Tracking Scholarly Conversations with a Lit Review Map

Part 1: Scholarship is a Conversation that Many Students Can’t Hear

Earlier this week I was skulking through my Feedly and ran across an LJ Infodocket post about Spotify’s new Artist Explorer.  The program allows you to start with one artist or genre and create a web of related artists and bands.  (It’s fun, go ahead and try it!)  I guess I had the Framework for Information Literacy threshold concepts on the brain, because as I explored connections between artists, my first thought was, “OMG! Scholarship is a Conversation!”

Artist Web Starting with Taylor Swift

I made a T-Swift web because she is fierce as hell in her new video!


Here’s where that thought came from: When I help students at the reference desk or in class, I often notice that they see finding articles for a paper simply as a chore.  They aren’t engaged with scholarly conversations.  They are focused on finding a certain number of sources, and then pulling out some quotes to plop into their papers.  In fact, students are sometimes quite open with this strategy when they talk to me at the reference desk.  I’ve heard many versions of, “I have my paper written, I just need to find some articles and put some quotes in.”  (There’s actually a recent-ish article with almost this exact phrase in its title).

In the new Framework for Information Literacy, Scholarship is a Conversation is one of six thresholds that represent major concepts in IL.  This concept addresses scholarly conversations as sustained discourses in communities of researchers, involving different ideas and schools of thought that are sometimes at odds, and resulting in the production of new ideas over time.  Each threshold concept includes key knowledge practices that students engage in as they explore the concept, as well as dispositions that speak to the affective experience of research.  For Scholarship is a Conversation, some of the knowledge practices include recognizing the place of a particular piece of scholarship in the body of disciplinary knowledge and being able to summarize how perspectives have changed over time in relation to a particular topic.  Dispositions include understanding the responsibility inherent in participating in scholarly conversations, and valuing the contributions of others.  Threshold concepts as a whole deal with troublesome knowledge–concepts that are not straightforward.  They are also transformative and irreversible, meaning that they change a student’s entire outlook so that after the threshold is crossed, there is no un-learning or forgetting it.

Many students don’t make it across this threshold, or even approach it.  They don’t make/feel meaningful connections between their work and larger scholarly conversations–and who can blame them?  Scholarly discourse is alienating, full of jargon, and difficult to locate.  Students are usually presented with assignments that throw them into the deep end.  They are asked to find, understand, synthesize, and add their own ideas to the work of established scholars.  I think many professors design these deep end assignments because that’s how they learned, and because it’s hard for them to remember when scholarly discourse was foreign to them.

As a result, a lot of students get through their entire college experience using the Quote Plop Method.  If they do make it to (or through) the Scholarship is a Conversation threshold, I think it’s usually later on, in upper level undergraduate or graduate classes.

While I suppose it’s better late than never, I think there are so many benefits to helping students cross the Scholarship is a Conversation threshold early in their college career.  Since threshold concepts are transformative, a student who understood this one in, say, her sophomore-level English comp class would be able to apply it to her research in classes for the next three years, in all different disciplines and in courses with an increasing level of challenging material.  Because of this, she might be better at making unique interdisciplinary connections.  And she would certainly feel more confident as she sought to understand and then participate in these conversations (perhaps through participatory online spaces like blogging and Twitter).

So back to the Artist Explorer. Here’s a series of lesson plans that I’ve been thinking about.  The whole thing starts with Artist Explorer, which would be manageable in a one-shot where students were preparing to do annotated bibliographies or lit reviews.  The rest of it would involve either a series of library classes or an embedded librarian type scenario over an entire semester.  And, of course, it would all work best if done in close collaboration with the class instructor.

Part 2: Scholarship is a Conversation: A Series of Lesson Plans

1) Artist Explorer
Activity 1: Students use Artist Explorer to search for their favorite singer or band and spend a few minutes exploring.  Have some students share their webs with the class.
Discussion: What did you notice?  Were there familiar connections? Unexpected connections?
Possible Discussion Outcomes: 
Artists influence each other directly and indirectly, there are historical connections, sometimes influence from different genres…

Activity 2: Show a Prezi web that connects the work of scholars on a particular topic. (This will work best if it can be a web that relates to the subject of the class, preferably created with input from the professor).  Share with students that the connections are similar to those we saw in the Artist Web, except with ideas instead of sound.

Lit Review Web

An example Lit Review Map for a class should be about the class subject, but for this one I made one about IL, metaliteracy, and threshold concepts because I can’t stop thinking about them!


Activity 3: Look up a couple of the articles on Google Scholar and use the “Cited by” button to show one way to make connections to other articles.  Show students how to mine a bibliography and use something like Journal Finder to locate or ILL particular articles.  If needed, show students how to search for articles in a library database.  These will be three strategies for creating their own lit review maps.

2) Students Create their own Lit Review Maps
As a follow-up activity, perhaps as homework for the next class session, students create their own Lit Review Map using about five sources.  They can make connections between articles and use icons (like the fire or scissors above) to characterize the relationships between pieces of scholarship.  They should also identify places where more information or a different angle is needed.  Then, they can use a combination of Google Scholar Cited by searches, mining bibliographies in existing articles, and regular library database searching to identify new articles to add.  To incorporate these new articles into the web, they would need some time to read them and then identify new connections.  This could be a multi-part assignment that takes place over the course of a couple weeks.

3) Students Place Themselves on their Lit Review Map
A good lit review has an arc: it is strategically leading to a point when the author can add her new ideas to the conversation.  Once a student has gone through a couple phases of adding existing scholarship to her lit review map, she can place herself on it.  Which scholarship is most closely connected to hers, and what is the nature of the connections?  What new ideas will she be adding?  This part of the exercise can help students become more confident in their ideas and visualize themselves as part of the community of scholars.

4) Identifying Conversations in Participatory Online Environments
Have students find scholars on Twitter or on blogs.  Teach them how to organize the information with Twitter lists or RSS feeds and have them monitor lists and feeds for a couple of weeks.  At the end, reflect on: How is a participatory online conversation similar to traditional academic discourse?  How is it different?  Can these conversations be mapped like the traditional resources, and can they/should they be added to the students’ Lit Review Maps?

5) Enter Participatory Online Communities
Have students connect to existing online academic conversations through Tweeting or blogging.  In order to be successful, students might need to be prompted to use a specific hashtag or other strategies for connecting to online conversations.

The End

I’ve found the Framework and the ideas of metaliteracy and threshold concepts to be inspirational in thinking about new ways of teaching.  I haven’t had a chance to try this one out with a class yet, but I hope I will soon!