My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.
Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:
Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?
A: You condense it!
Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!
As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or sentences. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.
It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.
To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.
For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.