Friday, March 16, 2007

Even Summaries Need a Point

My group in this class is writing the "writing about reading" wikibook chapter. We've split this into summary and critique, and there's been discussion that even high school students don't do much summary--what basic writers really need to work on is critique. Now I have helped people with honest-to-goodness summary assignments in the writing center, but I also wasn't quite sure that students needed advice on writing a summary. Mina Shaughnessy anticipated our hesitance to teach summary, saying that "most composition texts--and teachers--give little attention to summarizing except to warn students that they ought not to confuse a 'mere' summary with a critical or analytical statment. Yet we find little evidence that students are able to summarize effectively" (268). Shaughnessy would be happy to know that I actually talked to my students about summary this week, covering a chapter on summary from "They Say / I Say" (Graff and Birkenstein). I was already grading the students' annotated bibliographies when we got to this chapter, and I realized I should have taught it sooner.

Summaries are not as easy as they look, and they're more important than they're given credit for. A good analysis has to start with a good, if brief, summary. And many students struggle to write a good summary. Shaughnessy points out that students may have experience summarizing narrative works, which usually telling the main events in the order they were written. However, asking a student to summarize a news article or a scholarly essay should not result in a chronological list. Hypothetical example:

This article talks about _______. It also says _______. Also, __________. Then it goes on about ________.

A summary, I pointed out to my students, is not a list. Shaughnessy advises: "they should try to state in one sentence what the main point of the work is" (269). Graff and Birkenstein tell students to make the main points support an "overall claim" about the work (33). A summary is not as easy as it looks--like any piece of writing, it has to have a point.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton, 2006.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.