On the surface, the definition of a summary is straightforward. For me, it’s a concise reconstruction of the primary intent of a statement. From this perspective, we begin to realize its complexity. The difficulty is in the words “reconstruction” and “intent.” At best, we can only guess at a writer’s intent. That is, what s/he writes (sends, encodes) and what we read (receive, decode) isn’t always the same. As readers, we process (reconstruct) information based on our realities, and these may differ from the writer’s.
Confounding matters, most if not all discourse centers on ill-defined issues. When writers are sharing a wide spectrum of often conflicting opinions, summarizing becomes extremely difficult if not impossible especially if the goal is objectivity. When writers themselves aren’t clear about what they’re trying to say or aren’t taking the time to accurately represent their ideas, summary becomes a guessing game. Thus, one person’s summary of what writers A, B, and C intend may not be the same as another’s.
I’ve been a participant in a forum on headphones for years, and at one time I was quite active. Many of the discussions were lively, and the liveliest usually centered around opinions on a given set of cans (headphones). The action begins when someone starts a thread in the headphones forum, praising or condemning a specific model: “I bought headphone X, and I think
it’s overpriced for it provides the best sound quality (SQ) in its price range.” This first message is called the OP or original post/poster. If the cans are popular, then both sides weigh in — defenders and attackers.
Defenders are usually the ones who’ve invested in the cans and swear by it. Attackers are usually those who bought or tested it and found it disappointing. In between are the legion who lean to one side or the other for any number of reasons. The moderator’s role is to keep the discussion from wandering off
track topic (OT) or deteriorating into trolling (baiting) or a flame war.
Because the factors that impact SQ are complex, opinions are useless unless writers clarify their equipment lineup, sources, methodology (e.g., single-blind test), etc. And even when these are spelled out, there
are is still an almost infinite number of other variables to consider. Thus, an active discussion on the merits and demerits of headphone X could heat up very quickly with participants misinterpreting, failing to take message context into account, or ignoring other often hidden key variables.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the latecomers who react to a single post without making the effort to review the OP and the thread. They either repeat what others have said or make OT comments. But it’s hard to blame them because the thread may have grown to 50-100 pages or hundreds of comments within a day or two.
In this environment, summaries are often inaccurate and are conscious or subconscious misinterpretations to advance a writer’s opinion. A few attempt to keep the discussion on track by summarizing relevant arguments, but these, too, tend to be inaccurate and increase rather than decrease the chaos.
This is a real-world discussion forum on headphones, but in many ways it’s similar to forums in academia, politics, and other fields. I bring it up because it raises some questions re the academic use of summaries in managing online discussions.
For me, the most important question is, Who is the summary activity for? If the answer is “for the teacher,” then I’m assuming it’s for the purpose of evaluating each student’s participation. If this is the case, then I believe it’s inefficient. There are far simpler and perhaps better ways to measure participation.
If it’s “for the student,” then my next question is, What is the learning goal? If the answer is to teach them how to summarize arguments on a controversial topic, then I feel there are simpler and perhaps better ways to do this.
If the answer is “to increase student engagement in discussions,” then my next question is, What is the purpose of the engagement? Or put another way, What are the desired outcomes of the engagement? If the answer is “the ability to engage in lively discussions” then I’d question whether the means have become ends, in essence hijacking the actual learning objective. In other words, a lively discussion, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily serve an objective unless the experience and content is reflected in a summative performance such as a paper, presentation, or exhibit.
Finally, if the answer is “to make it easier for students to participate in and learn from discussions,” then my next question is, “Who does this justification serve? And this question leads to even more questions: Are we empowering or enabling when we, as teachers, take on the responsibility of reading and comprehending for students? In a very real sense, reading and keeping up with long complex discussion threads is extremely hard work, but isn’t this part of the sweat that goes into learning? Even as we try to help, could we actually be harming students by robbing them of the opportunity to experience authentic learning in all its chaos and struggle? What is the difference between facilitating and enabling, and on which side does summarizing fall?
In my writing classes, I assume that the ability to detect OT comments as well as personal attacks and trolling are part of the critical thinking process that includes logic and evidence testing. In their papers, I also expect students to summarize, as accurately as possible, key pro and con arguments from online class discussions. I discourage direct quotes over a few lines and require summaries even when they’re included.
I’ve raised a lot of questions, and these aren’t rhetorical for me. They’re real.