Monday, March 24, 2008

Annotated Bib?

Off and on since Friday--one of the early consulting sessions in the W.C.--I've been thinking a little bit about why we ask students to produce annotated bibliographies. Yes, I, too, have done it--asked students in a lower division writing course or intro to the humanities course to produce an annotated bibliography. Why?

A student on Friday asked me how best to proceed with developing his own annotated bibliography. But he was already in the advanced stages of drafting the project. The annotated bib was an afterthought, a by-product. Probably not the way the instructor imagined it working. It was not organic, not a rigorously-researched advance screening of the conversations or materials in play. It was not done with interest, but rather with a makeshift, this-will-do (will this do?) spirit--much like I've seen in my own students when I served up the exciting annotated bib opportunity.

And underlying question is how to (also whether to) reconcile rigor with pleasure in the processes of collection and annotation. What if the collected thing isn't good enough? What if the annotations do not legitimate its inclusion? (viz., "How did this get here?) In other words, academic collections are too often burdened by preformulation; what goes together is molded by the course, the syllabus, the discipline, the library, and probably the teacherly gestures to clarify--"Oh, but this or that thing fits so well into what you have gathered together!" Topical heaviness pins much of this stuff down, filters it in advance, places a screen in front of the chaotic mess.

Another side of the annotated bib assumes engagement with some sort of conversation. And I am generally in favor of this idea--that reading and annotating produce valuable identifications (summary, etc.) and also help us to have a more or less distinctive take. But I don't know whether the "you enter a parlor" shtick works in all case where writers (who don't know enough of what they need to know). Motive gives way to other questions about how much we must understand discourse conventions, the key concepts getting major play, and so on: Did you realize you entered a parlor? Did you look up to see who-what was there or fixate on the exit? And why did you enter the parlor, anyway?

I know. Just a few mushy thoughts rolling around about annotated bibliographies. I'm not sure I've ever had an annotated bib assignment go especially (memorably) well. I'm not throwing up my hands as much as reconsidering why we have students do them in the first place and whether it is even reasonable to ask students to produce notes on books and articles rather than notes on anything whatever (as a possible alternative). So, through all of this I am thinking about collection and annotation--much in the way Sirc writes about them in "Box Fitting" and also about that which is collectible. These seem to me to necessarily precede the academised annotated bibliography. And so these problems are stoked when academic research and writing (as assigned) do not bear any obvious or self-evident relationship to what drives the passionate, geeky collector.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 24, 2008 9:15 PM to Dry Ogre Chalking

And doesn't it all get back to the question about whether students should be taught to research using their own favorite topics or ones we choose for them? Of course, I'm thinking from a freshman comp level, where we are teaching them the rudiments of research--the skill(s) as well as the content. Questioning the use of the A.B. is shrewd and practical, methinks.

Posted by: joanna at March 25, 2008 7:36 AM

Yeah, it sure does. It ties in to questions about shared topics, about conventional research methods, and about whether they can be taught (well). In a way, what makes them methods is that they can be taught, but it brings to mind the tension between the passionate and the methodical. I think the methods can be taught, but I have doubts about insisting on a common topic and then expecting the annotated bib (or the collections and annotations) to have any life in them. Pre-fab research risks reducing collection and annotation into dull exercises (when they shouldn't be).

Posted by: Derek at March 25, 2008 10:24 AM

I guess that's why I've stopped using them, except in very abbreviated form. Instead, I like to have students (in a research class or upper division, not FYC) create a generative bib--with the goal to consider as many kinds of sources as possible. Then they have to select 3 to 5 and write a review essay that creates that conversation. I'm just not sure setting annotations side-by-side on the page does that. At least, not the way I tried it. Which, of course, could be the problem...

Posted by: susansinclair at March 25, 2008 12:13 PM

The only time I assign an annotated bib is when I have students do a research-based oral presentation. Then I only ask for a sentence or two of annotation. For that assignment, the annotated bib leaves a paper trail of sources with a bit of context. Working in our writing center, I see other faculty assign the annotated bib midway before a research paper is due. There it serves as a check on the research: 1) that it is happening, 2) that it is on track.

Posted by: Mary Ellen at March 27, 2008 9:12 PM

It does seem reasonable to me to use the annotated bib as an intermediary stage--something that lays bare the student's work of collecting and annotating more or less valuable materials for whatever project. Still, I'm wary of the degree of engagement--the insights produced by the activity of producing an annotated bib or the ways in which the annotated bib helps mobilize the next draft of something more essay-like. So I like the side of the annotated bib that is about urging students to be more fully cognizant of productive ways of handling sources, the wide range of possible materials they might bring aboard, and so on. Yet it seems like--all the same--the annotated bib can become this tame aside, something that domesticates the research rather than breathing greater life into it (which is, ideally, one of the things it might do).

Posted by: Derek at March 28, 2008 10:09 AM