Thursday, July 31, 2003

How Not to Write an Article

I offer this little piece as a reminder for myself as well as a hint for other scholars.
Background: A student of mine works for the department secretary here at Wheaton. This is one of those jobs that alternates between total boredom and manic overwork: for days at a time no faculty are in the office except for me, and then all of a sudden everyone shows up with forty piles of work that all need to be done immediately. To try to keep the students who have this job from losing their minds, the department secretary asks me to come up with projects that can keep them both busy and interested. These projects have had a tendency to take on a life of their own. The Tolkien Bibliography began one summer when I asked a student (who was in high school at the time) to start ILL-ing Tolkien articles. This is now a gigantic project from hell that will never end.

So I decided to ask the current student to first collect a complete bibliography of scholarship by Albert S. Cook. I did a dissertation chapter on him that is past due to be turned into an article, but I want to nail down loose ends, etc. After the student finished that, she wanted more work (and is getting good at biblio), so I've asked her to gather all the articles ever written about the Ruin (a poem in the Exeter Book).

I hope L doesn't read this blog, because after she gathers all the Ruin articles, I'm not going to read them. And that's my connection to the title of this post. The worst thing you can do when starting an article is to go read all the bibliography. You will almost certainly fail to produce anything really original or interesting because you will be sucked into whatever the critical debates were in the articles that you read. To be original, you need to interact with the poem first on your own, then write down your ideas, then read the bibliography and work your argument into the critical conversation. This is not to say that there aren't some basic critical problems that are inherent in particular poems. For example, in the Seafarer you just can't get away from the argument about the number of speakers and (if there are two) where to divide them. But if you read all the arguments first your own inchoate ideas, which might be original, will be magnetically attracted to what has gone on before. Reading all the bibliography and not immersing yourself in the poems themselves is the biggest mistake graduate students make. I always know when someone has fallen into this trap when he or she begins a conference paper with four minutes of summary of scholarship.

So to avoid this fate I'm doing my translation of the Ruin, working as closely with the manuscript as possible, before I read any criticism. Should be fun.

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