Become an Expert in Less Than an Hour

As a professor of anthropology one frequently has to advise graduate students whose work is, in some key aspects, far removed from one’s own area of expertise. It makes sense that a graduate student interested in child labor in India would want to work with me. I’ve published on India and teach a course on economic anthropology, but that doesn’t mean I know very much about child labor issues in India. What I can do is steer that student in the right direction.

Multiply this by a number of related scenarios (e.g. book reviews, manuscript evaluations, discussing a conference paper, etc.) and you see why anthropologists frequently have to learn how to grok an entire subfield in under an hour. Yes, real expertise takes years of hard work, but identifying the key works and ideas that define a subfield can be done quickly if you know where to look. A good analogy might be the difference between having grown up in a city and knowing how to use a good travel guide with Google maps.

This post was written with my graduate students in mind, but hopefully even experienced researchers will find it useful. (I myself only recently learned of two of the listed sources for annotated bibliographies from Rex…)


Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues. A lot of academics seem eager to cultivate an image of omniscience, but I’m perfectly happy to dash an email off asking colleagues to recommend a few books. Even better, do it in public (email lists, Facebook, etc.) where people you might not have thought about asking can chime in.

Beyond Wikipedia

Wikipedia can be great, but when the topic at hand is requires a good introduction to the work of a specific thinker or school of thought, my first choice is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And when that doesn’t cut it, I look for a related book in one of the many series of short introductory books: Very Short Introductions and Introducing Books are two of my favorites.

Annotated Bibliographies and Syllabi

Of course, if someone’s already done your work for you, all the better.
Annual Reviews are your friend, but there are also other excellent sources of annotated bibliographies out there, like Oxford Bibliographies and Books for Understanding. A Google search with the word “annotated bibliography” and your topic can often turn up useful results as well.

One rarely finds syllabi on exactly the topic you are looking for, but frequently you will find syllabi that have modules or individual weeks on the topic. Finding syllabi online is easy, but a lot of people don’t know that you can narrow down your Google search results by typing “” at the end of your search result. Note that not every academic puts the word syllabus in their syllabus. Here’s a sample search for syllabi about child labor: “child labor anthropology|sociology syllabus|course outline|readings”


Once you find some key books via a syllabus search, you can narrow down the search results to only those syllabi which include that book. The above search turned up a book called The Anthropology of Childhood which then helped me find even more syllabi

Google scholar is especially useful for finding what the most cited references are on a given topic, but even better is doing a reverse lookup. If you already know a key citation, find it on google scholar and then click on “cited by” to find recent texts using that book or article. I often find interesting new work this way. Here is are 82 books that cite The Anthropology of Childhood.

Similarly, Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestions for The Anthropology of Childhood are useful as well. Google Books, GoodReader, Anobii (useful for books in East Asian languages), etc. all have similar recommendation services.

Finally, I increasingly find to be a valuable resource. Not only can you filter by keywords, but you can find a number of related keywords that might not have occurred to you. Here is the keyword search for “Child Labor”.

Did I leave something out? Let me know in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Become an Expert in Less Than an Hour

  1. Thanks. Taiwan is I wonder if anyone’s set up a custom search engine that searches across all global education domains?

  2. And for those who want to expand their ability to speak intelligently (or with apparent intelligence) on things about which they know little, I suggest the book “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” by Pierre Bayard. Anyone even minimally versed in structuralist ideas will take to this like a duck to water. I haven’t actually read this book, but….no just kidding – I have read it and liked it.

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