03 July 2008

You so rarely get to use "pheromones" in reference to footnotes.

A while back along, I wrote briefly and inconclusively on my use of referencing in blogs.

I'm brought back to the subject by the fact that I am, at the moment, reading and marking a lot of professional development papers written by colleagues. The authors of these papers are always supremely competent in their fields. Many of them outclass me completely in every way, some of them are by any conceivable measure brilliant. They are all experienced in academic discourse, thoroughly used to reading densely referenced material, exacting and precise in their work ... and yet, without exception, they have trouble with referencing their own papers to a required system. I find myself wondering why this is.

In a the relaxed informality of a blog environment such as this one, I have the luxury of being sloppy and inconsistent in my referencing habits. I think that I am, within any one post, internally consistent. In some cases, for example, a post may contain superscript indices in the main body with corresponding numbered footnote references in order of mention. Other times, my references are bulleted in alphabet order of author surname. But I don't mix the two methods in the same post ... though it's true that in some cases (especially when referencing blog posts or web pages) I will, as in the first sentence of this post, simply hyperlink directly to the source material and ignore my chosen system altogether.

In more formal contexts, I stick to whatever system is required. Such systems are many and various, and I like some better than others, but they are always rigorously and straightforwardly logical. Following any one of them is, as their designers intended, trivially simple. There is little to learn, and no scope for confusion; yet errors abound in usage by better people than me. Why?

I think one reason is that the human mind naturally rebels against absolutely logical systems of any kind. Few people, relatively speaking, are truly happy with mathematical or musical or chess. Few subjects attract so many students or, once its nature becomes clear, loses them as fast, as philosophy.

Many are perfectly numerate and a somewhat smaller number enjoy number; but are frightened off by a fairly simple algebraic expression which they would happily deal with if spoken in English. Look at this one, for example:

m – n p = c

Did you look at that, or skip over it? If you skipped over it, you are in good company – so do more that 98% of readers, according to a trial which I ran with eye movement tracking equipment. On the other hand, if I say (or write): "multiply the price of an item by the number of items you are buying, then take the answer away from the money you have with you to find out how much change you should receive", the skipover rate drops to sixty per cent.

If I ask the question "ten cans of tomatoes at 39p a can; how much change do you expect from five pounds?", almost everyone answers within a second or so – and must, therefore, have almost instantly done the calculation summarised by the snippet of algebraic shorthand above. What people are rejecting, then, is not the knowledge but its symbolic codification.

Referencing is similar. A lot of people enjoy playing chess, or playing music, or singing, but instinctively steer clear of the written notations; a lot of people write clear and informative prose, reject the idea of plagiarism, accept the need for attribution, but something in their mind sidesteps the actual referencing process.

In general, however logical and painstaking we may be about specifics which move us, we naturally tend to preference for fuzzy and chaotic systems over precisely defined ones. We prefer the loose significations of language, complete with slippage of meaning and ellipses of uncertainty, to exactly specified symbols without ambiguity.

I quite enjoy referencing, in the same way that other people enjoy doing crosswords or sudoku. This makes me unusual, peculiar ... a bit of a nerd. To like such systems there must be something of the nerd about you. Indeed, Julie Heyward commented (in light hearted teasing vein – I think!):

"Footnotes ... with superscript ... ??!! [Footnotes are like pheromones for nerds -- in a purely intellectual senses, of course.]"[1]

She has a point ... She later added the observation which I have used as my post title – and which is also very true. And, yes, my carefully correct referencing of the quotation is tongue in cheek, with duly conscious self directed irony.

"Nerd", by the way, is defined by the OED[2] as:

"An insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious. Now also: spec. a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication."

The first listed usage is from Newsweek in October of 1951, half a year before I was born – clearly coined in anticipation of my arrival, and further evidence (see Rats, hats and oranges), that I was always destined to be exactly what I am today...

  1. Julie Heyward, Unpublished private email. 16 June 2008, 07:58Z.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary. 1989, Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-861186-8 (also online, 2008, Oxford: OUP. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00323201)

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