Off the Board, Opinion

Accounting for oneself and others 

In my first year at McGill, my academic naiveté made me anxious and self-centred. I was convinced that good writing was a product of genius forged in solitude. When tasked with an essay, a tinge of shame came in reiterating the ideas of other scholars and writers. Citation in those first few months often came at the end of my essay writing process, always an afterthought—the bibliography felt like a confession of my intellectual ineptitude. 

I soon learned that I had missed the whole point. Now, in my last year of university, a long and sprawling “Works Cited” page brings me satisfaction. Citation lays out the constellations of labour and love behind an individual and their work. Any student who has toiled through a research paper knows that before you can say anything of value, there comes the more arduous and vital task of understanding what others have said before you. The personal voice can only go so far. When it gestures and tunes in, rather, to a varied chorus of those who have preceded it, we can find mutual respect and insight in speaking the same vocabulary and echoing one’s own academic and creative investments. 

On the topic of citational practices, I can look to Sara Ahmed, who first wrote on the inequity of citation in academia, or read Moya and Trudy Bailey who first coined the term misogynoir. To learn how to inhabit a shared language, I can reference Fred Moten and Wu Tsang’s collaborative works that quote messages, emails, and edits exchanged between the pair during their creative processes. 

These writers advocate for citational practices that recognize citation as a technology of violence in academia. It is not incidental, for example, that a 2018 survey of syllabuses conducted by The McGill Daily on the Department of Political Science at McGill found that 86 per cent of the 300 authors polled were white and 75 per cent were men. In a 2018 episode of CBC’s Unreserved podcast, Indigenous scholars Kyle Powys Whyte and Sarah Hunt shared that Indigenous scholars are pressured to cite white male scholars and Western academic knowledge in order to legitimize their work. In research-centred universities like McGill, where citation is a measure for tenure, citational practices that obscure the labour of marginalized scholars translate into the material gaps within classrooms and faculty. Ahmed makes this key point: Citation is an act of selection, not a natural mirror of a discipline’s history or its core figures. 

Though most commonly encountered through the bibliography and the university as an institution, citational practice manifests in our habits of engagement with others beyond the ivory walls. If we keep our sources of knowledge institutionally bound, we neglect the vast majority of racialized and lower-income people who don’t have the privilege of being legitimized. I like it when I’m able to quote and give authority to a friend when sharing an anecdote or a piece of advice. I also enjoy learning about my friends’ own sources of wisdom, as this makes me more equipped to converse with them and critique them if I disagree. When shared, knowledge of any kind and the interpersonal networks that uphold it expand in reach only through decisive acts of conversation and commitment with and to one another.

Centring citation as a practice both within and outside of academia has made me more aware of my own agency in the sources of knowledge I choose to engage with and pass on. I’ve become more hesitant to opine hastily, though I no longer see this as a failing. Now in my last year at McGill, when writing an essay or talking with a friend, rather than seeking to immediately share a testament to my own unique knowledge, I think it’s enough to faithfully quote an idea that I see value in, or merely put it in conversation with another. 

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