Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why Summaries Are Hard

Something I have been aware of for a while but have trouble articulating:

Most of my students, when they first write a standalone summary for my first year writing class, write it as though the author of the original article doesn’t exist. The author is almost never mentioned unless I explicitly tell them to mention him/her. Why might this be? Perhaps because the students are predisposed for whatever reason to think of texts mainly as containing information to be understood, absorbed, reacted to, analyzed, etc., but not to set them in a larger context. Maybe it isn’t until university (or even later?) that you begin to see texts as situated and rhetorical, constructed by people with particular aims and agency, rather than simply neutral transmitters of information.

What I think I see happening is the student writers appropriating the identity of the original authors themselves, if that makes sense — taking on the role of the information-transmitter. Things not attributed to other voices by the original author are simply written without attribution. In fact, most first-time summaries I get are written with no attribution to the author of the text, but the student writers often go out of their way to attribute ideas to the other people/organizations/texts mentioned in the original text. Most of the articles I have them summarize are reported pieces, so in essence the student takes on the role of the reporter. It’s interesting to me how frequently they will go out of their way to quote things that were quotes in the original article — again, as if they themselves were the reporters, and that their job as summarizers is to report “who said what” in the original. It’s just that the author of the original text is rarely considered as one of the “who said whats” to include.

What’s so hard about summarizing is that we ask the students to write a wholly “objective” report of what’s in the original text — to keep themselves and their opinion out of it, if you will — and this makes it very hard for them to realize that they still have to establish some kind of authorial identity. Ironically, it is through attribution to the original author that the student writer can come to distinguish his/her voice from that of the original text. When a writer carefully attributes ideas to other writers, they’re able to carve out a space for themselves, even in a seemingly neutral, objective summary, as the curator, organizer, and interpreter of the text they are summarizing.

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