I teach freshman composition nearly every semester, and I’m changing my assignments. I require 25 or so pages of finished, edited essay writing for the course to go along with 10 or 12 one-page homework exercises (such as: “Why are books dangerous in Montag’s society?”). Usually, the essay requirement involves three or four papers that have a thesis and an argument, with lots of analysis. Sometimes, though, I’ve tried short papers now and then, 2-page assignments that require one simple method: summarize all or part of an assigned reading.
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). When we read portions of Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, and Hamlet, as we will next semester, the topic will be specific: “Summarize Canto V of Inferno,” ”Summarize Act I of Hamlet,” “Summarize the Siren Episode,” . . .
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. Added to that, in most workplaces (as far as I am aware), summary will be the most common writing task they will be obligated to complete.
Limiting the content to summary has the added advantage of focusing instruction on prose style and grammar. When we meet in conference to go over rough drafts, we don’t have to spend time discussing Hamlet’s frame of mind or Paolo and Francesca’s enduring sinfulness. “Just say what happens,” I tell them, and they proceed to turn their focus to their own descriptions, not Dante’s meanings. Verbs, punctuation, transitions, diction . . . become the subject of the rough-draft sessions.
To some teachers, of course, this sounds like a lowering of expectations, a dumbing down, but if students were able to summarize well, then I would raise the expectations back upward and insert critical-thinking aspects to the assignments (such as incorporating some of Graff’s exercises in They Say/I Say).
Additionally, the Great Books syllabus has a learning outcome that goes well with summary assignments. The Western tradition from Homer to Joyce is a lineage that all students should know empirically—names, dates, characters, plots, themes, historical/social context. Before interpreting those works, they should become conversant with them. Once we delve too deeply into this or that aspect of them—say, explicating for a whole class session 15 lines by Satan in Paradise Lost—we would end up covering one-fifth of the material we should have covered by semester’s end.