Recursive Processes in Writing a Literature Review

Conducting a literature review is usually recursive, meaning that somewhere along the way, you’ll find yourself repeating steps out-of-order.

(University ofWest Florida Library Studies, 2019)

Writing in general is a recursive process in which identified patterns are continually revised. Over time, these patterns are integrated and ideas become more refined (Zamel, 1982). Elbow (1998) reminds us that “trying to write it right the first time” is a “dangerous method” (p. 39). For instance, I wrote various versions of my literature review as I reworked my drafts until my committee and I were satisfied with “the best version” (Bloomberg &Volpe, 2008). However, my best version did not evolve through linear stages, or across a few weeks. I went back and forth with my committee members, even during the data collection and analysis processes. Across time, we identified nuances in the literature that required me to revise or delete portions of the review. This gentle process meant that reviewing and writing the literature review would not necessarily be completed before the data collection and analysis sections were written. Like me, most novice scholars go through multiple revisions of their dissertation review drafts.

For example, during my doctoral program, my comprehensive examination entailed writing the literature review section for my dissertation. The criterion for the exam was to demonstrate creditable work in examining how literacy researchers have studied the issues related to family literacy and digital literacies, and present a clear argument about how those issues contribute to the field. More specifically, the Pli.D. Dissertation Handbook stated,

The literature review in the proposal should include an introduction to the problem or issue in the field that your study addresses, your research questions, your theoretical framework, and a coherent review of relevant literature that provides a rationale for the research questions and methodology.You need to be explicit about the timeliness and relevance of your proposed research... The literature review must be focused and selective, and the focus will be on the rationale for the study, the research questions, the research design, and the data collection and analysis procedures (University at Albany, SUNY, 2014).

When completing the final revision of my dissertation, I located a significant study I had missed in my search that was very relevant to my research (Ba et al., 2002). This study addressed the paucity of studies that examined African American families’ literacies and digital literacies. Ba et al. (2002) examined nine low-income and ten middle-income African American and Latinx families with children in grades 7 and 8.The families in this study were similar to my participants, the Alis. Like those families, the Ali family’s everyday digital literacy practices influenced their family life. For example, the family purchased an internet connection, the children spent leisure time on the computer, parents used the computer, parents used digital tools to communicate with their children, and family members engaged in troubleshooting when problems arose. Digital literacy practices were influenced by social, technological, and school environments. My study also showed various nuances, and proved that families like the Alis did have access to the technologies accessed by families explored in Ba et al.’s (2002) study. This example reveals how the process of writing a literature review is ongoing, and initial searches are inherently partial. Because of this, it is often necessary to update keywords and phrases and keep detailed records in order to manage an up-to-date scholarly search.

My first iteration of my review started with searching literature on the following topics/structures: (a) family literacy; (b) families’ cultural, socioeconomic, and discursive literacy practices; (c) families and technologies/new literacies/ digital literacies, and (d) family literacy as apprenticeships. My final dissertation headings in my literature review were as follows: (a) Theories of Multimodalities, (b) Origins of Digital Literacies, (c) Literacy Practices/Literacy Events, (d) Family Literacies and Digital Literacy Practices, (e) Apprenticeships in Family Literacies, and (f) Meaning Making and Identities. These themes/topics provided me with specific vantage points to focus on as I examined the most important constructs and analyzed my data.

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