In one of our previous guides, on “Reading Effectively,” we closed with a few questions that you might ask yourself as your read through your research resources. These aren’t rhetorical questions. You should actually make note of your responses, for future reference. From my very first day of graduate school, my classmates and I were required to pose the following questions to every text we read throughout our graduate careers. The following is adapted from that list, with a few hints from John Cresswell’s Research Design thrown in:
- In two or three sentences, what is the central thesis of this work, or what is the major problem it is addressing?
- In two or three sentences, on what assumptions or points is the thesis of the work built, in logical order?
- What are the major terms or concepts central to this work, and how does the writer define these terms? Interrogate buzzwords. How are key concepts related to each other?
- What are the methods of research and argumentation and kinds of evidence used to develop and support the thesis of the work? What research methods – content analysis, interviews, discourse analysis, fieldwork, etc. – did the author employ? What methods of argumentation, or rhetorical strategies, is he or she employing to make his/her case? How else could the argument be made? Is it sufficiently elaborated? How is he or she supporting his/her arguments?
- In your judgment, what are the limitations, shortcomings, errors, or weaknesses in the work?
- In your judgment, what are the major contributions of this work to your understanding of the field and your specific research topic?
Each week, in each of my graduate seminars, I was expected to submit a two-page abstract, addressing these six questions, of each book we read for that week. Abstracts are of course, as their name would lead you to believe, abstracted critical summaries of a text as a whole — they help you step away from the details and consider the bigger picture, the larger argument, of a text. I’m no longer quite so diligent in composing and cataloguing thorough abstracts of each text I read (instead, I keep notes in a research database) – but I do recognize the value of the exercise: I still frequently refer to my notebooks of grad school abstracts.
The list of six reading questions, supplemented with others we posed in our previous discussion on “Reading Effectively” and issues that are unique to your own specific projects, can serve as an effective template for abstracting the resources you review. This template will evolve as you get more deeply involved in your research and discover what you’re asking from each of your sources, what you want to remember from each source. It’s a good idea to add these abstracts to your research database – ideally, in a searchable format online – so, later on, you can easily search for patterns and keywords.
Abstracts have personal value, of course, in that they allow you to keep record of what you’re reading and watching and listening to. But getting in the habit of writing abstracts is useful because they have plenty of applications in the professional world. You may have noticed the abstracts at the top of many academic articles or essays; publishers will usually ask you to provide a brief (usually about 150 words) abstract with your submission. You need to know how to distill your argument and methods and explain the value of your contribution. You’ll also commonly be asked to submit abstracts as part of your application or proposal to participate in academic or professional conferences or festivals, or to have your work considered for inclusion in exhibitions or edited volumes (see Melissa Gregg on the skill and value of abstract-writing). In these cases, you’ll need to be able to explain, in just a couple hundred words, what your work proposes to do, what methods you’re using, what key concepts you’re working with, in what traditions you’re working, etc. Keywords are particularly important. Organizers and editors have hundreds – if not thousands – of proposals to wade through, so you need to be able to get across the specificity and soundness and potential value of your proposed project quickly and clearly.
In short, abstracting your work, Joseph Moxley notes, “makes you focus on what is important” (63), forces you to “reevalut[e] your logic and… defin[e your] purpose” (63-4), and helps you “gain a firmer hold, a tighter perspective, on the nature of your work” (64).
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY / MEDIAGRAPHY
Some scholars and writing tutors differentiate between “abstracts” and “annotations” by describing abstracts as purely descriptive and annotations as both descriptive and evaluative. As our preceding discussion of “abstracts” indicates, however, there are different “species” of abstracts — and those you create for your own research purposes can certainly include critical analysis. I’d argue that it’s not productive to draw rigid distinctions between “description” and “evaluation,” and that we can allow abstracts to be different things for different purposes. But because the annotated bibliography is a recognized and widely used genre, we should take a few minutes to consider what constitutes as “annotation” in this context.
The annotated bibliography is an alphabetical list of resources, focusing on a particular topic or collection of topics, along with a brief (~150 word) descriptive and critical “annotation” for each source (for the purposes of my Understanding Media Studies class, those materials might include: resources that expand the scope of our guests’ work, by situating it within broader discourses and deeper historical context, and by drawing parallels to related work in other fields and in other modalities; resources that help us to better understand the macro-scale contours of our presenters’ oeuvres or the trajectories of their work; resources that identify similar work by other scholars and practitioners; and resources that acknowledge historical or contemporary applications for the type of work our guests are doing).
Citations should all be formatted consistently, in accordance with any of the standard citation styles: MLA, Chicago, Harvard, APA, etc. (your choice of style will depend on what style is used in the majority of your sources, and on what professional communities you wish to align yourself with, e.g., humanities or social science scholars). And annotations should briefly describe (in your own words) the source’s content and scope and evaluate its authority (do others cite it? is the author well regarded?) and relevance to other important work in the field and to your particular project.
You should begin your bibliography with an introduction that contextualizes your search for resources. And in listing those resources, you can adopt any of a variety of organizational schemes: listing materials alphabetically or chronologically, organizing them by theme, topic, or format, etc.
Michigan State, Penn State, and Skidmore College offer some potentially useful guides. You can also consult the following sample annotated bibliographies, or find your own examples by Googling “annotated bibliography” + [keyword]:
- Danica Savonick and Cathy N. Davidson, “Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies,” HASTAC (January 26, 2015).
- Australian Civil-Military Center & University of Adelaide, “Social Networking, Social Media, and Complex Emergencies: An Annotated Bibliography” (July 2013).
- Kate Raynes-Goldie, “Annotated Bibliography: Digitally Mediated Surveillance, Privacy, and Social Network Sites,” Prepared for Cyber-surveillance in Everyday Life: An International Workshop, May 12-15, 2011, University of Toronto, Canada
The annotated bibliography can then serve as a stepping stone on the way to a literature review, which will take all or most of the resources you’ve listed and annotated here, and “process” them into something that’s more than a mere listing.
Melissa Gregg, “Writing an Abstract” Home Cooked Theory [Blog Post] (March 15, 2011).
S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (New York: Harcourt, 1949).
Joseph M. Moxley, “How to Write Informative Abstracts” In Publish, Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing (Westport, CT: Praeger 1992): 61-4.