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This is Part II of the guest post by Cecile Badenhorst of Memorial University in Canada. For an extended discussion of these ideas, go to her article on “Literature reviews, citations and intertextuality in graduate student writing”

In the first part of this blog post, I suggested that explicitly teaching students the genre of literature reviews and the many ways experienced academic writers use citation practices can help students understand this challenging genre. In this post, I want to focus on complexity in literature reviews. These papers require complex higher order thinking skills and the ability to critique, evaluate and review knowledge in sophisticated ways. Reproducing this complexity is often the most challenging for students. It is even more challenging for those of us involved in teaching this genre: How do we make the complexity more visible and accessible?

How can we teach complexity in literature reviews?

Students who are not confident with literature review literacies tend to stay close to the wording of original sources; they tend to cite from specific sentences rather than the overall message of the article; and they often cite from the abstract. One way to help students move from knowledge-telling to knowledge-transformation (see Part I) is to use Harris’ (2006) moves. Moves describe a rhetorical or linguistic pattern often found in a text within a particular genre. Harris’ four moves consist of: coming to terms, forwarding, countering, and taking an approach.

Coming to terms refers to the process of getting to know content, concepts and issues. The mechanisms for achieving this move are: summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting and writing descriptions.

Forwarding refers to the way a writer recirculates, repurposes or uses source texts. Using an author as an authority to promote an argument would be an example of forwarding.

Countering, or thinking differently about a text or author, is the next move. Academic writers do not need to be in opposition to an author’s argument but could add to the conversation or perhaps take it in a new direction.

The final move, taking an approach, happens by adopting the approach of another author or using an author as a stepping-stone to a new perspective. This could be a different perspective from what was originally intended by the author. A writer could apply the original work in an innovative way. This last move requires a deep understanding of the literature, an author’s contribution, and the debates about concepts.

Harris’ moves provide a mechanism to assess knowledge-telling (coming to terms and forwarding) and knowledge-transformation (countering and taking an approach).

Will genre and rhetorical moves be enough?

It’s not enough simply to teach the genre and rhetoric of literature reviews. If we truly want students to reach knowledge-transformation, we have to include discussions on the way knowledge works in academic contexts.

First, writing (and knowledge) is ideological, and tied to values and beliefs. The positions we occupy will shape the way we read and what we write.

Second, knowledge in academic contexts is contested and debatable. This is often very difficult for students to grasp, especially if they are used to using textbooks which reinforce the idea of transparent knowledge based on the voice of an uncontested expert (Hendricks and Quinn, 2000). Detecting authorial stance is often immensely challenging for novice writers. For many students, knowledge is ‘out there’ and merely needs to be reported on. It is not surprising then, that they find it difficult to differentiate between their views and the views of those they are reading, or to integrate their own voice into other voices.

Third, literature reviews are intertextually heavy. Intertextuality refers to the implicit and explicit references to other texts, concepts, ideas and metaphors. Sometimes the intertextuality is explicit and obvious, as it is when a source is cited. At other times, intertextual references can be implicit and obscure, and will only be understood by experienced members of the discourse community (audience) who can read the inferences in the text (Bazerman, 2004). For example, if I write that “intertextuality is a post-modern concept”, I have made an implicit intertextual reference that readers will understand only if they are familiar with literature on post-modernism. Even then, it is still obscure about exactly what I’m referring to. If I write “the concept of intertextuality is drawn from Kristeva (1996)”, then the intertextual reference becomes clearer and more traceable. Bazerman (2004) argues that a text has intertextual reach when the “textual borrowings involve some distance in time, space, culture, or institution” (p. 89). The further a text travels for its intertextual references, the more intertextual reach it has. When students read dense academic articles, it is impenetrable because of the intertextual reach and the reader’s lack of experience to identify the complex layering of texts.

With knowledge of what we want students to achieve (knowledge transformation), plus the building blocks of how to achieve this (genre and rhetorical moves), students will have a better idea of how to write the literature review. But only with an understanding of the ideological, contested and intertextual nature of academic knowledge will we be able to help students to truly pin down this elusive genre.