Hack the field: Anthologies and Textbooks

This is a post about how to use anthologies and textbooks to jump into a new field, or make better sense of one you’re in.

I had my bi-weekly meeting with one of my PhD supervisees, Phil, yesterday. He had a question about reading for his area exams, to wit: read the anthologies first or last? and how?

My answer: textbooks and anthologies are incredibly useful orientation materials, that can get you from zero to expert awfully fast, and you should read them first. These materials are very useful when you are a grad student moving from taking courses to settling into field. They are also very useful when you are an instructor being assigned courses that are not in that one field you’re an expert in (which is to say, every instructor, ever). They are also very useful to more seasoned researchers, who are bracing out into new fields.

Here’s the analogy I worked on yesterday. My house is currently being renovated and we’re living in the house of sabbaticant friends. So it’s a moving metaphor.

Your scholarly understanding of a given field (say, in this case, new media studies) is a new house that you’re moving into. But you’re moving in sight unseen: you’re standing in the front hall, and while you can see some stairs, and maybe a closet, you kind of don’t know much else. The materials of the field–the prior research, the theories, the methods–are packed boxes sitting outside in a big truck whose size is obscured: it’s backed up right to the door and all you can see is the ramp to drag the boxes out from.

This is where you start from: a lot of unknowns, and a lot of mess. This is pretty overwhelming, but you chose to move here, so you’re at least motivated.

It gets worse. You start dragging boxes out of the car / van / truck and into the entryway. They’re not labelled, so you start opening them randomly: kitchen stuff, more kitchen stuff, yet more kitchen stuff, a box of underwear, and one box that has Christmas decorations and tax receipts from 1995. And a garbage back of ripped pants. You have to start guessing: are all the boxes going to have this same type / ratio of stuff? Where should I put it all? The kitchen stuff should go in the kitchen, but whose underwear is this, and where should it go? Are the Christmas decorations and tax receipts meant to stay together, or was this the Box of Leftover Stuff? Are those pants actually garbage? Or are they moving clothes?

This is where we all get when we start reading in a new field / prepping a course in a new area: we collect a bunch of resources but have trouble making sense of how they fit together and how they’re meant to be used. The boxes are monographs and scholarly articles: so many complete statements that we imagine somehow relate to each other but we’re not sure how. We just keep on reading in a straight line and hope we figure it out before entryway fills up with torn open boxes. This is completely overwhelming, and where many of us get stuck and open the case of beer (moving) or the case of red wine (studying / prepping). You just keep opening boxes with no sense of scale or purpose and you have nowhere to put them once they’re open.

Here’s the thing: anthologies and textbooks are like the blueprints to the house, or the packing list for the moving truck–they are maps and systems of organization that allow you to get a sense of the whole before you even really know much about the individual parts.

When you don’t know how to get where you’re going, you get a map. When you want to know if the queen-sized bed will fit in your new bedroom, you look at the real estate spec sheet. When you want to know about how science fiction studies works, get an anthology, or a textbook.

I’ve just pulled the Companion to Science Fiction (Steed, ed.) off my shelf. It’s from a big academic publisher (Blackwell) that puts out very well regarded field-spanning anthologies. So it’s trustworthy. It’s got five parts: one a survey of the field, one on topics and debates, one on genres and movements, one on international (non-US, it looks like) science fiction, one on key writers, one with interpretive essays dealing with key science fiction texts. Just browsing the table of contents, I can get a pretty good idea of how the field organizes itself. Better, the essays are written by a huge number of prominent scholars, so I’ll know who to look for in my further research. The eight page introduction chapter summarizes the book and the field at a breathtaking pace and at a high altitude.

The idea is that by browsing these summary or collection texts at the start of your research projects, you can begin the process of integration of new material a lot more smoothly: once I open three more kitchen boxes, I can expect that eventually I’ll find some boxes of clothes, and some books, and bathroom things–it’s probably not going to be all Christmas decorations and tax receipts. I might even learn that tax receipts can be thrown out after seven years and just discard those out of hand. I’ll know there’s three bedrooms in the house, and to be thus on the lookout for three mattresses as I unpack.

I’m really pushing all my students to glean what they can from the pretext, from my first years to my senior grad students: what can you learn from the TOC, from the author’s affiliations, from the issuing press, etc. All this information helps make the real content more graspable and more easily categorized and made useful.

So now I’m sharing that with you. This needs some refining, but I wanted to share it while it was still fresh.