On Doing History: Summary vs. Analysis

With Barry Commoner’s passing, I’ve noticed a bit of a transition in how he is perceived in the public sphere. Perhaps it is the proximity of recent eulogies, but where I previously had to summarize many of his activities in order to fill out the picture of his historical significance, I’ve been surprised to find that more and more people are familiar with the “narrative” and are more interested in my providing a deeper level of analysis—the “so what,” if you like. As a result, my engagement with his life and activism has been shifting. It raises an interesting and valuable perspective on the politics of identity in history, where narrative is a crucial tool in establishing a group or individual’s legitimacy in mainstream historical accounts (one of my ambitions in Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival was to ask what the history of American environmentalism looked like if we situated Commoner more centrally in the traditional narrative). It seems as though a more nuanced analysis of his contributions is now possible.

But this entry is not about that. Rather, it has to do with distinguishing between summary and analysis and is meant as something of an open letter to my students, who tend to struggle with the differences between the two. One of the primary goals in my History 2EE3 is to get students to work on their writing. Rather than making this an explicit feature of the course, I set it in the background by requiring that students write a series of short (no more than 2-page) response papers each of which asks them to engage with a single scholarly article. In my experience, regular writing is the best exercise for improving expository skills; stressing short, concise writing that asks students to demonstrate their critical reading skills and their own critical thinking tackles a number of important skills. From the syllabus:

The Custom Courseware package for History 2EE3 is comprised of essays that will serve as the basis for tutorial discussion and the short writing assignments. With the exception of the first essay, by George Orwell, Zilsel’s short essay, and B. R. Cohen’s Annals of Science, students will be expected to write short review/response papers (no more than two pages, double-­‐spaced) on each article in advance of the tutorial meeting. (The essays for which you are responsible for turning in a paper are marked with an asterisk in the course schedule below). Of the seven essay opportunities, the top five will count toward the final score. This means students need only write five, though they are encouraged to write more to replace a weaker grade if necessary. Succinct writing is a difficult skill to master, but students are required to identify the key questions and arguments in each essay under examination and to engage with its content in a manner that demonstrates careful reading and understanding.

These short assignments should be wri3en in formal essay format, with an introduction and thesis statement, a body that seeks to support and demonstrate your argument, and a conclusion that brings closure to your essay. Brevity and efficiency are key. Students should avoid summarizing the articles and concentrate instead on engaging in analysis that links the essays to the themes of this course. Avoid tackling themes that are too big to cover within the confines of these short papers. Papers that try to do too much tend to be vague and lack substance and/or supporting evidence. These tendencies will be reflected in students receiving a lower grade. Be sure to ground analysis in the articles and their relationship to science and technology in world history.

Since effective writing and communication skills are essential in history and most all jobs you may have afer graduation, the short writing assignments will require careful attention to style and clarity, as well as the quality of your analytical work. Though short, I expect all written assignments to be typewritten in coherent English. Spelling, grammar, and originality all “count.” Formal academic style and conventions should be used (no point form; contractions; colloquialisms; slang, etc.). For students who are concerned about writing mechanics or are unclear on how to present an effective thesis statement, I can recommend Leslie E. Casson’s A Writer’s Handbook, which is concise, accessible, inexpensive, and widely available. When citing authorities—ie. the essay under review—a parenthetical page number will suffice. Students should refrain from using outside sources in these short assignments; the primary aim is to engage with the essay in question.

The rationale for only counting the top five essays is to reduce the stress many students seem to experience when writing papers, but it also holds the practical value that I do not allow extensions, in order to keep my TAs (doing the grading) from perpetually receiving stragglers when they have already moved on to the next assignment.

More than in previous years, though, students seem to have some difficulty in understanding the assignment, which is curious since I haven’t really changed the assignment, and I don’t think this batch of articles is any “harder” than the ones I selected in previous years. It has been two or three years since I last taught the course, and I don’t know if aspects of critical reading in secondary school have changed in the interim. But across faculties, my students seem unprepared for this assignment.

[EDIT: I see that my tone in this post is, overall, fairly negative, which I regret; I should stress that a number of students are actually doing very well. Rather, I mean to convey reassurance and some direction for students who continue to struggle with the assignments.]

Many students feel compelled to summarize the assigned article, which is troubling, not least because the TAs have read it, too. But “thinking for themselves” doesn’t seem to be the singularly absent feature of the assignment. Some students almost do too much of this and insist on writing a research paper of some kind, which is nigh impossible given the very rigid space restrictions. In effect, they bite off far more than they can chew. In between, a number of students opt to “agree” with the essay and go on to explain why they agree by citing what they perceive to be strengths of the essay. This frequently amounts to a kind of refined analysis. Below is an absolutely terrific guide, written by Hayley Goodchild, one of my TAs and a doctoral candidate in the History Department under my supervision. Her own work is of an exceptionally high quality, and I was especially impressed with her ability to articulate (far more effectively than I could) how students should approach this assignment. She wrote this for her tutorial sections and I am posting it here (with her permission) for the rest of the class to benefit from her guidance:

I wanted to take a few minutes to write out some pointers, because I think many of you are still struggling with what an appropriate thesis is for these critical review assignments.  The Shapin essays had examples of all of the ‘types’ I’ve outlined below.  While (hopefully) you’ve already been working on the Schiebinger papers, I’d really encourage you to take a look at these examples to see if your essay falls into one of these categories.  If you’re still confused about what an acceptable thesis is, get in touch!  (Also, you’ll note that not all these theses are one sentence.  Don’t be afraid to write your thesis in multiple sentences if it helps you be clear about what you’re trying to argue.)

What you don’t want to do (and why):

The Summary:In the essay, “Replication or Monopoly?  The Economics of Invention and Discovery in Galileo’s Observations of 1610,” Mario Biagioli looks at the relationship between credit and disclosure by arguing that Galileo tried to gain status as a natural philosopher by preventing his colleagues from replicating his discoveries.  He argues that Galileo’s experience as an inventor influenced the way he conducted scientific discoveries.

Why it’s a problem:  You aren’t telling me anything new.  This is simply restating Biagioli’s argument instead of making one of your own.  Your argument should be a statement about the significance/strength/weakness of the Biagioli article.

The ‘Agreement’ Paper: I argue that Biagioli’s essay is convincing because he shows that Galileo tried to gain status as a natural philosopher by preventing his colleagues from replicating this discoveries.  He does this by discussing Galileo’s refusal to give telescopes to his contemporaries and his attempts to win the favour of the Medici family.

Why it’s a problem:  This is slightly stronger than the summary paper, because you are stating an opinion about the article.  The problem, however, is that it is still fundamentally a summary.  Rather than telling me the significance of the paper (why is it important) or discussing the strength of its organization/evidence, all you do is tell me how he makes the argument by repeating the main points.  In other words, you technically state an argument in your thesis, but the body of the paper tends to rely heavily on summary because the thesis is too simple.

The Research Paper:  Galileo’s attempts to withhold information about his telescope and thus delay other philosophers from gaining credit for his discoveries was actually because he was very selfish, as you can see by comparing his experience to other inventor-philosophers at the time.

Why it’s a problem:  This is a tough one, because you’ve clearly gone to the effort to think about the material and how it relates to other examples you’ve read/heard in the course.  However, the author of the article–Biagioli in this case–is absent.  You are appropriating his evidence to write essentially a short research-paper rather than writing a review of the article in light of course themes.  See example 2 (below) for one way in which this type of argument can be rephrased to put the focus back on the author and article in question.

What you should do (and why):

Example 1: In “Replication or Monopoly?  The Economics of Invention and Discovery in Galileo’s Observations of 1610,” Mario Biagioli argues that the discovery of the Medicean Stars was contingent on the social and economic systems of patronage in early 17th-century Italy as well as Galileo’s background as a craftsman.  Biagioli’s analysis is significant because it highlights how science and technology were related in early modern Europe.  Earlier in the course we paid much attention to the division of science and technology in many societies, but it was not clear to me how they were increasingly brought together in early modern Europe.  Biagioli illustrates an example of how and why it was becoming more difficult at that time to separate scientific and technological pursuits.

Why it’s good: You are explaining, briefly, what Biagioli’s argument is, but then going further to show me how it relates to a course theme and why it’s significant, what it adds, and why it makes you think.  A little wordy, perhaps, but I’ll take wordy as long as you’re making thoughtful links.

Example 2:  Mario Biagioli’s essay offers an account of Galileo’s shift from an inventor to a natural philosopher in early 17th century Italy.  While he raises important points about how social and economic contexts affect the ‘shape’ of scientific knowledge, his argument would be stronger if he took a comparative approach.  It is not clear from his essay whether Galileo’s experience was a common or particular one in early 17th century Italy, and the answer to that question has important implications for his argument as a whole.

Why it’s good: You’ve thought about the article in light of the lecture and textbook material and wondered whether an author’s argument is relevant for other case studies.  If Biagioli’s goal was to write about knowledge production, not to primarily write a biography of Galileo, then is it important for his study to be representative?  You could argue yes or no, but the point is that this thesis makes an argument about how the article and the author’s goals are interconnected.

I hope that helps a bit.  Of course, the two models of ‘good’ theses are not the only ways to write strong papers.  Be creative!

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