The humble footnote, seemingly the province of scholars, plays an important role beyond the world of scholarly expertise. Scholarship, no matter the discipline, is about the productive and persuasive relationship of evidence to argument. Whereas opinion requires thought (more or less), scholarship requires evidence. A scholar accumulates evidence, in a lab or in an archive or through another method, and presents a conclusion based on same. The reader is offered both evidence and argument in order to assess how well the first supports the second. For a specialist reader the evidence is more easily assessed, but for the non-specialist the footnote is a signal that the evidence could be sourced to its roots in that lab, archive, or dataset. Could you put nonsense in a footnote? Sure. But the footnote at least gestures to the obligation of providing evidence for assertions and conclusions.
How can this be as consequential as my title suggests?
Early in the American experiment political leaders recognized that, unlike monarchy, republics require an educated citizenry. Alan Taylor, Pulitzer prize winner (twice!) and Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, wrote in September about why the significance of the founding generation’s commitment to education remains relevant. As Taylor noted, Jefferson himself argued that “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.” Plans for expanding educational opportunities and institutions ran afoul of a largely uneducated populace unwilling to make the required investments. But by fits and starts, and with the greatest boost coming in the twentieth century, American education grew; the United States can now boast of the largest percentage of college graduates in the world.
Yet media analyses are now also full of angst about the information ocean through which consumers must swim and remorse about the resulting “post-fact world.” Farhad Majoo argued most explicitly that “the internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth.” Author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (2008), Majoo observes eight years on an ever-accelerating trend toward disinformation and conspiracy-mindedness. The convergence of confirmation bias and a proliferating punditry (in place of reporting) has left readers, watchers, and internet searchers with fewer opportunities for critically consuming information in the fashion we have long fantasized that an engaged citizenry would do.
I have concerns about Open Access (OA), and OA business models as potentially undermining the very scholarship we seek to share more widely. But I absolutely share the conviction that scholarship is too important not to be shared as widely as possible. It may be more critical, though, to share the process of scholarly production. No matter the discipline, we need to be as open and as articulate about what makes for good scholarship as we are about the specific scholarly problems with which we’re engaged.
Thus, the footnote. I am an unabashed lover of footnotes. I happily read them in tandem with text in the main body of a book or article. When done well, notes and text speak together, evidence and argument united in the work of knowledge creation in a way neither could effect on their own. Notes do different kinds of work — some are citations of sources for the argument or assertion in the text, some of references to secondary literature in support of a claim, some are citations to secondary sources that make similar or dissimilar claims. And discursive notes might frame a problem in terms of the developing literature or gesture at a methodological issue or briefly elaborate a point made in the text.
It’s not easy to find footnotes to love anymore. As a historian I’m diehard Chicago Manual of Style; other disciplines have different referencing conventions and it’s important to read across disciplines. Although many journals, whatever the discipline, still use footnotes, most history books – at least on my shelves and desk — now have endnotes. The argument is that publishers prefer endnotes because of the modest cost-savings (in typesetting, even with newer technology, also in paper because endnotes save pages), but also because of the notion that the elusive general reader may be put off by the explicitly scholarly scaffolding implied by footnotes.
The cost issue has to be respected, or at least accounted for, but the notion that general readers can not or will not engage with notes makes too neat a distinction between scholarly readers and general readers (neither of whom we really have enough information about). Some scholars prefer a narrative unencumbered by notes, or simply the aesthetics of the uncluttered page. Some general readers who like to see the sources may find flipping back and forth a hassle. Let’s not even think about the separate online go-look-for-it-if-you-really-care notes. Although perhaps we ought to be thinking a lot more carefully about the e-book platforms that so cruelly separate chapters and from notes, making navigation to an endnote at best a challenge. Scholarly readers and the engaged public alike can appreciate not only the source of a scholarly argument, but the process of the argument’s evolution. This capacity for appreciation is not a generalizable skill in the way that humanists are now discussing teaching critical thinking skills; it is a practice. It is a practice that is useful, interesting, and important. It is the difference between strong science and defunding scientific inquiry. It is the difference between debating good governance and crass politicization.
Eminent historian of books and reading Anthony Grafton’s appropriately quirky The Footnote* A Curious History recounts the complex ways that reference styles developed and redeveloped over centuries, through intellectual fashions and typographical technologies. Modern inheritors of citation practices of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, themselves the product of previous centuries of tradition and innovation, emphasized the importance of both craft and technique. For historians the footnote tells “the double story of the historical past and the historian’s research.” (67) Grafton’s tour concludes with the observation that reference systems are all fallible, but that the form itself is important. “Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted.” (233)
Scholarship matters. It matters not only for the content, but for the process. We need to embrace that process, articulate that process, engage the public in that process. For me, it starts with footnotes.