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The literature review brings together “relevant arguments by several scholars to provide an overview of scholarly work on a particular topic” (Graf and Birkenstein 196-197). The challenge in this kind of assignment is to categorize multiple sources, each with its own author and context, into two or three major groups. The principle behind this categorization will differ depending on the topic. Some literature reviews organize sources as opposing sides in a debate, while others group them according to a difference in emphasis, methodology, or chronology (pre-war and post-war understandings of unemployment, for example).
Your literature review should summarize the existing scholarly conversation about the topic and identify an area that you would like to explore further in your next essay (the research essay). In his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, for example, Andrew Delbanco begins by surveying common answers to the question “What is college for?”: An economic answer to this question stresses the competitive advantage of higher education both for individual students and for the national economy, while a political answer points to the need for educated citizens in a democracy. This brief literature review allows Delbanco to make his claim that a third, “more rarely heard” argument for college is equally important: a college education teaches students “how to enjoy life” by opening them to new and unfamiliar intellectual experiences (31-32). This understanding of college as a means of personal enrichment will be the focus of Delbanco’s own research on the history of higher education.
In your 4-5-page literature review, you will survey 6-8 sources assigned by your instructor on a topic related to your course theme. For help on how to extrapolate a larger scholarly “conversation” from this group of sources, see They Say/I Say, chapter 14. An effective literature review should accomplish the following tasks:
Introduce the central question, problem, or focus. Your introduction should contextualize the topic and or question, explain that writers have taken different approaches to it, and introduce your system for organizing those approaches (in this paper, your claim is not about the topic itself but about the shape of the conversation surrounding that topic).
Illustrate the major strands of the scholarly conversation around your topic by summarizing and assessing the arguments of your sources and explaining how they relate to each other. Even arguments that fit broadly within a single category will have differences of focus, emphasis, or intensity (Ex: “Blake goes even further than Johnson, arguing that not only ____ but ____”).
Propose future research: Connect your assessment of the scholarly conversation in this literature review to your own proposal for the research you will undertake in the research essay. A common approach in this part of the literature review is to identify some gap in the existing literature on the topic that your own research will fill. You could also explain which of the approaches you find most productive and why, and sketch a tentative plan for how you will explore it further: Is there a body of primary evidence that you will need to look at? A seminal secondary source to which authors refer repeatedly? What is the next step for you in understanding this part of the conversation that you have reconstituted in your literature review?
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