Against preliminary bibliographies

A student tonight was searching for sources for a two-page bibliography. She didn’t have a paper to write, at least not yet — just that list of sources. She didn’t care whether she had books or articles or YouTube videos; she was just assigned to find two pages’ worth of sources on a topic and damned if she wasn’t going to do just that.

This sort of long bibliography at the start of a project is, I think, a waste of time. In practice, any researcher will discover half or more of their sources when they’re writing anyway. And the early bibliography assignment encourages students to build up a list of books and articles without actually reading them. They don’t engage the material, which means they can’t develop their preliminary ideas.

Here’s an alternative: instead of starting with a bibliography, require students to hand in “drafts” frequently, every week or two. They’ll be simple at the beginning. Start in week 1 with a “first draft” that’s no more than a summary of a couple of encyclopedia articles. But in writing the students will have to engage the material. Maybe the encyclopedia glossed over something that sounds interesting. The next week, read a secondary source and add detail that fleshes out that point. Keep going back and forth between reading and writing, adding new details and cutting away what no longer fits. At the end of the year they’ll have a paper written and revised over the course of months, not days. They’ll be researchers.

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