Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

the role of summary in composition

In The Chronicle Mark Bauerlein writes about his decision to teach only summary in his composition course. As he explains:

From now on, my syllabus will require no research papers, no analytical tasks, no thesis, no argument, no conclusion.  No critical thinking and no higher-order thinking skills.  Instead, the semester will run up 14 two-page summaries (plus the homework exercises)… No “why” questions and no interpretation needed.  Just render the gist clearly and summarily.

Why scale the tasks downward?  Because in my experience, students have a hard time with it, and if they can’t summarize well, they can’t interpret, analyze, or just plain describe well, either.  

The comments are mostly shock, half-jokingly wondering if this is an April Fool's joke. Anyone who has followed Bauerlein's work would know that it isn't. In his defense, it is feasible that one might find defense for his claim in rhetoric and composition research like the Citation Project (see my earlier post), which supports Bauerlein's perception that students struggle with performing summary.

UPDATE: I don't mean to suggest that Howard and Jamieson (lead researchers on the Citation Project) would endorse Bauerlein's pedagogy.

I have a couple of questions about this.

1. The obvious question is how one manages to distinguish among summary, analysis, argument, and interpretation. E.g.

With the aid of a rag tag crew of adventurers, a young man rescues a princess from an evil empire and discovers his destiny to become a member of a dying order of knights.

A young man helps a rebel leader escape from an imperial prison and participates in an pitched battle to save the rebels' military base. 

I assume you recognize the story, and I think most people would say the first summary is more accurate. Why? The second one is certainly not inaccurate. It simply downplays the "hero's journey" aspect and portrays the film as depicting a political and collective activity. 

2. Now clearly we feel confident in our ability to discern summary from these other activities. We are able to do this because we situate a particular kind of summarizing activity in the context of other rhetorical procedures that we term "interpretation," "analysis," and so on. In other words, summary isn't just one thing, even though it appears to be, even though we can describe it as such. The two summaries above are not equivalent, but the nature of the differences between them depends on the rhetorical situation in which they are being produced. This is unavoidable. There is no such thing as a generalized summary that does not call upon rhetorical considerations. 

For example, Bauerlein's syllabus calls for students to read "Great Books" and summarize the plots. Let's set aside the fact that it is plagiarism-palooza waiting to happen. What are the connections between the act of summarizing Hamlet and summarizing the technical documentation for an iPhone or the SOPA legislation or an environmental impact report on the construction of an oil pipeline? What's the connection between writing any of these summaries for 5th graders? for a local newspaper? for a law firm? How is the summary of iPhone documentation different if you are talking about alleged abuses of Chinese workers or the environmental impact of the device versus writing a blog post for AppleInsider on the new features of the latest model?

How does paraphrasing a summary of Hamlet help you do any of those things? And before you object, let me say that any summary of a "Great Book" can only ever be a paraphrase, because all of these texts have been summarized 100s of times. Go ahead and try to write a summary of Hamlet that isn't a paraphrase of other summaries. In fact, the closer you come to paraphrasing other summaries, the less original your summary is, the better job you've done. 

There is no such thing as "summary."

3. However, there are actually deeper problems here. The first assumes that "summary" is foundational to other more complex cognitive processes. I think this is probably just an error in understanding how communication operates. I've been working with various Deleuzian theories for most of my academic career. I don't know that I could "summarize" A Thousand Plateaus, and if I did, I don't think that summary would necessarily be all that useful to me. And if it was, it wouldn't be because it represented some mastery of the content. Summary is roughly analogous to the top-down model of artificial intelligence. It assumes that the first thing a robot would need to do to navigate a room is to create a Cartesian map of the entire space. But that's not really the case, and it isn't how we navigate spaces. In part because the abstraction of that map (and what is a summary if not an abstract) is not the space itself. 

I think that if your goal is to ensure that students know the plots of some literary texts then Bauerlein's approach makes sense. And that goal may make sense for literature students, or if you believe that students should read "great books" because they should. But those are very different goals from those we have established for composition. I don't believe there is any reason to expect that summarizing Hamlet in a first-year class will do anything to help a student analyze case studies in their advanced business major course three years later.

4. Finally, and here I am moving more into my view on this matter, I believe we misidentify the challenges of first-year composition when we focus on student lack and specifically on the lack of "skills." Our challenge is to take students who do not believe they are writers (despite all the writing they do outside school), who do not value writing, who do not believe they have the capacity to succeed as writers, and who simply wish to get done with this course and give them a path to developing a lasting writing practice that will extend beyond the end of the semester.

I don't see how writing summaries accomplishes that. I don't see how presenting writing as a series of discrete and impersonal tasks accomplishes that. I don't see how situating students as people you believe cannot achieve what you have identified as the most "basic" of writing activities accomplishes that. 

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