does this mean you shouldn’t cite the stars? It depends. If you find yourself citing their foundational work to make some broad statement about ‘the field’, more often than not I would say don’t. If the work is over a decade old, you can usually be certain that we’ve all read it, that there have been counter-arguments made to it, that even the author themself has likely gone in other directions and/or rethought certain aspects of their early work. As such, citing it in the absence of a clear and compelling reason to do so – something very specific to the already very specific argument you’re making – can actually indicate that you’re not familiar enough with the field to know these things, which can and will work against you in the eyes of your audience.

That said, if that early work is relevant to what you’re saying – critical to making your own argument – cite away. But cite other people too. You’re probably familiar with it, but in case you’re not, there’s a handy little function on Google Scholar that allows you to see who has cited a given work of scholarship:

(If you’re in my field, you know that Henry Jenkins is a Very Big Name; he’s also someone who works very hard to get the voices of marginalized and early career scholars heard, and my use of his first book here is not intended to stigmatize him or his work in any way. It just really gets cited a LOT.)

Click on this and you can peruse all 6305 citations at your leisure. Sort them chronologically, and you’ll be able to get a sense of how people are citing the book today, not a quarter of a century ago. In doing this, you’re likely to at least bump up against a lot of new scholarship that works from this book to make new, related arguments, and it’s those arguments that may actually be more useful to you than the foundational work they cite.

Moreover, you have a much better chance of encountering work by people of different nationalities, races, ethnicities, genders, and so on if you look at more recent citations of the earlier work, and these are the scholars who may need your citation the most. Obviously, it’s difficult to quantify the effect a well-placed citation of someone else’s work might have on its recognizability and influence, but I know I’m not the only person out there who’s heard of some interesting scholarship through a citation in a conference paper and hurriedly scribbled it down before the slide changes. In fact, I’d argue that conference papers are, in some ways, more useful for disseminating research than essays, because they’re immediate and the audience is listening. It’s in this way that your citation can contribute – however slightly – to making marginalized scholars and/or scholarship more visible to the field as a whole.