Teaching the Literature Review

Peter Wayne Moe
March 2018

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing is the best-selling writing textbook in the States. Its premise is that academic writing is a conversation, one in which the writer is always responding to others, and its opening pages rely on Kenneth Burke’s famous parlor:

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110-11, qtd. in Graff and Birkenstein 15-16)

A key assignment in WRI 1100 (and in any research writing course) is the Literature Review. This is where a writer comes to see what the conversation is about, who is saying what, where the conversation has wandered, and from all this, discern how to, as Burke says, “put in your oar.” The Literature Review makes clear what They Say so that the student can speak in response.

Yet students often struggle to put in their oar. They struggle synthesize the literature into a coherent discussion. They struggle to organize what’s been said, and they struggle, too, to find a way to speak themselves into that discussion. And so they write a Literature Review that simply lists sources, sometimes chronologically, sometimes not. Trends in the literature, and the gaps therein, are lost.

To teach students to synthesize (rather than list) their sources, I use the following activity. Students first complete an annotated bibliography of (at least) a dozen sources. Using the guidelines in the WRI 1100 textbook From Inquiry to Academic Writing, I ask that these annotations (1) present the key ideas of the source, (2) briefly analyze the source’s argument, and (3) determine the source’s relevance for the student’s own project (Greene and Lidinsky 185).

Next, students bring a hard copy of their annotations to class, along with a pair of scissors. We spend the first few minutes of class cutting up the annotations, each citation and annotation on its own strip of paper. (For this activity to work, the annotations must be printed single-sided.)

Now comes the moment of synthesis. I ask students to read through their annotations and then sort them into piles based on what they have in common. After 20 minutes of reading and sorting, students then write two to three sentences for each pile about why these sources go together. These piles, each with its own two to three sentence commentary, become the paragraphs of the Literature Review.

At this point, students can begin asking questions about where they fit into this discussion. From Inquiry to Academic Writing identifies four common types of claims writers make: correcting misinterpretations, filling the gap, modifying what others have said, or testing a hypothesis (143-44). Using those models in conjunction with their piles of sources, students can work toward a claim of their own, an “I say” in response to these piles of “They say.” I ask that students take another 10 minutes to review their piles and then write a paragraph that tests out a claim they might make in response to these synthesized sources. To conclude the activity, students put their piles in order, thinking rhetorically about what their reader needs to know first about the topic at hand, what needs to come after that, and after that, in order to set up the student’s own claim.

When I ask students what they think of this activity, many are quick to say they enjoy using scissors and being able to easily move a scrap of paper from one pile to another. The materiality of the paper makes it possible to see how ideas are evolving as the student comes to new understandings about how these sources relate to each other.

While writing for The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen was told by editor Henry Finder that “There are only two ways to organize material: ‘Like goes with like’ and ‘This followed that’” (xviii). Beginning writers often resort to the latter; this activity introduces them to the former, which is the type of synthesis a Literature Review needs to do.


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 1941. 3rd edition, UCLA P, 1973.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Introduction.” The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen, series editor Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, xv-xxi.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition, Norton, 2018.

Greene, Stuart, and April Lidinsky. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Practical Guide. 4th edition, Bedford / St. Martin’s,  2018.