The Frustration of Failing to Get Through

Whew! I’ve been crazy busy for the past four weeks, so I’ve been lazy with my blogging. But the topic of this particular post has been chewing on me for the last couple of weeks.

I’m teaching a Media History course this semester, and one of the major assignments is to write a research paper of 10-to-12 pages. I’ve designed the course so that students have been turning in parts of it each week — a list of primary sources, a statement of the topic’s significance, the opening paragraph, etc. — just to make sure they’re staying on task.

One of those parts is the literature review, and this has proven to be the source of my frustration. I talked about the lit review early on in the semester and explained that it’s just what it says it is — it’s a review of the literature that has already been written on a particular topic. I talked about looking at history books and journal articles (primarily) and then including those writers’ perspectives before moving on to the main body of the paper. I also provided an example of a full lit review from my doctoral dissertation.

As it got closer to the time the lit review was due, a few students approached me and asked me to explain it again. And I did. Then I heard through the grapevine that others weren’t sure how to do it. So I took some more class time to explain it again, and this time I gave them another example of a short lit review I had done for a doctoral history class assignment.

Obviously, just about no one in my class has ever been asked to write one. And by now, I was getting frustrated — but not with my students. I’m frustrated at my apparent inability to adequately explain to them what a literature review is. I’m having great difficulty moving beyond this explanation: “Find what other historians have said about your topic, and include a few sentences about the major points of their perspectives. If there’s some disagreement among historians about this topic, be sure to include that, too. Just include a brief review of the literature that’s already out there.”

The kicker came Sunday night, when I checked my course e-mail and found two messages from one of my students who happens to be traveling for a university competition. In the first one, she told me she wasn’t sure she was doing the lit review correctly and asked for some feedback. The second one was a follow up saying that she had spoken to a librarian at the school she was visiting, and the librarian had explained it to her thoroughly. My student also told me that she had been doing the lit review the wrong way before the librarian corrected her.

In the reply, I asked my student to share what the librarian told her because I’m highly interested in hearing it. I hope it’ll help me lick this problem the next time I teach this class.

In the meantime, I’m glad someone was able to help her get a good grip on this topic. But I’m further frustrated that I wasn’t able to do it myself.

2 Responses to “The Frustration of Failing to Get Through”
  1. Jason and I are both working on lit reviews right now, and they are hard to understand! I'd be interested in hearing what the librarian said as well. 🙂 Good luck!

  2. Terolyn says:

    I remember lit reviews being a pain when I was working on my Master's. It wasn't until I had written a piece of it and my prof gave me feedback that I "got it". I'm sure it's not your supposed inability to explain the concept. I'm not sure if this is an undergraduate or graduate course. If undergrad then I seriously doubt they've been challenged like this before. Kudos to you for the effort!

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