Using the annotated bibliography as the “establishing shot”

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Lately I’ve been reading some scholarly literature from the writing studies field for a project I’m working on. I’m always fascinated by the parallels I see between how writing studies practitioners/scholars and information literacy practitioners/scholars talk about what they do and the challenges they face. I really think we need a space for practitioners and scholars in these two fields to talk to each other about their work.

Anyway, I found what I think could be an interesting new parallel in the article Documenting and Discovering Learning: Reimagining the Work of the Literacy Narrative by Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter.

This article has me thinking: what if the research we ask students to do in information literacy classes came at the beginning of the course instead of at the end? What if we used it as an “establishing shot”?

Let me explain.

In composition classes, the literacy narrative (or a similar personal narrative) is generally the first assignment. Traditionally, the goals of the LN, as Lindquist and Halbritter explain, are to facilitate the transition to college writing and diagnose students’ learning needs. It’s by reading these narratives that the instructor begins to learn each student’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer and perhaps start to plan future interventions to help guide them toward meeting the course’s learning goals.

The authors here suggest that LNs can function “not only as texts of [student] learning but as texts for their learning” (p. 415). They suggest doing this by resisting the urge to immediately correct the student’s work and instead preserving the LN as an artifact, one that students can return to later and reflect on. In this way, the LN becomes the “establishing shot” in the student’s writing journey. The student can use it to discover for themselves their earlier shortcomings, reflect on their growth, and develop a sense of agency as they learn to write.

The annotated bibliography is probably as common to information literacy instruction as LNs are to first year composition courses. They are a handy tool for gauging students’ skills with identifying sources, articulating the value of those sources in the context of a particular research topic, and citing those sources. Basically, all of the skills associated with the now-retired ACRL Standards.

The main difference here is that, at least in the teaching I’ve done, the annotated bibliography comes late in the course as a culminating project while the LN comes early on, the first of many writing assignments.

I never stopped to think about how, in a class that is meant to teach students how to become better users and creators of information, their only substantial opportunity to do this comes at the end of the course. Sure, I used to have them draft annotations as we went along and then correct their work but I stopped doing that because changes I made to the content and structure of the course meant that it no longer made sense. Plus, students never used any of the feedback I gave them. So now they complete an annotated bibliography, submit it for feedback, get a grade, and then have the option to revise their work for a better grade just as the course is ending.

Doing it this way means that they don’t have much chance to show or reflect on their growth as information users and creators from the start of the course to the end.

What if, instead of being the last thing in the course, the annotated bibliography, like the LN, was the first thing. The very first assignment. Students locate sources on a topic of choice and then cite and evaluate those sources in a way that makes sense to them. No rules about types of sources. No rules about citation styles. No rules about anything. If they hand in a reasonably coherent piece, they get full credit. End of story. The work does not get corrected

That’s the important part: We put down the red pens. We do not correct what the student has given us.

The work the students produce would no doubt be laden with problems, ones that would make an IL instructor grit their teeth. Some of these problems would be predictable: internet sources that were chosen for convenience rather than quality, lazy or incoherent citations, superficial evaluations of the sources’ content. All stuff we’re used to seeing. But this time, we look at it to get a sense of where each student is in their development as a learner of information literacy, we think about some possible interventions, and then we put it away.

The course goes on. Now students learn about what information literacy is. Maybe they learn about different formats of sources and how some formats are more appropriate for certain types of research than others. Maybe they learn about the ethical use of information and how this relates to the idea of citation. Whatever they learn, it’s going to help them grow as users and creators of information.

As the course comes to an end, the students go back to the annotated bibliographies they’ve already created and they reflect: What do they think of their choice of sources now? About their method of citation? About their evaluations? What would they change and why?

Then, instead of being told that their internet sources are of questionable quality, their citations are incoherent, and their evaluations are superficial, they would engage in a metacognitive exercise that would allow them to see for themselves what they have learned and how they have grown. Most importantly, the successful students will now have developed some sense of agency in their information literacy journey.

I tried something similar to this a few years ago when I adapted the traditional annotated bibliography assignment into something called the “un-research project,” which I later wrote about in an article that was published in Communications in Information Literacy. The point of that project was to get students to think a little more deeply about the roles the sources they were finding would play in their research. It worked, to some extent, and I know other instructors have since adapted it for their own use. But even with this project, the annotated bibliography came at the end. The research came at the end.

I think it could be really interesting if, instead, the research came at the beginning. If, as Lindquist and Halbritter say, it wasn’t used just as a tool of student learning, but as a tool for their learning.

I’m hoping to try this out in the spring 2020 semester. If I do, I’ll be sure to follow up and share what I did and how it went. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know if there’s anybody out there who already does things this way and what their experience has been.

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