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ENGL 395: Latin@Bodies on the (Poetry) Line [session 2]

As I mentioned earlier, this past term an English professor and I repeated an experiment that I’d conducted with American Studies juniors last year, wherein we integrated information literacy concepts into several key points in their seminar. By the end of the term, I met with this seminar 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:

  1. Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations
  2. Bibliography as an intellectual product (Your are here)
  3. The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation
  4. Creativity in Constraint

Session 2: Bibliography as an Intellectual Product

This session lasted about 15 or 20 minutes. I arrived at the beginning of the class, and participated in a discussion about readings they (and I) had done, and then transitioned into a brief discussion about bibliographies. After this session, students would be preparing an annotated bibliography as one of the initial stages working up to their final paper.

We started by looking at the bibliography in one of their readings, pulling out examples of entries there that illustrated the building blocks on which the author had built the article. Some entries gave us background information, some gave us a theoretical grounding, some pointed us to other scholars who were part of the same critical conversation about the topic.*

From there, we expanded on our notion of what bibliographies do. They are not lists, and they’re not incidental. They’re also not busy-work. Rather, they’re just as much an intellectual and rhetorical product of the author as is the prose of the argument. They map out the boundaries and the interlocutors that are part of a given scholarly conversation. They provide citations for key theoretical works that undergrads have trouble finding on their own (or knowing which will be useful for their projects). For undergrads especially, they also point toward important works that are part of the conversation but that would never come up in the search process because their titles and descriptions don’t share vocabulary (and since search is just about term matching, branching out into new vocabulary is incredibly important, particularly in the humanities where the jargon isn’t as stable or codified as it is in the sciences). “These scholars know each other,” I point out to the students. “They’ve heard each other at conferences, gone to graduate school together, talked with each other over email and Facebook… As they’re conceiving of their articles, they have all these other people’s work in their heads, so they know to cite so-and-so’s work even though there’s no shared vocabulary. Or else they know that so-and-so talks about the topic using this other vocabulary, so they can search on that vocabulary. Or else they know that so-and-so’s work on a completely different topic is relevant to their own work on this topic and can show you those connections and open up a whole new scholarly conversation to you.” This has usually never occurred undergrads. I encourage students to look at bibliographies as they would look at conversational clumps at a party — seeing who is talking to whom, then seeing what they’re saying and how they interact with each other, then joining a conversation and adding to it while referring back to the people whose points you’re expanding on or countering.

To tap into my own geekiness and the readiness of many Carleton students to revel in an honest-to-goodness intellectual geek out moment, I then pointed out that citation styles themselves, far from being arbitrary and complex hoop courses invented to make student’s hoop-jumping lives difficult, in fact reveal the epistemologies of the disciplines they serve. The styles are jargon, meant to communicate complex ideas in predictable, short, human-readable (everyone laughs) bursts of information. APA, for example, privileges dates and really only needs a primary investigator’s last name. This, speaking in generalities, reveals much about the way that science research is conducted (often a lab run by one or two stable scientists and several more temporary post-docs and research assistants, often working on sequential stages of a complex research question, publishing as they go). Providing last name and date lets readers know very quickly which major research question, and at what point along the timeline of an epistemology in which new research either test or build upon older research. MLA, on the other hand, works well for disciplines that are primarily discursive and subjective rather than sequential and objective.  It privileges peoples names and their words, and leaves dates for later primarily for people who need to know precisely what edition you were using or orient themselves in the much less granular timeline of developments in critical theory.

So, with all this in mind, the professor and I encouraged the students to see their annotated bibliographies as their chance to map out the boundaries of the conversation they’d be entering, selecting key works for theoretical foundations, background information, and the main voices in the conversation their papers will be adding to. The annotations should point out why and how each source functions in the context of their papers. And all of this will help them and their professor see the major landmarks on the emerging landscape of their topic.

* Incidentally, John Bean talks about the four kinds of sources found in bibligraphies in his book Engaging Ideas, adapting Bizup’s ideas published in Rhetoric Review in 2008. I didn’t explicitly build my work off of this at the time, but in the future I’ll work Bizup’s BEAM concept more firmly into my instruction.

Bean, John. 2011. Engaging Ideas. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp 236-241.

Bizup, Joseph. 2008. “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.” Rhetoric Review 27 (1) (January 4): 72-86.

Published inIn My ClassroomTeaching and Learning


  1. Eric Eric

    Bruno Latour is the first person I know of who wrote about the rhetorical function of bibliographies back in his book Laboratory Life (1979). And he was talking about science, not poetry!

  2. Thanks, Eric! I’ll definitely take a look at that.

  3. Melody Melody

    Excellent post! Thanks for writing so elegantly on ideas that have been vague or hard to express to me. And for bringing these other writers to my attention!

  4. When the staff at my college’s writing center clued me in to Joseph Bizup’s system of categorizing sources by the way you want to use them in writing, my mind was blown (see my 2010 post). For all the talk among IL librarians about the need to move beyond simple tool-based instruction (what tools, search techniques, etc.) and instead spend more time on evaluation of sources, I’d like to add my recommendation that we spend more time talking to students about why they even need to use sources in their writing and what functions they perform in writing (both that of the students and in the sources that students are using). Having an awareness of the kinds of sources you need for your paper (background, evidence, argument, method) is going to figure into how you search and how you evaluate what you are finding. So now when I do one-shots, I find myself giving a brief overview of the BEAM model. Then when you have the students actually doing some hands-on searching in the class, you can ask them identify how they might use some of the sources they are finding.

  5. Stephen, that was one of the most interesting things I learned from our ongoing Information Literacy in Student Writing study: students don’t know WHY they’re using sources. Once that sunk in, my classes changed dramatically. I’m not sure all the faculty are on board with my more meta-style of teaching now (quite a few still expect “and now you click on…” teaching when they think of libraries and this is very much not that), but when they express skepticism now I can point to 4 years of assessment data that all points to the need for this very fundamental kind of work. Students can always come get help with pointing and clicking, but that won’t make their academic work better. Knowing why academics call on sources — THAT will make their academic work better.

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