Crafting the Annotated Bibliography: A Storehouse for Reading and Composition Learning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez, South and Southeast Asian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018

The annotated bibliography is an important component of a research-based undergraduate course. But in most of my experience as a student and as a teacher, I found the exercise to complete it empty. Even after providing lessons for my students on how to scrutinize sources for credibility, most would submit bibliographies that evidently hinged on keyword searches. Moreover, students’ reviews of the literature would consist of summaries that were not thoughtfully building on their original thinking. For my students, the annotated bibliography was a throwaway exercise.

To remedy this problem, I decided to scaffold the assignment with my students. In my Reading & Composition (R&C) course, scaffolding toward the ideal annotated bibliography consisted of five components: 1) learning to assess the reputability of sources; 2) reading to identify the anatomy of academic writing; 3) practicing how to summarize academic arguments; 4) identifying “360-degree” sources; and 5) placing the sources in conversation with original thinking. I embedded these lessons in class meetings well before students were assigned their final papers. I also consistently emphasized that the annotated bibliography was one of the most significant outputs—a reflection of their ability to read, write, and think with precision and acuity.

To complete the first component, I provided students with a reading heuristic to help them tackle our assigned literature. Language, genre, intent, author biography, intellectual tradition, and historical context were some of the aspects to which I wanted my students to be keenly sensitive. For the second component, I spent sessions deconstructing the structure of social scientific and humanistic writing. For one class meeting, I brought at least a dozen monographs. I assigned one book to pairs of students and asked the pairs to concisely summarize the book— including its discipline, source material, and intellectual approach—without reading more than the book’s cover and bibliography. This exercise, among others, emphasized how to read for arguments and how to dissect academic writing, especially in the interest of time.

These lessons on reading led to workshops on summarizing. For example, I had my students craft “Thanksgiving responses”: at Thanksgiving dinner, when Uncle Earl asks, “What’s Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities about?,” how will you best summarize Anderson’s book over mashed potatoes? These exercises got students comfortable with summarizing material in their own words, and with a thoughtful economy of language. Then, as students approached their research papers, I had them envision their sources in a “360-degree” way. For their research papers, students had to pick a primary source and develop an original argument from it that coincided with class themes or theories with which we engaged. To counter basic yet overwhelming keyword searches, I had students produce at least ten relevant academic sources, including four sources on the subject matter of their paper, three on the historical context of their project, and three on the source itself (focused either on form or content). With this guidance, I instructed students to consider continually their intellectual interventions. This coincided with students’ assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their academic sources and where they could situate their novel ideas.

To evaluate students’ aptitude in all five areas, I relied considerably on the annotated bibliographies they submitted. Once more, the annotated bibliography became one of the most important storehouses to see how students improved their reading, writing, and critical thinking. I assessed students based on the quality of their sources, how well they summarized their materials, and how they managed to place the sources in conversation with each other. These elements, as I saw it, contributed to the writing of a much more incisive research paper. In this manner, the annotated bibliography was no longer a throwaway assignment. Instead, it captured nearly all of the most substantial objectives of an introductory writing course.