Practical Notes: The Assay Annotated Bibliography–Karen Babine

Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market. 


Ever since we published Christian Exoo and Sydney Fallone’s duology of annotated bibliographies at Assay, I’ve been deeply interested in the form as a mode of facilitating conversation in a way that traditional prose does not. I often assign annotated bibliographies in my courses, but we rarely think of them as a form of scholarship in themselves, advancing how we think about a particular topic. I’d like to start advocating for annotated bibliographies for final projects, rather than a scaffolded part of final projects, and I would like to see more of them submitted to Assay.

The Purpose:
Annotated Bibliographies and Literature Reviews have long been a staple of scholarly work, as a mode to gather published work on a topic and organize it into something unique to the writer. Sometimes they are included as part of a research process, the work of a writer or researcher understanding that they are entering a conversation already in progress, and using the established work to figure out what new angle they are adding. In this model, we would like to suggest thinking of Annotated Bibliographies as a mode of scholarship in themselves.

The Model: Christian Exoo and Sydney Fallone
Exoo, Christian, and Sydney Fallon. “Using CNF to Teach the Realities of Sexual Assault to ​First Responders: An Annotated Bibliography” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 2015,–sydney-fallon-using-cnf-to-teach-the-realities-of-sexual-assault-to-8203first-responders-an-annotated-bibliography65279-21.html.

Exoo, Christian. “Using CNF to Teach the Realities of ​Intimate Partner Violence to First Responders: An Annotated Bibliography” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 2016,

Basic Structure:
Main Topics
Peripheral Work

The Assay Annotated Bibliography begins with an introduction that clearly lays out the context and content of the project.

  • Context: What are the articles, books, interviews, etc. that are giving you insight into the context of this project? What is the conversation in creative nonfiction already taking place that you are entering? What is the historical context, contemporary evolution, peripheral creative work?
  • Content: What has the research in CNF been adding to your knowledge on the subject? You might consider this in terms of content as well as form. What do readers need to know about the subject itself, your investment in it (if applicable). This introduction serves the purpose of any introduction: keep your reader reading.
  • Argument/Thesis: what is the new angle you’re adding to this subject? What are you trying to accomplish here? Why does it matter? Why should anybody care?

Main Topics:
The Assay Annotated Bibliography is divided into main topics that serve the larger work begun in the introduction, along the lines of an outline. In the case of “Using CNF to Teach the Realities of ​Intimate Partner Violence to First Responders: An Annotated Bibliography,” Exoo includes the following:

  • Intimate Partner Violence and Chronic Illness
  • Intimate Partner Violence and the Neurobiology of Trauma
  • Intimate Partner Violence and Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Queer Intimate Partner Violence

Each topic includes one or more creative nonfiction offerings on the subject, cited in the appropriate format, followed by an annotation that is a deeper dive than standard annotations. For an Assay Annotated Bibliography, we’re looking for analysis, quotes, textual references as the author is using those creative pieces to further support the overall purpose of the bibliography, in the case of Exoo and Fallon, teaching particular groups of responders what abuse looks like in certain instances. The annotation is where the critical research comes into play: the critical research will not be cited in the bibliography itself, but incorporated into the annotation itself.

For instance:

Grigsby, Susan. “How Could a Man Who Loved Me So Much Want to Kill Me?” Daily Kos. September 27, 2015.

Susan Grigsby’s “How Could a Man Who Loved Me So Much Want to Kill Me?” deals with an often overlooked aspect of intimate partner violence— strangulation. 56% of women in abusive relationships report having been strangled by their partner. A 2002 study found that 40% of IPV survivors sustained at least one traumatic brain injury (TBI) that knocked them unconscious, and that 92% reported being struck in the head or face. In 2003, Valera and Berenbaum reported that 68% of their sample of abused women had one or more mild traumatic brain injuries, either from blows to the head, or from “anoxic brain injury”—being choked by their partners.

Grigsby captures the dissociation commonly experienced during traumatic experiences: “Even while he had his hands around my throat, cutting off my oxygen, it did not occur to me that he wanted to kill me. It was only as I was losing consciousness that I thought I might die. But even then, my thought was not that he might kill me, but that I might die.”

Traumatic brain injury is a common consequence of intimate partner violence. Yet it is estimated that doctors only correctly diagnose 1 in 35 patients seeking help for IPV-related conditions. For example, medical professionals frequently mistake the symptoms of mild TBI for borderline personality disorder, and incorrectly diagnose survivors. Though a false mental health diagnosis is stigmatizing enough, missing a TBI incurs additional complications. As Martha Banks notes in “Overlooked But Critical: Traumatic brain injury as a consequence of interpersonal violence,” “Sustaining a second brain injury before healing an initial brain trauma has been demonstrated to result in poor memory, poor judgment, inability to perform at the prior level of achievement, and, in the most severe cases, death.”

It is critical that advocates be able to recognize symptoms of traumatic brain injury, such as memory problems, flat affect, and a sudden cessation in therapeutic progress. Grigsby provides a useful description of the acute trauma she suffered: “I couldn’t talk for a few days, I assume my larynx was bruised or inflamed, and laryngitis was the excuse I used. Sweaters covered the bruises left by his fingers.” If advocates are able to recognize acute brain injury, they will be able to help their clients seek medical attention sooner, and avoid the chronic problems of untreated TBIs.

The annotation should be substantial, up to 500 words. It should manage not just the creative angle of the main topic, incorporate the critical research into the subject, and advance your own argument.

The Conclusion:
Wrap it up. What larger impact are you hoping this conversation will have? How does it advance current thinking on this subject? Where do you hope your own research might go? What gaps do you acknowledge—and how should the reader read your work in light of them?

The goal of these type of annotated bibliographies is to consider them complete research on their own, advancing conversations in creative nonfiction in a way that is easily digestible to readers and offers quick, deep dives into a particular topic. We hope to see more of these texts submitted to Assay.

Karen Babine is Assay’s Editor.

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