The old gods and the new

Sometimes when characters in Game of Thrones feel the need to have their words backed-up by a higher authority than themselves, they swear ‘by the old gods and the new.’ Invoking someone with superior knowledge to attest for the veracity of what you are saying does not only happen when you call for a god; we do exactly the same in academic writing. Academic writing is, by its own nature, full of references to people we believe have some knowledge on the topic we are discussing, even when we dispute the accuracy and relevance of such knowledge. We refer to other thinkers and researchers because we need backup for what we are saying or want to contest their arguments in order to advance ours. Either way, we do need to invoke others’ ideas and research findings to strengthen our positions.

When it comes to the use of references one of the most common questions students have is ‘how old’ a source can be. Simply there is not one right answer for this question but students often comment that their supervisors constantly ask them to ‘update’ their literature review and to get rid of anything that has been published more than 10 years ago. What students, and sometimes EAP tutors, do not understand it there is a need to discriminate between the different kinds of references and the purposes for which they are being invoked. I find it hard to believe that any lecturer would indiscriminately banish sources because they are two-digit old.

I cannot speak for all the disciplines but I can reassure my students and trainee teachers that in education and in literary studies there must be space for both the old and the new. If we are looking for empirical studies that give us specific data on the phenomena we are interested in, the newer the better. For example, there is little point in citing a piece of research on the use of technology in English language teaching that was published in 1990 because this was before the expansion of the internet, the creation of social media and the invention of mobile technology. In this case, you’d better look for research articles that describe more recent studies in the field; unless you happen to be writing about the historical development of CALL. However, I would also expect to find in such a paper a theoretical discussion on how people learn and for that you cannot do without referring to writers like Vygotsky (1978), Bordieu (1990) and Bruner (1979), to mention just the basics. Indeed, it is all a matter of going back to the basics as key ideas and seminal papers are not written every each year. In fact, sometimes it takes decades or even centuries for ideas and concepts to evolve and disseminate among us, especially in the field of the Humanities.

Actually,  I confess that one of the things that irritates me considerably is to see students citing writers who wrote about people to whom they should be directly referring. Apologies for the self-reference here but if, for instance, if you want to discuss Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism don’t cite Lima 2013 but go and read Bakhtin 1981 instead! You may want to refer to Lima 2013 if you are looking for an example of how to apply the concept of dialogism to the analysis of communicative interactions among readers and texts. In Literary Studies, for example, if you want to discuss the Novel, your literature review is very likely to contain sources that have been published quite a while ago, such as Eagleton (2005), Parrinder (2008) and Watt (1987), not to mention Bakhtin (1981) himself. If a student submits such a paper to me and it only contains sources that are ‘updated’ and newer than 5 years old, I will certainly send him/her packing back to the library to do some ‘proper reading’.

When calling others to back your ideas and arguments, what matters the most is not date of publication, but authority and relevance. We are still looking for someone that can say something more relevant on literature than Aristotle (n.d). As I said before, there is no easy answer to the question of how old a source can be as we need to consider the discipline in question and the topic addressed in the paper. Having said that, a rule of thumb is ‘use more recent articles for empirical studies and examples of applied theory and seminal papers for theoretical principles and key ideas in the field, no matter when they were written’. A good paper would have a proper balance between both as there should be space in your writing for both the old gods and the new.

With a new cohort of students starting in the first week of October I have decided to revisit some of the books I believe are works we still have to turn to if we are looking for influential and inspiring ideas in the field of literary studies. I am calling this the ‘Seminal Papers Series’ and I will be posting on them on My Literature Blog from time to time. I hope my students read them…

• Aristotle, n.d. Poetics. 1996 ed. London: Penguin.
• Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
• Bourdieu, P., 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Translated by J.C. Passeron. London: SAGE.
• Bruner, J., 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Eagleton, T., 2005. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
• Lima, C., 2013. Accounts from an Online Reading Group for English Language Teachers Worldwide. PhD. Open University.
• Parrinder, P., 2008. Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Vygotsky, L.S., 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Watt, I.P., 1987. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Hogarth Press.