Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Inclusive Citation: How Diverse Are Your References? 

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(originally published on chronicle.com Prof Hacker blog, which has been taken down, and republishing now because someone was looking for it on Twitter).

Look at the reference list for your latest few articles or presentations. How many of the people you are citing are people like you, how many people different from you? How many are dominant (white, male, straight, you name it) and how many are marginal in some way? If you’re active there, look at your recent Twitter interactions, how diverse are those? Now look at your blogroll, the authors you follow regularly (if you don’t read blogs). How diverse are they? Why does this matter? 

A couple of people recently told me that I had influenced their thinking on the concept of “inclusive citation”, and I thought it might be helpful to write a post about this and offer some approaches to becoming more inclusive in citation. Apparently I made up this term, but the practice has existed before – I just can’t trace it to an exact term that others would recognize. I’ll start with sharing my experiences with how I have gone about making inclusive citation my lifestyle, and then I’ll share a backstory of how it has benefited me in my career as an academic, and my perspective in life. 

First step is to check how you’re currently doing on the questions I started with. If you’re finding yourself either mostly following people like yourself (even if you’re marginal) or mostly dominant people, then recognize that this might be a problem, that you might be missing some important and different perspectives. Ask yourself, are there people working in this field who are women or people of color or non-Anglo? How many can you think of? If they write or speak less frequently than their white male counterparts, consider the difference in privilege that may have led to that difference (e.g. Are they in more precarious positions that don’t allow them time to do research, are they women with children who can’t travel for speaking engagements?). If so, consider reading their blogs or tweets if they don’t have many peer-reviewed publications – remember that peer review itself is a gatekeeper and space of social reproduction. 

Here are some other things I have done to help me do better

  1. Start somewhere. Even if I can only think of one woman or one scholar of color or minority (of any kind), I would start following their work. Chances are, they’re citing other minorities (no guarantees, though). For example, I learned about the wonderful Ruha Benjamin from Rafranz Davis’ blog. I met many of my South African friends through each other. 
  2. Prioritize. If in my morning I find four possible articles I want to read, I’ll start with the ones written by minorities. Every. Single. Time. This doesn’t mean I don’t read anything by anyone dominant. I do. But I have a healthy dose of non-dominant reading and perspectives
  3. After doing this for a while, challenge yourself in two phases. First phase, try to name 10 scholars in your field who aren’t white men. Keep trying this until you can do it in under 5 minutes. Once you can, try this other exercise. Name the top 10 scholars in your field in general. Check how many of them are women or minorities. When you reach a point where you can name a top 10 in your field that is relatively diverse (relative to your field), you will find that you no longer need to make conscious choices to cite minorities. It will come naturally to you. If diversity just isn’t the way your field is… Then there might be something wrong with power structures in your field and the problem is bigger than yourself. I’ve written before that the problem is in “field of vision” and we need to check if the problem is in our own vision or the narrowness of the field itself.
  4. If you teach, check your syllabus. How diverse is your reading list? How is the diversity of your reading list compared to the diversity of your student body? Will a student taking your class find someone like them in the reading list, and imagine themselves as scholars of this field one day? Someone recently reminded me of an activity I used to do a while ago. I used to ask my students to go and find articles about educational game design written by Arab or Egyptian people. I wanted my almost entirely Egyptian group of students to know that educational gaming was not an imported, foreign concept, but something we had locally. 

I was first exposed to this idea of seeking non-dominant references when I was doing my upgrade viva (in the UK, a small defense of the first few chapters of your PhD where you get formative feedback before you can proceed with your research). One of my examiners (white, female) pointed out that I was expressing postcolonial perspectives and tendencies and writing about critical pedagogy, but using mostly Western references. I still remember the day I asked my supervisor if Henry Giroux was white. And then I remember how suddenly, critical pedagogy, which had mystified me for months, suddenly made sense when I read Elizabeth Ellsworth’s feminist poststructuralist perspectives on critical pedagogy (recommended to me during that upgrade viva). And then I read Gore, then Lugones and Spellman. And bell hooks. They took critical pedagogy from idealistic theory down to complex, messy, intersectional practice – that I could apply in my own teaching and fail and learn from. I also remember how my perspective on critical thinking changed when I read feminist perspectives such as those from Women’s Ways of Knowing and the work of Thayer-Bacon, who offer an approach to critical thinking that is more harmonious and empathetic and less antagonistic than the typical North American conception of it, focusing on connection and constructive knowing, rather than debate and skepticism (those ideas are also shared by Edward Said, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Elbow holds both together). 

I remember how reading postcolonial scholarship helped me better understand my world in a way that made sense to me, when theories and frameworks coming from Western perspectives had previously seemed OK, but something had seemed off, forced somehow. 

In my current work on open education, I find very different and valuable perspectives coming from people with different contexts, some of which resonate completely, some of which I learn from if I stay with them long enough. Sometimes we take a perspective and adapt it for our own purposes, even though it was developed in a different context. For example, when I read about Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, developed originally to resist racism in the US context, I found opportunities to adapt it to postcolonial contexts… And later saw similar ideas in the UK SOAS students’ “why is my curriculum so white?” movement and South African decolonizing curriculum movement. 

If your citations aren’t diverse and inclusive enough, chances are, you’re missing some valuable perspectives. Chances are, you’ll learn something new and it will resonate with you. And eventually, it will become habit, and you won’t have to count references any more because you will naturally already have a diverse list of authors whom you respect and read regularly. 

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Maha – it really struck a chord with me. In my recent work I have always tried to include the “grey” literature – partly because that’s where the current stuff is being reported on, but also because it includes those diverse voices who, for all the reasons you mention, might not get around to publishing their work in academic journals. While reading your post, the irony struck me that this literature is anything but grey…

    • Right? Glad this resonated, glad I republished it. I use lots of grey literature too for many reasons.

      Except for the one thing that this post proves. Grey literature can get lost! I thought having my post up on Prof Hacker was a more “permanent” place than on my own blog, and then they removed all the posts without prior notice!! I am unsure I have everything on a Google doc on my own drive!)

  2. Brilliant. Thank you! I found it are really accessable and thought provoking read. I might be a bit older than 12…

  3. Thank you SO much. Yours is by far the most accessible, yet still ultra-provoking, piece I’ve read!


  4. Very eye-opening, Maha, thanks, in line with cognitive justice principles.

  5. Of course! Thank goodness for Twitter for giving us these opportunities to connect!

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