the art of bibliography

There is a hilarious Facebook group called “Grad Students: They’re Not Bad People, They Just Made Terrible Life Choices” I’ve been tempted to join. The homepage of the group contains a list of defining grad student characteristics. I probably laughed the hardest when I came across #9:

“You might be a Grad Student if you find the bibliographies of books more interesting than the actual text.”

While it may be tempting to save money by not printing out the last few pages of a journal article, which may contain only a list of the works cited, don’t underestimate the theoretical and creative potential of the bibliography. Especially when you’re beginning your research and starting to think about the literature review.

One of the major components of the graduate dissertation is the literature review — a discussion of the major theoretical works, perspectives, and thinkers within your discipline(s). The purpose of the literature review is to not only provide your reader with a background of your research object, but also, to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the field.

If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books and journals in your field, a bibliography is a great way to started and get a snapshot of the essential texts and authors. How do you find a good bibliography? Well first you need to have at least one key book, article, or text. For example, if you are conducting research on gender from a Cultural Studies perspective, you’d probably peruse through the bibliographies of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto to get an initial sense of the field. In addition to bibliographies, anthologies and course syllabuses are also excellent points of entry.

Also, remember to think of the bibliography not only as a starting point for yourself, but also, for others. When putting together the bibliography for your dissertation, don’t just see it as a mundane, technical requirement, but as a piece of creative writing that has the ability to change the way people think about the world.

Perhaps, I’m being overzealous (I am a grad student after all :)), but this story makes me think otherwise. A professor recently told our class about an alumnus who received a distinction for their dissertation largely because of their bibliography. The student’s unique combination of Western and Eastern sources was considered an important contribution to the field because it was seen as an effective starting point for other researchers.

Sometimes the bibliography really is more significant than the actual text.


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