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Annotated Bibliography Assignments

November 11, 2010

For another project (Ancient World Open Bibliographies) I’ve created a Zotero account and am playing around with it, trying to figure out how to easily generate annotated bibliographies using the software (which is a web site plus a Firefox plugin).  Unfortunately right now the answer is that it’s not very easy to annotate bibliographies in a way that lets them be printed or shared, although there are some workarounds.

My search for information on this topic led to me to an interesting assignment, by Brian Croxall, who teaches English Literature.  He had his students find a scholarly resource outside the required reading for the class, and write an annotation (in this case, the annotations were fairly long, more like a short review, in some cases several paragraphs).  His description of the virtues of bibliographic annotation is:

Annotated bibliographies get students experience with some of the important steps of literary scholarship: finding secondary criticism and digesting it. While I could (and might!) just assign the standard end-of-term research paper, the unintended consequence of doing so often results in students looking around for any quotations they can throw in to meet the arbitrary requirement of sources. I hope that annotated bibliographies provoke students to read the other sources more carefully: reading for the source’s own argument rather than how it can fit into one’s paper that is due in 12 hours. An annotated bibliography requires you to take more time, giving you a chance to see what kinds of conversations go on amongst scholars of contemporary literature.

One of of my colleagues who is a teaching model for me is a big fan of annotated bibliography assignments.  She works with one class, for example, in which instead of a paper, the students produce an annotated bibliography of 10 items.  They are required to use no more than 3 popular sources (anything from Glamour to web sites) and no more than 3 of what the professor calls “popular scholarly sources” (I think this term is made up, but what is meant is journalistic sources – newspapers, Time, The New Yorker, etc.).  The class is in the anthropology of food, so for a topic like high fructose corn syrup, a mix of scientific resources explaining what it is and how it is processed by body, journalistic treatments, and fluffy stuff like diet magazines allows the student to turn in a well-rounded exploration of the topic and how it is treated in varying types of sources.  For a different subject, requiring only scholarly sources might be a better fit.  The student gets the experience of doing research for a term paper: finding and evaluating sources.  For the faculty member teaching a large class, grading 75 10-item annotated bibliographies is possible in a way that grading 75 10-page papers is not.  Would this kind of an assignment work for you in your larger classes – or even as a preliminary step in the process of writing a term paper?  My guess is it would lead to better papers if required and graded.

As an aside, I would love to see more online discussions and repositories of good assignments, assignments that worked, for classics and ancient studies.  Some faculty blog about their teaching but I found, for example, when I was trying to think of a good assignment for a graduate class that would incidentally teach them to use TLG, that Google was a howling wasteland in this area.  I don’t teach regular classes, only one-shot library instruction sessions, but I do see part of my role as working with faculty to help brainstorm about what assignments work for what learning goals.  I hope to be able to put more ideas on this blog.

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