The Power of the Reference

A circular Arabic talisman for magic
Magical Talisman

I just had coffee with one of my favourite students.  We first started meeting about three years ago, when he was really struggling with his work.  Last year, he had a fantastically successful Honours year, gaining over 86% for every one of his courses, and was accepted into both Oxford and Cambridge.  While he waits for September, he is taking some college tutorials, so we met up to chat about things.  He reminded me of a phrase that I’d used that had really helped him, ‘the power of the reference’. So I thought I should explain that today.

The power of the reference is a kind of voodoo.  A reference works as a talisman or magic spell.  In a few words (sometimes just a surname and a year), you can conjure a whole argument.  And then dismiss it with another name.  You can take a title, and it will confer it’s power, prestige and authority on your argument.  You can ward off criticism by festooning your claims with protective wards, footnotes, or in-text citations.

  •  I am using ‘technology’ here in the sense recommended by Li (2010).1
                1 For other uses of the term, see Scott (2012) and Ellis (2013).

  •  While earlier scholars, like Punjabi (1976), Ascot (1981) and Rolando (1985) have suggested that literacy is developed through practice; more recent scholarship has followed the seminal work of Emmanuel Ashanti in Kinds of Literacies (1998) who first recognised that ‘literacies are created through understandings’ (p. 17).

  • Most scholars now consider that the battle was strategically of little importance to the overall objectives of the war.2
             2 For a recent survey of this field, see Archibald and Mbanefo (2011).

What do all of these have in common?  They demonstrate your wide reading and your understanding of the field, in just a few words.  They gesture to show that you know other people disagree with you, but don’t waste any of your word count or argument space on them.  They give you the power to make sweeping claims, without being criticized.

Of course you don’t have to have read minutely all of these articles and books.  You can flick through them and take down their bibliographic details.  The title, abstract and a quick glance at the introduction is normally enough to see how an article situates itself, and its main argument and conclusion.  Thus the Power of the Reference also gives you more time. This is perhaps the most powerful magic of all.

This the power of the reference.  Use it in your own writing!

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