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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Up the Stairs Again: A Lesson in Referencing

Monday, September 08, 2008

[Warning: The following post may induce feelings of extreme boredom in non-academic readers.]

You know that feeling when, having been engaged in something for a long time, you suddenly realise that you did something wrong at the beginning, and are going to have to retrace your steps to pick up all the subsequent errors that have crept in? Have you experienced that sort of rollercoaster stomach sink, only without the accompanying hands-in-the-air joy? Well, it's just happened to me now, as I slowly work through the references for my PhD.

I started with good intentions. Three years ago, when my research period stretched to eternity, and I could afford to spend hours playing Yeti sports whilst pretending to do work, I was also quite well organised. Everything I read would get databased in Reference Manager, and I was confident that as I wrote, it would be sufficient for the time being simply to footnote a surname and page in my thesis, because these would be tied back to the full reference in the database.

Except, over time, I lapsed. I would like to say I got so caught up in the actual writing, but it would be more realistic to admit I got into bad habits. The habit in question was writing a little "xxx" for every text or article I needed to footnote in full. And sod the database.

So now, towards the end of my study, I am running up and down stairs in the library, getting fit but frustrated as I have to collect books that I have already read, but for which I did not complete bibliographic information at the time of first reading. Now with the glorious light of hindsight shining, it is quite clear that I would have saved time overall by spending a bit more time earlier on, and remaining committed to my initial good habits. However, in principle there should be nothing more severe than aching legs in store for me.

But - and here comes the rollercoaster moment - I have just looked in my MLA guide to style and discovered, lurking innocently in the middle of an innocuous paragraph, the sentence that is my downfall. It seems simple enough: "A bibliographic entry for a work published as part of a book or periodical usually ends with the inclusive page numbers for the entire work cited, but a documentation note, in contrast, ends with the page number or numbers only of the portion you refer to." So why the crisis?

Well - and bear with me, as we enter the nit-picky world of musty academic jackets - as well as a complete bibliography at the end, according to the submission requirements for my thesis I have to give a full footnote citation the first time I refer to any book or article, rather than just a parenthetical surname and page number pointing to the reference in the bibliography. So, for example, the first time I quote Sherry Turkle I have to provide a full footnote to her work:
1. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit
(London: Granada, 1984) 4.
Now this works fine for books, where the information in the footnote is essentially identical to the bibliography, though the page number is dropped in the latter. But what about for articles or chapters from books? Say, for example, I quote an article by N. Katherine Hayles. I write a sentence which includes a direct quote from her work: "the modern human who inhabits information-rich environments 'knows that the dynamic and fluctuating boundaries of her embodied cognitions develop in relation to other cognizing agents embedded throughout the environment, among which the most powerful are intelligent machines.'"2 The footnote at the bottom reads:
2. N. Katherine Hayles, “Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual
Environments,” Configurations 10.2 (2002): 297-320.
Now as I understood it previously, the footnote was simply a reworked version of the bibliography entry. So even though the quote comes from page 303 in the middle of the article, my footnote refers to the article in its entirety (the reasoning being that articles and chapters are short enough to allow readers to find the quote relatively easily), as does the bibliography.

However, looking at that paragraph from the MLA guidelines afresh, I realise that what I should have done is to have cited the individual page from which the quote was taken, with the bibliography picking up the page numbers for the chapter as a whole.

So the note should read:
2. N. Katherine Hayles, “Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in
Virtual Environments,” Configurations 10.2 (2002): 303.
Whilst the bibliography entry should read:
Hayles, N. Katherine. "Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual
Environments." Configurations 10.2 (2002): 297-320.
And here I find myself facing the prospect of going over old ground and up and down already well-trodden library staircases. I have been assuming I could simply enter information into the footnotes, and compile the bibliography from that. But those footnotes only detail page numbers for the entire periodical article or chapter, not for the individual page from which the relevant quotation was taken. So I now have to collect (for the third time) all those chapters and articles from which I have quoted, and find the specific page, rather than just looking at the first and last page and jotting these numbers down.

If I had been using Reference Manager all the way through, I would not have had this problem, because I would have entered the start and end pages of the chapter or article, and then in quoting from them my footnote would have referred to the specific page being quoted. As it is, my thighs are about to get a lot thicker from running up library staircases. Let this be a lesson to me - and hopefully to some of you out there.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:49 pm

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