Annotated bibliography to literature review: a way in?

This post reflects on the affordances and challenges of creating an annotated bibliography as a way in to scoping your field, and drafting your literature review, whether for a paper or a postgraduate thesis.

I am working on a project with 3 colleagues at the moment, the first part of which is writing a literature review scoping the relevant parts of the field addressed in this study. It’s a significant amount of reading, and this literature is new to me, so the work was daunting at first. I felt a bit overwhelmed at the scale of the reading, note-making and writing I would have to do to actually create a relatively short, concise literature review. One of the co-investigators helpfully suggested that one of the outputs be an annotated bibliography, out of which we could craft the literature review. I must add here that I then had to google what this was, because I have never written one before, although the term is not new.

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In essence, to create an annotated bibliography, you compile a list of relevant readings on the topic you are writing about, read these, and then create concise, focused summaries that evaluate the quality and accuracy of the source, and its relevance to the research you are doing (a useful example here). Some guides say you should keep these to 150 words, others indicate that you can go up to about 300 or so words. The main point seems to be to go beyond a simple, descriptive summary of the article, to be critical of the source, and its relevance to your proposed research. It’s useful here to remember that critique is not criticism; it is rather about inserting your researcher voice and position in relation to the text, and commenting from that position.

This all sounds rather simple, in theory. I am finding it a little harder in practice. This is partly because the summaries I tend to write in my reading journals tend towards the descriptive, and only become critical when I evaluate their relevance and connection to my research. I don’t actually think all that critically about the quality or accuracy of the source, or the authority of the authors, unless this is obviously suspect (for example, a low-impact study that tries to be more, or data that is not clearly described or is atheoretically analysed). These papers, unless that really say something helpful, are usually left out of my eventual literature review.

In the annotated bibliography, you are creating sharp, focused annotations or commentaries (rather than summaries) that point to the type of study (qualitative/quantitative; larger/smaller scale; single/multi-context and so on); the theory or methodology perhaps (as this influences relevance and also accuracy or quality); how (and how clearly or effectively) the argument is made; and how/why the article is relevant to the research you are doing. As you start to grow your bibliography, you can add a comment about how the study connects with, extends or contradicts other studies you have included thus far.

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My research is at play here, of course, as it is guiding the selection of sources, and what I am looking for in the reading I am doing. However, I am finding that my argument is rather fuzzier than it could be at this stage; the reading is guided by a general sense of what I am trying to find out about, but my actual argument is not yet formed. I am finding this tricky, as I am working with literature that is new to me. I don’t necessarily know who the ‘names’ are, or what the influential studies are. I’m starting to work this out as the same studies and names are cited over and over in the papers I am reading, but I’m still getting the ‘lie of the land’. But, while I may not yet have my firm argument, I am able to see it emerging from the mists because I know the basic problem or question I am trying to answer.

Holding onto a basic, albeit fuzzy, sense of why I am doing all of this and what I am looking for enables me to manage the annotation process more effectively.  I can trim out readings that are irrelevant, too old, or otherwise unfit for this purpose, and add in new readings that are useful and on point. I can keep the annotations clear, concise and focused on the research problem. I can start to make connections between studies, seeing how the authors are talking to one another, and creating a conversation in which there are both agreements and disagreements. This all takes me closer to my literature review, which is where I will make and defend an argument of sorts in response to my research question.

In the literature review I will be doing far more than copying and pasting from my summaries: I will be drawing out key themes in relation to my research problem/question, and elaborating on these using the annotations I have created, but rewriting and connecting these into a framework that illuminates: what the research problem is; why this problem needs to be addressed in our context; how it has been addressed in other contexts; and where the gap is that this project seeks to fill, i.e. the contribution or argument advanced in this research. This will then set us up for creating a suitable methodological plan for going about evidencing or supporting our argument.

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I have, as I said, never done an exercise like this before. But, I am really enjoying the intellectual challenge of creating the annotations – it has taken me a while to work this out and the word limit is tough! I am excited at how ‘organically’ the debates, conversations and connections between the different contexts and studies within the readings are emerging, like a puzzle slowly forming out of a mess of pieces. Putting it all into one document – one long bibliography – may seem unwieldy, but this enables me to search for key terms, and to pull threads together in the literature review that is not starting to take shape. It’s making my literature review work less overwhelming, because the annotations are written in my own words, contain my research position, and are critical rather than descriptive, so I am well on my way to creating a literature review that comments on, rather than summarises, the relevant body of literature, and does so in relation to my research problem.

Given how stressful literature reviews are for so many postgraduate writers, and how many are critiqued for being too descriptive and not critical enough, this ‘tool’ could be a useful, practical and manageable way in to your field, and to finding your researcher voice and position.

Reading your way into your field: tips for navigation

My last post on reading your PhD field received more attention that my last few posts have received, so I feel I have touched a chord here; reading is tricky area of PhD study that doesn’t receive as much press as writing does. Actually, that’s true in academia more generally – there is a lot more research into helping students write more effectively than there is into helping students read more effectively. I think it is better understood that writing in different genres and fields is a challenge, and that novice writers and learners need help demystifying the particular genres they need to master. By contrast, reading academic texts seems to be less well covered in teaching and learning-type research. Students at all levels are expected to read critically, analytically, and proficiently, but this is often a struggle and while there seems to be a lot of help about when it comes to writing, the question still remains: what are we writing about if we are battling with what we are reading?

This post touches on the more nitty-gritty struggles of reading for a PhD: how to actually get into your field, and make sense of it, especially the ‘names’ or the big theory and ideas. To get into this post, I need to start with me, with my own PhD reading struggles. I have confessed already that I am a bookworm, and that I love reading. I do not, however, love everything that I have to read, and a lot of the reading I had to do for my PhD (and am going back to now to work on the postdoc writing) was tedious and tough and often just incomprehensible. To illustrate: I had to read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. For those who are fortunate enough to not have to do this to yourselves, Bourdieu is hard going (and I did a whole module on Foucault during my Masters). He uses about 25 words when other people use two, and much of his work is translated into English from the original French, so it tends towards being dense and challenging. I really battle to translate him into my own words and my own understanding. I don’t actually really understand him in his own words; I can only make sense of his writing when I have read other people translating him into more accessible terms.

This then brings me to the first strategy I learned when I started my PhD, at a workshop where we talked about disciplines being like ‘tribes’ and PhD students as being noviciates into the tribe, and needing to learn about who the tribespeople are and how to find a place among them. You need to know who the ‘chiefs’ are, and who the more ordinary tribespeople are, and how they relate to each other in terms of their ideas, arguments etc. Then you can locate yourself within that ‘field of inquiry’ more clearly and with greater confidence (because you know how to avoid stepping on toes, or repeating someone else’s idea and taking it as your own, inadvertently). You cannot, in my field, quote Bourdieu (a chief, for sure) in the work of another scholar, even if they are a sub-chief or working at a higher level to you. This is true of all fields: you have to cite the chiefs at their source. And to avoid including ‘cheat’ citations (although we all do this from time to time) where you include a text you know references your idea but that you have not fully read or understood, you need to make sense of what the source texts are actually saying. Ergo, I had to read Bourdieu. But (and here’s the tip), don’t start with the writings of the chiefs. It’s often too difficult, and you can quickly end up confused, lost, demotivated and feeling like you are not supposed to be a PhD student.

Start with the tribespeople who have gone before you, and have bravely read, deciphered and translated the work of the chief into more accessible terms. See how they have used his or her ideas and theory in their own work; look at the methods they have used and the kinds of arguments they have made using the work of the chief. Read a few of these papers and books, until you have a sense of what the source text and the theory-in-the-original is saying. Then, get the source texts, and read the theory, the ideas etc in the original. It is almost always easier if you do it like this, because it feels at least a little familiar, and not quite as scary and obscure. It’s still work to make sense of the source texts in relation to your argument and your PhD, but it can be less daunting a task when tackled like this. Also, reading like this gives you a greater sense of the field you are working in, and who you are working in relation to.

Connected to this is another tip I learned, but did not always practice myself. Often, part of the practice of reading our way into a field is learning to critique the other members of our tribe as part of finding our own academic feet and voice, and claiming our own space within the field of research and learning. One thing many examiners look for in a completed thesis is a sense that you know where the weaknesses of your field/theory/methods etc are, not just the strengths. Can you show them that you see and understand key claims against your chosen chiefs, and your defence against the critique in relation to your own arguments? This is hard to do though, because PhD students often want certainty and clarity: the chief must be right about this, and that’s that. It’s too difficult to also be trying to see how he or she could be only partially right, or blind to certain things, etc. But, this is an important part of becoming a member of your ‘tribe’ and it’s a necessary part of the reading and thinking work. One tip, to help you claim this critical-reader space, is to write to the authors you are reading when you write a reading journal entry.

‘Dear Pierre, I struggled to make sense of this paper, and I wonder about the veracity of claim X in particular. If you did this research in a different context, you would not be able to make this claim in the same way. For example, in my research context, ….  etc, etc, etc.’

Write to the chief as if you are able to have a conversation with them, and ask them about the things that puzzle you or seem unclear. Make suggestions as to why this might be, and suggest possible alternatives or improvements. Connect their work with your own research. If you do this kind of journal entry consistently, you may well find your confidence in your own ideas growing, and your ability to be more critical and analytical in reading developing over time.

They say that the more you read, the better you get at it, and the easier it becomes. This is true of some academic reading, I find, but not all. The tough theoretical stuff will, I think, always be a bit tough, whereas the more substantive theory may get easier, especially if you read the same kinds of research over and over and overlaps  as well as differences become clearer. However, it is certainly true that you are never going to become a more confident PhD reader by reading less. So, get stuck in and may the force be with you all!

Finding and expressing your PhD ‘voice’

I’ve been thinking about this issue of voice a great deal lately, partly because I lost my physical voice when I handed in my final final copy and got it back a week later when I woke up on the morning of my graduation. My best friend suggested that it was symbolic – leaving my pre-doctoral voice behind and gaining my new doctoral voice. I like to think she’s right, but we’ll have to wait and see what this new voice sounds like – the symbolic doctoral one, I mean. It still feels a bit croaky to me…

The issue of ‘voice’ – finding one, expressing it, having it sound to others in your field like one that is authentic, authoritative, sufficiently knowledgeable and confident – is a complicated one. It is complicated, not least, because ‘voice’ is a rather vague concept for talking about understanding knowledge, conceptualising ideas, formulating evidence-based arguments on the basis of the knowledge and ideas and expressing these, in writing, in English (often) and in the right genre, tone and register. There’s a lot that goes into this concept of ‘voice’. So, this is justifiably a concept that puzzles and also worries many PhD students and writers. ‘How do I find my voice? How do I express it? How will I know whether it sounds right?’ These are questions I asked myself over and over (and still do).

To start with the first one, finding my voice, I thought about gaining some kind of confidence in ‘owning’ the concepts and theories I was trying to understand and use in my thesis, and taking confidence here to mean ‘voice’. When I started reading I had very little confidence in myself and in my ability to claim the concepts and theories, translate them through understanding them into my own words, and then begin to put them to work in building my theoretical framework. I read some very useful posts by Pat Thomson on literature reviews and working with texts and with the other, stronger voices of the researchers and theorists I was reading. I kept a reading journal and wrote to myself about what I was reading and what I was thinking about all that reading. Slowly, I started to piece together a few paragraphs, and then a larger chunk, and then two chunks joined together, and slowly I started to find a voice. A small one at first, saying ‘I think this might be useful’ and ‘Maybe this makes sense if we think about it like this’ and (very scary) ‘Maybe this theorist is not completely right and we could think about this issue differently’. It got stronger as I went on, but this is a process, and it takes time and is a bit more circular than linear – you may find and lose your voice over and over as you encounter new ideas and research that challenges you to rethink and rethink again.

Expressing your voice – your ideas and your thoughts and your organisation and summarising of the theories in relation to your own study – is also challenging. It ties in with the third question of how to make your voice come out ‘right’ in your writing so that those reading your work – your supervisor and peers and eventually examiners – will say ‘Ah yes, this is PhD level work’. In facilitating a writing workshop for 4th year students at an early point in writing my theory chapter, I taught myself a useful way of trying to express my own voice.

The students were writing literature reviews for a research project, and were battling to get to the point where they were directing and organising the research they had done in relation to their own projects rather than simply writing down everything they thought was important in the research and doing a summarise, synthesis, compare and contrast type of exercise. I was battling too, unable to see beyond the authors’ words to my own and therefore battling to get to a point of directing and guiding the writing and thinking process rather than being guided by it.

I used a trick I learnt from a colleague, who got it from the work of Toulmin, and it is summarised as P E E or Point, Evidence, Explanation. It’s a quite a simple one to use, and it can be adapted and played with as needed, and depending on the level of sophistication required of the writing. You start with the point of the paragraph (understanding that this point stands in relation to the other points you want to be making in this section/chapter and not on its own). This is your voice coming through – it should not be referenced or a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas but rather you, summarising a key idea you have because of what you have read, and that needs to be fully discussed and developed. It may be one sentence or a couple of linked sentences. Then you go into the evidence – why do you make that point or claim? Who supports you in this claim? What have they claimed or said that you can include to strengthen your point? (Here, of course, you reference the work of others). Then you close the paragraph with explanation that connects your point and the evidence in this paragraph to your research or your study, and that also (if you are in the beginning or middle of a section) links it to the next point or idea. This explanation, for the most part, is also you – your voice – coming through to tell us what this knowledge means in relation to the whole picture you are drawing, and what you make of it (and what you’d like us as the readers to make of it too).

You will find your voice as you go on, and it may be very different from the one you started out with, or quite similar. The starting point is important, as PhD students come into this process from very different places. Many of my peers on our programme have worked for years, and have full-time jobs, families and a lot of experience under their belts. Other PhD students I know are in their late 20s, unattached and still working on getting that experience. The point is not to compare your voice (or apparent lack thereof) with others, but to look to your trusted peers and supervisor for guidance in finding, expressing and finally claiming your own doctoral voice. As my supervisor said to me: ‘Trust the process’. 🙂

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

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My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

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An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.