Reviewing literature is surely a key skill for any budding academic, but particularly for students engaged in postgraduate study. For about four years I have been teaching a research methods course for a number of Masters level humanities students, which gets assessed through a report on a research project of the students’ choice which includes a brief literature review. Over the last two years in particular I have been getting an increasingly large number of annotated bibliographies instead of literature reviews (often referred to as ‘literary reviews’). The teaching strategies and materials didn’t change over that time period, but clearly students didn’t quite understand the point of using this part of their report to discuss the themes and issues raised in the secondary sources they use. Instead this section often reads like the university equivalent of a finger painting put up on a fridge, saying “Didn’t I do well? I read all three of those books and this was in them!”
But how best to explain the difference of reading a book and engaging with its content, putting it into context with the issues that your research is about, having the confidence to discard some bits of information because for your own context they are irrelevant?
I had been working with my undergraduates on a similar problem encouraging them to condense sources into greeting card formats to hone their skills of judging relevance to their own research – and this idea of the card – not quite a greeting card, but a playing card, clearly conceived in a very specific context (a suit, the order of the ranks) – seemed like a good visual to explain this idea.
The following text is the starting point of a new resource I will test with the students in the coming year, by giving them access to this text as well as piloting a literature review workshop where we will work on condensing secondary sources into a playing card form in order to be able to shuffle information and directly visualise the difference between the annotated bibliography and the literature review.
Working with secondary sources can be tricky.
Once you have found good ones – written by experts and located at an appropriate academic depth – it can be difficult to ‘let go’ of the source.
After all, very often all the information presented seems interesting and, if the writing is done well, the order makes perfect sense, too.
But neither all the information, nor the order might be relevant in the context of your research ...
In academic writing there are different ways of presenting the information you gathered to your readers, the main ones being
the Annotated Bibliography on the one hand
and the Literature Review on the other.
But there is a huge difference between them ...
In a way you can imagine the information
you get from a particular source
as playing cards of the same suit.
When you open the pack, they are ordered according to their suit, the way they were ordered by the author.
|In a basic Annotated Bibliography, you present your reader with what in Poker would be a series of Straight Flushes – cards of the same suit, in sequence. just like they came out of the pack.|
In a Poker game,that is quite a good hand.
When dealing with sources, this is a basic summary of each source on its own – it tells your reader what is in each source, possibly analysing which are the important bits.
What is already more interesting for the reader is you ordering the information according to what is important in your context, and discarding the bits that aren’t.
In Poker this would be a series of Flushes.
And while in Poker this would be defeated by a Straight Flush, when comparing Annotated Bibliographies, the series of Flushes might rank higher, because you show your own analysis of the subject matter rather than staying with the order prescribed by the original author.
However, most of the time, readers are less interested in a summary of your sources than in what you have actually found out!
Oh, they want you to present relevant information – and tell them where you got that – but this needs to be tailored to your own context.
So for the reader it shows more of your understanding of the issues and debates if you put the issues and debates in context with one another.
In other words, you need to ‘free’ the information, issues and debates from the order the author put them in, because what the original author found important isn’t actually what is most interesting to you –
- thinking of the cards, maybe you don’t need the suits, but rather the ranks.
Maybe you need
only even numbers ...
... or picture cards ...
... or just 3s.
So rather than describing every bit of information (the individual card) in the sequence of the suits (as prescribed by the author),
maybe you need to shuffle your deck
of information and swap your cards around,
discarding the information you don’t need,
and collecting only the bits that you do want.
If you are dealing with your sources in this way, you are producing a Literature Review:
you need to go away from the prescribed order of the author that you stick to for an Annotated Bibliography;
you need to ignore the suits and try to find information that deals with the same issues, so similar card values.
In Poker that would be hunting for Pairs, or,
even better, several Of A Kind.
And, as chances are that there is only a limited amount of cards you can hold at any one time, it does not make sense to keep all the cards.
Rather, you should decide what cards you need to collect
– the others can be discarded.
Just like in a card game with very specific rules.
In academic writing you usually have a similar limit (like a word count, for example). So you need to decide the issues and debates you want to focus on, and discard the rest, just like unwanted cards.
You need to identify the information that is relevant in each source and then present – and discuss – them in the context of what other authors wrote about the same issues.
The trick is making the information independent of where it came from (while still referencing it, of course) and putting it into your very own specific context.
This way you can put the found bits of information into context with each other, analyse and compare them. You might even find pieces of information that are wild cards – like Jokers in some card games, they might fit into more than one context.
When you are ready to present the context of your argument in your Literature Review, you can order the cards as you want to – and while it is important to keep in mind (and reference) where they came from, i.e. which suit (or secondary source) – it is really your discussion of the information that is most interesting to your readers.
And when it comes to a Literature Review, that is a winning hand.