Let us, for a moment, take a journey into a hellish dystopia.*
Imagine, if you will, a world in which every university student is expected to spend daylight hours—every last hour the sun is visible in the sky—banging their head against a hard surface. It’s been that way for hundreds of years; nobody can imagine things being any different. Any student who speaks up against it is welcome— after all—to abandon their education.
Other university students, particularly tutors and lecturers, are expected to enforce these standards on each other, by administering savage beatings to any malingerers caught not banging their heads hard enough. Nobody dares to stop, nor to speak up, fearing their lecturers’ eagle eyes. Each unfortunate young scholar has the same secret thought: “if enough of us could just stop at once…”
In the schools, the young are made to start banging their heads, from dawn ’til dusk— taught that their place in respectable society—if they ever aspire to the life of a graduate—depends on their building strong neck muscles and tough forehead calluses. Their teachers brutalise them savagely for noncompliance; beatings become harsher as they grow older.
Once those kids grow up and become teachers themselves, at school or at university, they feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment at just how effectively and thoroughly they are able to bang their heads against the wall, so that they themselves become the most strident defenders of the whole sordid order.
Let’s say that you, dear reader, despite being an acclaimed young headbanger, always found the whole process deeply suspect. Meeting a professor to discuss your recent progress in headbanging, you, rubbing your painful, grazed forehead, dare to ask: “Why don’t we all just stop? It doesn’t serve any purpose!”
The professor, somehow unable to extend their honed sense of scholarly skepticism to this strange practice, replies, “You just have to do it—all academics have to do it, you won’t be accepted as an academic unless you learn how to do it really well”. Referencing. Reference lists. Bibliographies. Endnotes. Footnotes. Style Guides.
All such style guides for referencing should be replaced by a single, overarching instruction: “write, (clearly and unambiguously), enough information about your source that it can be easily located, and that its reliability and credibility can be assessed”. Problem solved. Any diligent and conscientious student will rise to the occasion, and if they don’t, then they can just lose marks for bad referencing, the same way people lose marks today for putting commas in the wrong place.
If a ‘correct’ reference is in fact so abbreviated that changing a single piece of punctuation could make it indecipherable, then the ‘correct’ style probably isn’t the most clear and unambiguous way of conveying the information.
What is the point exactly of the whole sick hazing ritual for new academics? What is the point of fishing for hours through a truly horrid, squat, beige little book in order to find the precise and correct reference format for a ‘highly-upvoted comment made on RapGenius by a highreputation user, critiquing the lyrics of a rap song released only on YouTube by an anonymous rapper’.
Still, we need to graduate, don’t we.
Thump thump thump thump thump thump thump.
*With apologies to blogger Scott S Alexander for my terrible misappropriation and retooling of his fantastic explanation (in his article “Meditations on Moloch”) of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea of a ‘dictatorless dictatorship’. Ah, sorry, we have to graduate. (”Bostrom, N”;; –>> Alexander, S:S:, “Meditations on Moloch”, Hypertext Transfer Protocol Document, The World’s Wire netWeb, aitch-tee-tee-pee-colon-double-forward-slash