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In my United States History survey courses, student writing assignments are less traditional than those assigned by most professors in my department. I ask my students to write informal reactions to the assigned readings, podcasts, and sometimes video games rather than formal papers. I want to know what they learned, what they found interesting, what contradicted their prior knowledge, and what questions they have—without stressing them out over formal academic language.

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Then, over the course of the semester, we build historical skills into these informal lessons. We start with historical reading and move into historical questioning. Next on the list is summary. Often, we assume students in our classes already know how to summarize scholarly works. But if we think about all the times we’ve struggled to write historiographies or conference papers that acknowledge the work of other scholars in our field, we remember just how hard this skill can be if not taught properly and practiced regularly.

When I break down the summary skill, I focus on three fundamental questions students will need to address: for whom am I writing, what am I summarizing, and what’s the length of the summary?  JSTOR Daily articles are a fantastic resource for helping students understand how to answer these questions.

For whom are we writing?

Audience is an important factor. The language used to summarize an academic paper or article will be different than that used for a public history work or for personal use.

What are we summarizing?

It’s important to know what part of the text we’re summarizing. Are we pulling the text’s main argument? Are we looking at the author’s position through a specific lens? Are we summarizing the way that the author uses evidence to make a point? Just as there are myriad ways to approach reading a text, there are many ways to approach summarizing one.

What is the length requirement?

The third question addresses arguably the most difficult task, which is whittling down the summary to a manageable length. In the case of JSTOR Daily articles, scholars summarize the work of others in article form. In many cases, students and scholars need their summaries to be as concise as a paragraph or even a sentence.

Examples: “Ronald Reagan v. UC Berkeley”

In April 2023, writer Livia Gershon authored a piece for JSTOR Daily titled “Ronald Reagan v. UC Berkeley” that summarized and commented on a 1996 article from historian Gerard J. De Groot. Gershon summarized De Groot’s work with a focus on the politics of the debate around the UC Berkeley campus and their student protests. This is a great approach to De Groot’s article since he used the UC Berkeley campus extensively as an example of Ronald Reagan’s war against student protest and “liberal” professors. De Groot’s larger work, however, offered a broader discussion of Reagan’s political strategizing as governor in this period. By showing students the process of how scholars synthesize information from one source into a summary, we can model walking through the three key questions for them.

Step One: The Model

The first step is to work backwards. Provide students with a copy of the De Groot article and ask them to highlight the areas from which Gershon directly quoted  in one color and the areas in which she referenced information in another.

The PDF below is an example of what this looks like, with highlights in light green for direct quotes and dark green for referenced material.

Alternative text – include a link to the PDF!

Once students have completed this task, ask them to assess Gershon’s thought process. You’ll want to include our three major questions in this reflection. Here are additional questions that might be helpful:

  • How are De Groot and Gershon’s language different? How does this impact who might read the articles?
  • What are the “main arguments” that Gershon pulls from De Groot’s article?
  • What kinds of evidence does Gershon choose to pull from De Groot’s article for her summary? Why is this evidence better than other parts of the article for her needs?
  • If you were Gershon, how would you summarize these arguments in one paragraph? What about one sentence? How does this impact the way you view the text?

Step Two: Write

Once students have a grasp of how historians go about summarizing scholarly work, they are ready to try the skill for themselves. In this step, students will again look at a blank copy of De Groot’s article. This time, they will highlight the parts that they think are useful for an effective summary. In theory, students have already read the article once by now. However, I would recommend to them that they read it again once before making any marks.

Below is a PDF of what the article looked like when I completed this process for myself.

Alternative text – include a link to the PDF! 

At this point, ask students to complete an exercise where they write for at least two different audience types and at least two different lengths. This might look something like:

Once you have highlighted what you believe to be the texts summary points of argument and/or evidence, please write each of the following types of summaries:

  • A one-sentence summary in informal language.
  • A one-paragraph summary in academic language.
  • A one-sentence summary in academic language.
  • A one-paragraph summary in informal language.

Note: Informal language is the type of language you would use if you were summarizing the text for something like personal notes. Academic language is the kind of language you would use for a class paper.

Within this assignment, students are getting to the core of our three main concepts: for whom are we writing, what are we summarizing, and what is the length requirement? Once they’ve mastered the basic skill, students can adapt it to texts in other academic settings and more difficult readings.

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Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (February 1996), pp. 107–129
University of California Press