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Summarizing

Summaries of others’ analyses and arguments are important because they demonstrate to readers that a writer has done her homework and has fairly and generously considered another’s position. If we summarize in a partial or tendentious way, we run the risk of being thought of as a poor reader or as misrepresenting another’s argument. Even as we attempt to be most fair in designing a summary, each of us will summarize the same material somewhat differently. This is because summary, like paraphrase, not only condenses material to its essence, but does so using fresh language. A summary unfolds, as it were “in other words.” It translates what was said into words that echo the summarizer’s understanding. To summarize fairly and generously, you can identify these features:

materials Where does the writer go for examples and evidence? What texts are cited and discussed? What experiences or events are described? What experiments were undertaken and what components did they involve?
method How does the writer relate examples to ideas? How does he or she connect one idea to the next, build a sense of continuity and flow? What theories or hypotheses informed the analysis? What professional or disciplinary perspectives and practices wee brought to bear on the analysis?
yield What does the writer conclude? How is this conclusion related to earlier findings? Where does the writer finally stand on the issue under consideration? What are the implications of this writer’s findings?

An Example

Here, a writer summarizes an historian’s intellectual agenda, cluing readers into the scholar’s materials (“Drawing upon U.S. historical archives”) her method (“discerns through close reading”) and yield (her finding that the public expression of homesickness has changed over the centuries). The work being summarized is a scholarly article: Susan Matt, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Homesickness and Nostalgia in U.S. History,” The Journal of American History 92.2 (2007): 469-497.

Drawing upon U.S. historical archives (of medical records, letters, and journalistic writings) from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, Susan Matt discerns through close reading the ways in which the public expression of homesickness has gradually evolved from being fully accepted as a positive social value in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to our contemporary moment’s dismissal of homesickness as a pathology which runs counter to the culture’s preference for individual freedom and upward mobility. Matt questions the way in which nostalgia has been understood as mostly a private feeling, reminding of the social dynamics in which individual feelings can (and cannot) be publicly expressed.

 

Typical Elements in a Summary

Noting Keywords, Passages, Data

  • What aspects of this text stand out for me as a reader?
  • Which terms, phrases, passages, or data strike me as interesting, troubling, ambiguous, or suggestive?
  • Which terms, phrases, passages, or data represent “flashpoints” in the text, moments given a special intensity or importance

Comparing this Writer’s Work to Other (or Previous) Work on the Subject 

  • Previous work on the subject has typically explored X, but this writer takes up a different challenge: _______.
  • X distinguishes her project from earlier investigations, which generally tend to_______.
  • X’s work fits squarely within Y tradition of inquiry because _______.
  • X calls into question previous work on the subject, finding it _______.
  • X differentiates her work on the subject from others’ analyses in this way: _______.

What Materials and Methods Does this Writer Use?

  • X unearths important evidence in the form of _______.
  • X’s analysis of the evidence is guided by _______ tradition of inquiry/theory/methodology.
  • X’s method can best be described as _______ because she deploys certain terms/makes certain distinctions/carries out certain experiments.

How Might the Project Best Be Characterized?

  • If there is a single term that is indispensable to X’s investigation, it is _______.
  • A cluster of related terms emerge again and again: _______ and _______ and _______.
  • _______ is a constituent question posed throughout.
  • At one point, X characterizes her overall project as _______.

Recognizing a Project’s Boundary and Shape

  • Rather than focus on _______ or _______, X is more interested in highlighting _______.
  • Readers shouldn’t expect _______; instead, X treats _______in depth, focusing on _______.
  • By focusing on _______rather than _______, X is able to carefully focus on _______.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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