Thursday, January 20, 2011

Generic Article Summary

Whenever your course calendar indicates that you have a summary due - the first instance of this is the "Gross summary," on February 4 - you'll pretty much write the same thing:

* One short paragraph explaining the main point of the piece and/or briefly summarizing it if you have trouble coming up with a thesis about it.

* One short paragraph expressing a reaction to the piece.

We'll get a little bit of practice doing this in the Jamaica Kincaid assignment you're doing next. I'll always write a prompt for everything you're responding to, in case you have trouble getting started. For example, let's say I had asked you to do this for the very first piece we read, Silko's "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective." The prompt might have looked something like this:

In your first paragraph, please try to summarize for me Silko's main argument/idea. What kinds of evidence does she use to demonstrate her point? Who is her intended audience? In your second, give me your reaction. How effective do you think the piece is? Does it have any weaknesses? Are there parts you felt were confusing? How does this relate to the way you work with writing, if at all?

And an answer might have looked something like this:

In Leslie Marmon Silko's "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective," the author is interested in explaining how her particular cultural background affects the way she experiences storytelling. Silko explains that, for the Laguna Indians, all language is a kind of storytelling, because all words are connected with history and culture. She emphasizes that this is not just through traditional folk stories - though they are certainly important - but also through new stories that are created, which help to build community and family shared experiences. Silko's audience appears to include not just her original listeners - as the piece was originally intended to be spoken, not read - but, ultimately other readers in other places. This is apparent by the way she invites her audience to reach across multiple times, places, and cultures, and to think about the ways in which language, via storytelling, can unite us.
I find Silko's argument really interesting, though I think in a lot of ways I already relate to language in the way she talks about. I'm really interested in linguistic origins and how words and themes are interconnected. One of my old housemates, introducing me to someone, once said, "This is Otto. She doesn't actually have conversations, she just quotes random obscure stuff and then laughs at herself." I was pretty embarrassed that she was right; this is sort of a more generous way to think of it - that always having things remind you of other words or lines or stories is just a really integrated and communal way to experience language. I guess I'm still curious as to what degree other people experience this as well.

Now, all of this is pretty rough draft on my part (as your blogs should be), but notice that neither the summary nor the response have to be particularly lengthy. Concise and meaningful is fine. Note also that I didn't specifically answer most of the questions in the prompt, but they were there to be answered if I ran out of things to say. Always try to do these as "top-down" summaries - in the first one or two sentences, you should name the author, name the piece, and make a claim about what the piece's major point is. The rest of your summary should then explain what that major point looks like, how it works, etc.

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