Confessions of a Reference Writer

Originally published in Journal of General Education. Volume: 44. Issue: 3. year: 1995. [a professional musing]

“Look it up,” I used to tell my children when they pestered me with questions while working on their school assignments. I was flattered that they thought I knew everything, edgy at having to let them down. Even when I knew the answer, I didn’t want to be accused of doing their homework for them. “Look it up.” I didn’t think much, then, about our mutual reliance on reference books and our blind faith in their authority. Dictionaries and encyclopedias, general and specialized, have an aura of sanctity. Most of us use them uncritically. We “look it up” and build our understanding or misunderstanding upon what we find.

However, as a college professor, editor, literary critic, and reviewer, my own attitude toward reference writing had for a long while been complicated by the prejudices of my profession. Tenure was not likely to be granted for a series of contributions to reference books. Reference writing, almost always work-for-hire and sometimes published anonymously (perhaps true authority has no name), has had far lower status than publication in refereed journals. Colleagues who wrote for reference publishers were frequently viewed as second-raters, and sometimes they were. In some institutions and departments, reference writing figured negatively on the promotion scorecard. Did telling my children, or my students, to “look it up” doom them to the formulations of inferior minds, academic losers on (or off) the margins of respectability?

How often had I said, when assigning a research paper: “No references to encyclopedia articles; just use them for background reading.” What did this warning convey?

Over the past dozen years, I have spent a good and growing part of my writing time as a reference writer. My flipping through shoe boxes full of accumulated index cards has given way to the electronic pleasures of free-form data base manipulation. One of my motives in doing reference writing has been to keep myself engaged in writing: to do assignments that are not terribly different from those I demand of my students— assignments with word-count parameters and due dates. Another, more important, motive has been to provide reliable, clear information and expert opinion on the topics I’m assigned. I enjoy feeling that the trust a student (or, less frequently, a colleague) will place in my contribution is merited. Among the many roles I play as a writer and teacher, the business of being an authority is as satisfying as any. I flatter myself to think that since reference articles will be taken as authoritative, it’s a good thing that I’ve done this one because I really know my stuff. “Look it up” and you might be reading Jason.

And yet that Grub Street shadow lingers. I’m reminded of a former colleague’s label: “literary journalism,” he smirked. He didn’t have to say “mere”; it was in his voice. How many of these articles should I list on my vita? I don’t want to have “mere” reference articles overwhelm and obscure my more respectable professional publications. Or do I?

The fact is, I’ve come to value many of these reference efforts as highly as my contributions to so-called learned journals. What I’ve put into them in the way of research, imagination, shaping, audience anticipation, and craft is equal to the effort with which I’ve won the assent of journal referees. Indeed, in pleasing the latter I’ve often had to make revisions that have paralleled the format restrictions of work-for-hire. Instead of following guidelines that insist on a 250-word section headed “Themes and Meanings,” I’ve had to download some pretty paragraphs that place my argument within the context of recent gender criticism.

I’ve found a high degree of professionalism, though of a different kind, in my encounters with the editorial personnel on the reference volumes. In my work for Salem Press (publisher of Magill’s Critical Survey or Annual of this, that, and the other thing), my editors and project directors have been just as helpful, just as careful, less expert, less competitive, more courteous, and more punctual than their counterparts on learned journals that I won’t name. Better yet, my reference editors have spoken with a single voice, and they have never asked me to revise so as to satisfy contradictory objections.

One distinction often made between the two kinds of writing is that journal criticism brings news: a new argument, a new insight, a new array of evidence. Yet I have found plenty of room for offering fresh perspectives in my reference essays. Indeed, I often write on contemporary authors for whom there is no body of received opinion that claims my attention. In these assignments, I am doing original work. I’m on the cutting edge; I am the authority by default.

Another distinction, an important one, is that of audience. When I write for Critique or College English or Mosaic or (gulp) PMLA, I write for my peers—other experts in the same field or, at least, other well-trained literary professionals. The audience for my reference writing is a more general audience, one less professionally committed, less educated, less sophisticated. That is, I write primarily for college students. However, since my whole professional life is centered on working with college students, I find reference writing to be fully compatible with my teaching-related tasks. At worst, I’m still teaching with the advantage that those who show up are really interested in what I have to say. Indeed, they are relying on me in ways that my classroom students do not.

I’m not sure which audience is harder to reach, or in which kind of writing my service to disciplinary learning is greater. I’m not sure I want someone else to tell me.

More recently, my reference writing has included book-length projects. These also have a marginal status—sort of like textbooks (another field in which I’ve dabbled). The status issue annoys me more and more. I think the reason that refereed journal publications and university press monographs (with their inevitable and often unproductive “outside reader” mechanisms) rank above textbooks and reference books is the same reason that teaching graduate students ranks above teaching undergraduates: reaching a small number of pre-committed disciples or readers is (paradoxically) of greater value than reaching large numbers of uncommitted novices. That we need such an hierarchical ordering may be a greater problem than the hierarchy itself. But we do need authorities.

Just as there are mediocre (and tedious) journal articles and horrid scholarly monographs, there are shoddy reference works. As a practitioner, I have learned that reference writing is not always reliable and that authority needs to be questioned. Could that be why the big taboo in reference writing is referencing other reference works? Probably not. A short while ago, I explored a reference volume on a subject with which I’m familiar and found it riddled with errors. The writer’s annotations were often vague, misleading, or just plain wrong. The emperor wore rags. Students as well as scholars new to the field do not have my advantage. This book had been praised in the review media by people who knew far less about the subject than the author. They admired its scope, its heft, and did not test for accuracy. This handsome-looking, ambitious tome had found its way onto the reference room shelves long before subject experts in the field were able to raise, in print, questions about its reliability. I began to wonder how often my students, my colleagues, and I had been victims of such authoritative bungling, which is not just the preserve of ministers of state or provosts.

What is needed is less urgency to discriminate among the categories of endeavor and greater alertness to the quality (and utility) of the work. I’d like to see the day come when professors tell their classes something like this: “The best overview of [our topic for next week] is the article by [you or me] found in [the reference volume or hypertext program we made that hundred bucks writing for]. Look it up.”

For better or for worse, we must depend on authority to get on with our business. We can’t question every law or proclamation, and we can’t test every proffered fact. Taxes will be paid, grades will be given, and Webster’s will be invoked. Which one of us is going to check up on Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to see if that passage from Henry James’s letter to Charles Eliot Norton is accurately transcribed? Which one of us is going to challenge the latest Britannica entry on King Alexander of Yugoslavia? Reference writing helps to build, however piecemeal, the cultural literacy so important to communication and community. How much caution should be in my voice when I ask students to look it up?

My job as an educator requires a stance balanced between the authority role that I savor—one that is more or less expected of me—and that of exemplary explorer and assayer. Students need to learn just what kind of authority their reference sources carry and where that authority comes from. They need to become aware of my limits, too. But they also need to move along through the series of tasks by which they educate themselves, depending on authorities to offer foundation facts and useful perspectives. However good a teacher experience is, she is a luxury of time we can’t afford; in fact, she is an eternity we do not have.

Where I teach, authority wears an admiral’s insignia. The gold braiding that his uniform carries is like the gold lettering that is stamped onto the cover of a book. We rise to our feet when our boss enters the auditorium. My students come to attention when I enter the classroom. Our gestures of, respect assume that the person in the position of authority has already been tested and found worthy. It’s easy, sometimes even pleasant, to succumb to the power of authority and to let the one who bears responsibility have sway over us. Though human frailty is everywhere, we choose to pretend otherwise. We welcome the official word, the directive, the definition. We wait for authorities to tell us what something means and why it is important. This is how we fit into our world. This is why our romance with rebellion is short-lived.

In the academic publication game, I see signs of a leveling process. While the efforts of dissertation-bored graduate students and frantic assistant professors dominated the pages of early volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (for instance), contributors to new volumes and updates tend more often to be established scholars. Also, I’m spotting the: work of younger scholars—even those working at undergraduate institutions—more regularly in the prestige journals. I don’t know what’s bringing about this transition, or how thoroughgoing or anarchical it is, but I grin as I think about it. I salute it.

United States Naval Academy, Annapolis

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