As I mentioned earlier, last spring an English professor and I repeated an experiment that I’d conducted with American Studies juniors the year before, wherein we integrated information literacy concepts into several key points in their seminar. In each case, I met with the students 4 times, sometimes for as little as 10 or 15 minutes, and sometimes as long as the full class period. In every case, I worked with the students on concepts that were simultaneously part of an advanced information literacy “curriculum” of sorts as well as timed to help them accomplish an upcoming assignment.
Here’s the overview:
- Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations
- Bibliography as an intellectual product
- The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation (You Are Here)
- Creativity in Constraint
Session 3: The Literature Review
In talking about this session with the professor beforehand, she stressed that she wanted the students to “see their own authority” within the scholarly conversation. We were building on the theme of bibliographies being more than just lists and hoping to move the students toward thinking about the function of sources in scholarly work. Sources that function as background, evidence, arguments from other scholars writing on the same topic, and methodological/theoretical foundations.*
The previous week, the professor had asked students to bring in outside reading that complemented or augmented their understandings of the poetry they were reading that week, and she’d been pretty disappointed with the results. We had hoped to push students beyond finding things “on my topic” toward finding things that had intellectual and thematic resonance with their poetry, especially since there’s just not a whole lot of criticism out there that’s specifically about the poetry they were reading.
Based on that experience, she and I decided to ask them to try again and bring an article with them to class that was not about the assigned poetry, but that helped illuminate some key aspect of the poetry. She and I would guide them through mapping their supplemental readings to each other and to the poetry on the big blackboards in the classroom to help the students imagine how readings could be related when they weren’t about the same thing, and then we’d move from there to talking about the various levels on which the sources functioned and how they might function in a literature review.
Thematic Mapping (1 hour)
We started well enough, reading an article together that the professor had assigned for that day, talking through the article in fairly standard ways, and also talking through the kinds of sources the author invoked, and the functions that those sources played in her argument. Some sources were just barely related in topic, but contributed theoretical approaches that the author could apply, or arguments that applied by analogy. Other sources were clearly directly related to the poetry the author was writing about.
Then we transitioned to the exercise using the articles the students had found and brought to class.
Things were a little shaky at first. The students first seemed confused by and then resistant to the exercise of mapping their articles to one another. We asked them to write their article’s citation on the board and then list underneath it several key themes that it helped illuminate (things like “body,” “Other,” “self,” “national identity” etc, were some of the broad themes that the poetry dealt with, for example). Then we could start drawing connecting (literally) between the articles using these themes as connection points, even when the articles were about drastically different specific topics. All along, we tried to draw the students out a bit, getting them to talk through how other students’ articles augmented their readings of their own articles, and how the growing collection of sources they were creating all helped illuminate aspects of the poetry.
The push-back was fascinating. One student, after making skeptical noises for some time, finally articulated what she didn’t like about the process. She said, “It seems like we’re reducing these articles down to their least interesting, most simplistic components.” This, it seemed to her, was the opposite of what they should rightly be doing in a college class. It’s in many ways the opposite of everything English Lit majors are all about — unpacking, reading between the lines, finding the subtext. This was packing, skimming the lines, and hanging as many articles from the same category marker as we could.
Another student countered that no, this was something she really needed — some discussion of how to read on multiple levels at once, simultaneously unpacking and packing, as it were. And this started a conversation between all of us (including the professor and myself) about the multiple levels of reading that go into literary criticism, and particularly criticism that draws on other criticism or theory.
The Literature Review (half an hour)
The second part of the class was far more straight forward. We talked about how literature reviews look in other fields (often as a somewhat stand-alone thing) and how in the humanities, the epistemology is all based on a conversation paradigm, so literature reviews mirror this by integrating sources throughout the paper rather dealing with them primarily in one discrete section.
We talked about how the literature can function in a variety of ways (again riffing loosely off of Bizup’s BEAM model). It also performs a variety of services to the readers of the finished writing, allowing readers to use one text as a jumping-off point into related areas, lending credibility, and mapping out common ground between the writer and the reader (as if the writer is saying, “You know Foucault, and I know Foucault, so let me skip through all the summarizing and just point out why I think his work is important to what I’m saying, which will help you understand what I’m saying, and also signal that I’m not just pulling this idea from nowhere”).
* This is the BEAM model articulated in Bizup, Joseph. “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.” Rhetoric Review 27.1 (2008): 72-86.