Disjunctive, Exploratory Bibliographies

Disjunctive Machine at work–Mythbusters’ Sytle

On Wednesday January 4th–or exactly three weeks from today–I am responsible for the first truly daunting portion of my Master’s thesis–a ten item bibliography.  “But wait,” you say, “how can a ten item annotated bibliography have you in cold sweats when you’ve already submitted a twenty item non-annotated bibliography almost two weeks ago?”  Well, for starters, allow me to remind you that I wrote and submitted that twenty item bib in the same week that I was writing the seminar papers for two classes.  Then, allow me to remind you that I had–correctly–guessed that said twenty-item bibliography was in no way going to be seriously discussed or require any justification before my preceptor patted me on the back and sent me on my merry way.  In light of these two facts two further premises and a further consequence can be deduced

1) My initial twenty item bibliography was not rigorously or carefully crafted, and

2) that bibliography could never be a useful tool for any focused research.

3) Therefore, before I do anything on my thesis over break, I will need to create a legitimate exploratory bibliography.

While my grad school grades–at least in the Core course–would not seem to be the best indicators, I am in fact, well acquainted with scholarly research.  In undergrad I treated every writing assignment like something I might potentially submit for publication and often racked up a couple hundred hours in the process of researching and writing a large seminar paper.  Those hours and hours spent holed up in long forgotten study carrels taught me the importance of two things: first, the importance of developing an outline before one begins writing in order to further clarify and direct research, and, second, the importance of creating a bibliography that will further clarify and direct your outline.

After I returned to college after more than ten years away I found myself frequently beginning my seminar papers two or three months before they were due, but–rather than finishing those papers with weeks or even months to spare–I found that I frequently rewrote them over and over and turned them in just about the same time as everyone else.  While the willingness to trash many, many hours of hard-fought writing for the sake of better, sharper final paper is a virtue, such a sacrifice should not be a necessity.  The solution was to return to the adage of my former days writing newspaper articles: “no unemployed words.”  That is, every word must accomplish some function, every sentence provide either a claim, evidence, or rebuttal, and every paragraph define, advance, or defend the paper’s argument.  The necessity of rewriting page after page was a symptom that I hadn’t known what those words, sentences, and paragraph were supposed to be doing.  The cure for the disease of “unemployed words” loitering on the pages of my early manuscripts was to be a clear intention or plan–that is: an outline of how each paragraph’s constituent parts were to function.

Now, you might be wondering “if you are so committed to extolling the virtues of outlines, why is the title of this post so fired up about “exploratory” bibs–what have bibliographies to do with outlines?”  Well, I am very glad that you asked!  As I’ve already suggested, I would argue that by developing an outline that spells out what one intends to do, one recognizes the places where further research is necessary–either to clarify the argument, provide evidence for a claim, or defend from some anticipated attack on the claim or evidence.  However, the symbiotic relationship of outline with research goes both ways.  By further developing one’s research and bibliography, one recognizes the untenability of some directions within an outline–either to amend an argument, recognize the limitations of some evidence, or even accepting the legitimacy of some attacks against your position.  To use Foucault’s language, the give and take of an outline informing research and research impacting an outline is the discursive moment that creates knowledge–sharpening and clarifying the final product and easing its production.

But again you interrupt, “But isn’t it true that, if one must entertain this discursive moment either during the actual writing of a paper or in the earlier stage of its research and outlining, one may spend more time in analysis before and less time in writing after or more time in writing after and less in analysis before such that no time is saved–only labor shifted fore or aft?”  To this, I must admit that you might be entirely correct.  However, I would argue that there are five good reasons to front load analysis in any large academic project:

1) If work done in outlining and bibliography ease the production of a finished work, then better to do the difficult work of analysis early–when one is still fresh and excited about the project.

2) If analysis undertaken in outlining and researching may be more easily entered into than analysis undertaken in writing, then better to analyze early–when writing a paper without an adequate analysis will always be more difficult.

3) If analysis allows the work to be subdivided into smaller blocks and writing demands a panoramic view, then better to divide and conquer–when writing the paper will later become simply assembling the pieces.

4) If research and outlining naturally allow for self-correction and polished writing frequently provides a sheen of legitimacy to even the roughest of arguments, then better to see one’s work for what it really is.

5) If outlining and research provide the foundations for later writing and corrections are more easily made during the foundational stages than after ornamental elements of writing have been added, then better to analyze the foundation before discovering, by the collapse of one’s argument, that one’s foundation was faulty.

You might be thinking, “Fine, fine!  I’ve had enough of your syllogisms and I am convinced!  But what is a “disjunctive, exploratory” bibliography as opposed to a normal bibliography?”  In reverse order, “exploratory” simply communicates that this sort of bibliography precedes the paper to which it will eventually be attached–very much the opposite of the normal way writers assemble bibliographies after a paper has been written by collecting their footnotes or in-text citations.  What a “disjunctive” bibliography might be is a little less transparent.

Writers–especially those in academia–strive to provide a logical “flow” from a claim to evidence, to a rebuttal, and finally to that initial claim’s consequence which is the next claim–the smoother the logical flow, the easier the paper is to follow and the better it communicates.  This logical flow is difficult to create without a firm grasp of what one intends to argue, the evidence for it, the likely retorts, and the consequences at stake–that is, without the things that are provided by early analysis.  However, frequently such treatments are either too vague and abstract to be compelling or have failed to consider their entailments or the arguments that might be leveled against them and so are untenable or easily defeated.  A disjunctive bibliography breaks the argument into its component parts and researches each as an isolated question before those parts are strung together into a cohesive argument.

For example, my thesis relates to the question of intentionality as a quality of a work that plays a controlling role in that work’s interpretation even to the point of implying an ethical component within hermeneutics as it relates to appropriation.  A disjunctive approach suggests that I should divide my labor into the following areas of study:

meaning: What is a workable theory of meaning?  How can one thing refer to mean something else?  How is meaning established or participated in?

intention: What is a workable theory of intending?  How can intending be a quality of the object intended?  At what level does this sort of intending function: the broad level of “beliefs or desires,”  the narrower level of “actions taken with regard to those beliefs or desires,” or the way in which the consequences of actions as intentions may be interpreted in a work.”

author: What is workable theory of the author?  How can the author’s intention play a controlling role in her work’s interpretation?  What is the role of the audience in the interpretation of a work?

appropriation:  What is appropriated: form, content, or intent?  The possibility of multiple authors/ collaborators?

ethics: What is an author’s responsibility to existing works, other authors, and audiences?

Little imagination is necessary to see that within each of these topics there are several broad research question: what theories exist, 2) which is amenable to the claim I intend to make, 3) how do the entailments of any given theory conflict with other theories within the four other spheres, and 4) what evidence can be marshaled in defense of that theory?  Another consideration is how “main stream” or “fringe” the given theory is–since widely accepted theories will require less justification than fringe conceptions.

So, there is my homework for the next three weeks: to answer these questions with the resources available and use the resulting bibliography to craft an outline.




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