Thursday, November 08, 2007

Every day, I learn something new

I got an email from a student in one of my classes where I've given students an assignment to write a couple annotated bibliography entries. It's a minimally useful skill, but one student should know, right?

The student confessed to having had a similar assignment in a previous class, and to having done badly on the assignment. Without being blameful at all, the student asked for guidance on my assignment so s/he'd do better.

DOH! I think back, and realize that I only ran into such assignments in grad school, and there I was able to talk to more experienced grad students, look in annotated bibliographies, and so learn the basics. But I've never really done a good job articulating the basics for my students. Stupidly, I just assumed they'd learned that along the way. And, of course, most other instructors seem to assume the same.

Now I'm looking for a really good articulation of how to write an annotated bibliography entry. I looked in some of the composition texts I have sitting around, and nothing. Then I looked in some of the research guide texts I have around. One of them mentions writing an annotated bibliography, but doesn't articulate how or why.

And then, like a desperate scholar of the internet age, I hit google, and lo, found this guide from Tidewater Community College's Writing Center.

Nice and clear! I especially like the way it gives a list of things an annotation should include, and then gives two examples (MLA and APA).

Do you teach the basics of writing an annotation? If so, how do you explain what you're after?

Do you have better guides for helping students learn the basics?

Addendum: I asked my students today how many of them had been assigned to write some sort of annotated bibliography thing before, and all hands went up.

Then I asked them how many had been taught how to write an annotated bibliography when they'd been asked to write it. One hand stayed up.

I'm thinking I'm not the only instructor making poor connections around here!


  1. I don't know if it is better, but the UW-Madison Writing Center's online handbook has information about writing them here:

    Also, the composition textbook Writing For Your Portfolio by C. Beth Burch contains instructions and examples (both MLA and APA) in Chapter 8.

    I think writing these is a useful exercise. Students might not write annotated bibs again, but they do need to understand how to convey information in a way that is both brief and comprehensible.

  2. I'm having my students do a simplified version of an annotated bib in the next unit to help them understand all the sources they've collected (because it's an independent research project). But I don't call it an annotated bib, nor do I provide them with any particular direction about how to make them look. No wonder they're all over the place.

    Your and k8's suggestions look great -- I'll be checking those out when I design a handout that does a better job of explaining the assignment for this year!

  3. One of the textbooks I use has a nice annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter - I use that as a model to show students how to do them and why they're useful to the reader. It helps when they use one for themselves first, to identify a starting point for a research paper, for example.

    Overall I've been backing up more steps each semester to teach students the basic things I used to assume they came in with - how to do library catalog searches, how to construct a useful bibliography, etc. More than once I've gotten comments on my evaluations that my course (even for upper-level students) is the first college course they had that made them go to the library.

  4. I have an annotated bib assignment in basically every class. They have a hard time getting it, it's true. I use a handout from the University of Toronto writing Centre that I think is really good:

    Then I give themn specific instructions - in the syllabus and in discussing it in class - about what to do for my particular assignment. What I want the assignment to do is offer a snapshot of the research process. So I ask for a blurb upfront about the topic they're interested in, and some research questions. Then in each annotation, I ask them to comment on the source's relevance to their overall project, wht it's useful or not, what part of their research questions it helped answer. (This is usually just a sentence, maybe two, at the end.)

  5. Anonymous5:58 PM

    The only annotated bibliography I *ever* did was in middle school. I didn't even know what one was! I got a D on it. I wonder why.


  6. Anonymous6:51 PM

    Ahhhhh! The dreaded Annotated Bib! I had to do one during my Master's degree and received NO guidance at all on how to do it, despite repeatedly asking for help. I was basically told to figure it out myself and then penalised when it didn’t conform to the instructor’s unspoken expectations. Gah! The bibliography dealt with this fairly obscure subject that has a very small yet very strong following. The funny thing is, since finishing my Master’s, I’ve self-published it- and sold quite a few copies.
    But I’m still annoyed at the rotten grade it got!

  7. I've TA'd courses with an end-of-the quarter research paper, and assigning a proposal and annotated bib a few weeks beforehand is a great way to force students to start earlier and head off some of the most egregious catastrophes.

    I give them a sample handout with some descriptions of MLA style and also a couple sample entries with annotations (a "good" one and a "bad" one, labeled such). I don't do anything the "official" way; basically the annotation has to explain why the work will be relevant to their argument, and the "bad" one says only "This is about topic X and my a paper will be on topic X."

    Funny thing is I got _slammed_ on my last set of evals for teaching "stuff we all learned in AP English and "spending too much time on kids stuff like writing" by the econ majors in my survey class. I wonder how many of them ended up with those C- and D research papers?

  8. Anonymous6:41 AM

    We use annotations a lot (but then it's a graduate program) so we have a pretty detailed tutorial for the way we want them done as a department. Feel free to use it if you find it helpful.

    annotations tutorial

  9. K8, Hilaire, and anonymous, Thanks for sharing your sites! They're helpful! (I've heard good things elsewhere about the UW Madison site.)

    Kate, Neat! It makes me happy when something useful comes of a blog entry.

    Pilgrim/Heretic, I think no child left behind has left a lot of students in a worse place, perhaps? I'm backing up a lot on some things.

    Anonymous and Audacia, I'm sorry you had bad experiences. I'm trying to do better!

    Sisyphus, I don't know what to say. Sometimes, students come from such disparate educational backgrounds that it's scary.

  10. I think the phrase "annotated bibliography" sounds scary to students, particularly those who've never done one before and don't know how helpful they can be. I assign them in upper-level literature classes, but I also make my freshman comp students do something like an annotated bibliography, except they think they're doing "source evaluations." Somehow, it's less scary that way.

  11. I would have them play around with Endnote a bit, too. It's a great tool for bibliographies.