Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writing the Literature Review: techniques

I was talking with a writer who queried me about the process described by a book on dissertation writing. I've not read the book, though another writer I work with likes it.

The technique, as reported to me, relied on scanning the literature, and, apparently, even made specific suggestions to keep the writer from reading the material closely. The method included skimming works, taking quotes, and building the literature review from those pieces.

My initial response to this was that it was an impoverished view of scholarship--as if scholarship is just about being able to quote the right people. Personally I've never been impressed with people who could quote other writers unless they knew what that writing meant. And I've met plenty of people who knew who the authors contributing to the discourse were, but couldn't really engage with the ideas in any depth.

I believe that scholarship, research, and the academic life, is about a search for deeper understanding, a search for wisdom. Skimming can be misleading. It's like reading Hume and thinking that he doesn't believe in substance or human identity because you came across a paragraph that siad that we can't prove such things exist. I think that we should test the assertions of the things we read, and we should try to understand how the ideas we read fit into our world view, and how they fit into the discourse of the field in which we are scholars.

That being said, I want to acknowledge that different techniques work for different people. It's quite possible that a person who is of a different character than I could work quite well with that process that involves skimming. One way to look at it, and to justify it is that skimming allows one to review a wider range of material, and then allows the writer to read more deeply in the most important works.

It is important to explore different techniques and different ways of approaching the project. Different things will give different insights. And the most important thing, it seems to me, is that the writer work on refining his or her own voice--through seeing the work from different angles and from trying different approaches to presenting that work.

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