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The Embodied Literature Review: A Classroom Activity

Last week, I introduced my students to the genre of the literature review. This is, for most first year composition students, an entirely alien genre, since it’s largely the province of academic work. However, the course I’m teaching requires, as part of its description, that my students produce an annotated bibliography of 15-20 sources and a research paper with original research of 8-12 pages. In essence, my students are being asked, often in their first year of college, to produce a graduate level conference paper. This is a tall order, but they can do it, with some good scaffolding. Obviously. I mean, they do it every semester.

One of the challenges in such a course is teaching students to write in a (sub?)genre that they may have never read before. Obviously, one solution is to have them read widely in that genre—which they will do—but even before they can do that, it’s necessary to know how to recognize what a literature review is.

Of course, I could highlight literature reviews in scholarly articles and show that to them. Of course, I can tell them what one is. But last week I had them do a literature review. I don’t mean write one. I mean to actually physically embody, by means of a classroom simulation, the purpose, function, and process of literature reviews.

This is a lesson plan that requires very little preparation on the instructor’s part, no homework on the students’ part, and no classroom technology, although it works best in classrooms with movable desks or other furniture that facilitates group work.

First, my students are accustomed to answering a “warm-up” question either as a freewrite or a small group discussion, which I write on the board at the beginning of class along with upcoming assignments and reminders, and the goals for the day. Thus, they were already primed to expect me to start with a question, and they already have a small group that they’re used to working with made up of the people around them. These are helpful, but not necessary for this activity to work.

Literature reviews are, at core, a social genre
Image by Kristin Hardwick vis StockSnap

So, I started by having them discuss a question in their usual small groups. You may use any debatable question. Because I like living dangerously, the question I asked was “What value, if any, is there in having writing courses in the core curriculum?” At least I knew it was relevant to everyone in the room.

I gave them a few minutes to discuss the question. Then I instructed them to select a delegate from their group. The delegate then went to another group. There, the discussion was to continue, but first the group had to fill in the delegate on what had already been said in that group, but also the delegate had to explain what was said in their original group.

Then, I repeated this process, stipulating that the second delegate could not be the same person. That way, the group kept the new person and sent on an older member. Again, the groups were to catch the new person up and listen to what the new person knew from the other groups.

Now I brought the class back together. Here, I explained what the meaning of the activity was: they had “cross-pollinated” knowledge across the classroom. What we had done is turned the classroom into a simulation of the entire academic field, or perhaps a given discipline. Each person belongs to some smaller group they interact with regularly—their department, their friends from grad school, their lab group, etc—and they constantly exchange ideas with these people. Then sometimes ideas are spread through the community by sending members of these smaller cells to visit other cells—this represents things like conferences, guest lectures, hiring new people from other institutions, and publishing in journals.

But every time ideas are exchanged, some amount of background material has to go with them. After all, we don’t know that the people we’re talking to know all the necessary background that provides the definitions, practices, and source material for what we’re saying, so we have to fill them in on that.

And that, I argued to my students, is the purpose of the literature review.

And then we discussed the form that their briefings took. I noted that they had used very common lit review techniques in filling each other in on the discussion, summarizing main ideas rather than devoting specific summary spaces to each individual speaker.

And then I gathered up the main ideas that they discussed, noting these on the board where I could manipulate them. From there, I modeled how to write a literature review in the academic style and tone, based on the notes we had. I synthesized what they said were the main points into something that sounded like it could fit in a scholarly paper. These were simple, more suited to be the opening moves of a literature review than the whole thing, but they definitely have the style. Here is what we wrote out:

There is general agreement that writing skills are important life skills. Some students, however, have expressed concern that college writing courses may be redundant with high school requirements. Others have argued that writing is discipline-specific and therefore may be better taught within major programs

My 1st class (note that I forgot to tag on an identification of a “gap” with this class–it’s 8am, ok?

Most students generally agree that writing courses are useful in the core curriculum because these courses help develop effective communication skills. However, some students have expressed concerns that these courses may not be as relevant to some majors. I would argue that these views, while important, neglect the listening and reading skills afforded by writing courses

2nd class, 9am

In general, students agree that writing and research are useful skills. However, there is some debate about the necessity of required core courses dedicated to writing and research because many students note that these courses often repeat prior content, though they may also deepen it. Yet, what is required is an examination of some of this overlap and to identify ways to distinguish course content from other core courses.

3rd class, 1pm

Generally, students see utility in writing courses being included in core curriculum requirements because they understand that writing and research are transferrable skills for their careers and other courses. However, many students express concerns about repetition between courses as well as the relevance of specific course content.

Therefore, more research needs to be done on where points of overlap exist and how the ensure each course offers unique, transferable skills.

4th class, 3pm

Notice that each of these, although similar, is definitely distinct. The key here is to work with what the students are saying and not deviate from it. This models, in part, that the literature review is an act of listening, by modeling listening to the students and valuing their voices as researchers, even though the data generated in the classroom here is very limited.

Then, I annotated what I synthesized out of what they were saying. I’m using the textbook They Say / I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, but my students haven’t really started reading it yet for the course (we have another handbook that they’re reading out of first). However, this was a place I could introduce Graff and Birkenstein’s main concept, so I walked them through marking the “they say” moves (what other people said, with reference to the author of our new paragraph) and the “I say” moves, showing them how the literature review is primarily “they say” moves followed by a section of “I say” moves to identify the “gap.”

I can’t express how much I love this book!

The next step is, of course, to identify literature reviews in published materials and get them reading the target genre. However, in 50 minutes, we started on that path, but were not able to get very far. That’s ok; we’ve got time to do that in later class meetings.

I don’t always have the best lesson plans, of course, but I think this one worked pretty well, because it was active (literally moving around the classroom) and mixed prior competencies with engaged activity, and it utilized the full range of doing, speaking, listening, reflecting, identifying, etc. all in one less-than-50-minute sequence.

So there it is, my gift to you. Feel free to use it.

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