Conversation Tables: An interactive annotated bibliography

All, Teaching Tips

Annotated bibliographies, in one form or another, have always been a part of the way that I teach formal argument essays. I see the process of curating a collection of resources as essential to thinking through an argument. However, several years ago, I moved from assigning a traditional annotated bibliography to an assignment I like to call the Paper Trail. The Paper Trail focuses on information literacy and the research process rather than the finished product and so I found it much more useful for developing writers still working to acquire college-level literacy skills. While I was happy with the Paper Trail, in recent years I have been more drawn to an iterative, layered approach I learned from the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program. The process is introduced fully in this instruction manual, Entering the Conversation: Joining a Conversation in Progress, and I have adapted it for my own purposes to my classes. I had intended to conduct at least some of this work face-to-face, but as my classes were hybrid in pre-pandemic days some of it was always going to be completed online. I hope other writing instructors forced to move their classes online will find this an useful support for their students working on argument essays.

The Foundation

Throughout the semester we have been working on writing claims and working with evidence. More recently we have built a class reading list of longform articles focused on social justice issues (learn more here) and created snaps that explored the topics raised by those articles using both news articles and research-based articles. We then extended the conversations inspired by this work and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Sustainable Development Goals to look for larger social justice themes. Finally, we discussed definitions and descriptions of arguments as well as counterarguments and rebuttals. Students were then directed to craft a compelling, debatable, and defensible claim (a skill we have been working on all semester) for the topic of their choice with the understanding that this claim may shift or evolve as we built and interacted with our conversation tables and learned more about their topic of choice.

Conversation Tables

I have always been more attracted to a vision of argument writing as a conversation than a debate and so the idea of conversation tables immediately inspired me to rethink the way my students engage with preparing and writing argument essays. I love the concept of creating a civil conversation among experts as part of the research and brainstorming process and so my students will each create a conversation table devoted to their chosen topic.

This process begins with rough claim plus a longform article exploring this issue in depth (see foundation activities above) and a news article connecting this topic to the worldwide conversation. Students then locate two research articles to explore this issue in greater depth before bringing in two more articles that introduce the opposition’s counterclaims or rebuttals. Finally, I direct students to fill in the gaps in their knowledge that have been discovered through this process and add nuance to the conversation. Students are also expected to capture their works cited entry information along the way.

This process captures the same information that we would during an annotated bibliography, but I believe breaking the process into these steps and then offering a visualization of the information directs our thinking about the issue as well as our argument in useful ways.

Next Steps

As we move forward, students will engage with their peers’ conversation tables to both draw inspiration for their own reading, thinking, and writing as well as to engage with the thinking of the table creator. Then students will craft elevator pitches for their argument using an online process adapted from Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing (see Pitching the Grid) and we will begin the serious work of building written arguments.

Our engagement in this work is supported by iterative hyperdocs and I hope that other writing teachers currently engaged in teaching online will find both this assignment as well as the other resources I have shared useful and inspiring. I know there are a wealth of resources available via the hyperdocs and C3WP community that can be adopted or adapted for our current teaching reality and I also trust these resources more than anything you can find on random sites that I don’t want to name but require you to pay for packets from unvetted sources. And during these trying times, please remember the advice I offered a lifetime ago in pandemic-time: Simple is Better, Don’t Replicate, and Remember the Students. Be kind and generous with yourself and with your students.

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