‘Knowing the literature’ is a bit of a misnomer. It does not mean ‘know everything’. To someone who has never had to argue about and from a body of literature, it’s all too easy to assume you need to read ALL the references about anything to do with your field.
Big mistake. First of all, have you any idea how many people, in the world, from the invention of the peer-review process to now, had anything to say about what you are studying? No one does, but it’s a lot. A lot more than anyone could hope to read.
So on volume alone, ‘knowing the literature’ does not equate to ‘reading it all’.
Then there’s meaning. To understand what a paper is about, you have to not only read it in detail but also understand it, and how it relates to the other papers it mentions and however many since.
That’s a far cry from the ‘list these names, read the abstracts and refer to them to support your argument’ which probably got all of us by as undergraduates at least at some point.
And then, to the very core of it – relevance. What does this mean AND how does it relate to what you are trying to argue – which is new? Listing papers, no matter how brilliant or entertaining, will cost you more than wasted word count if, in fact, they don’t add anything to your argument. Getting from ‘drowning in a sea of authors’ to listing those authors’ work that justifies what YOU want to say is probably an early lesson any PhD student has to learn. It’s worth the effort.
Because, you will find, once you get that skill, and you will get it as you persist, you can find your way through the sea of authors and argue your case without having to plot every other course as well. Read the map, don’t try to travel all of it.
Have a good day, and stay safe.
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