Ivory Tower Writing #13: Knowing your enemy – types of papers and what to expect (part 2)

This post further explains the types of papers you may encounter during your university life and what to expect from them.

I’d like to continue on from where we left off at post #8 when I first discussed the types of papers that you may meet throughout your university life. This time, let’s focus on some of the more specific types of papers.

The summary paper

Perhaps the simplest of papers, yet not simplistic. This paper tests whether you are capable of understanding the main ideas of a specific text or body of literature. It requires you to read (and ideally re-read) the text so that you understand it to the point where you can confidently understand what the original author is trying to convey. It usually goes like this:

Professor: “Students, please make a summary of chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, submitted next week,”

Students: *collectively screams internally* “Yes, prof,”

So, what do you do? The professor here expects you to write, in your own words, the main ideas of whatever is in Chapter 2 of On Liberty. You will need to read Chapter 2 a couple of times, outline Mill’s main ideas, and explain those ideas. All of this without actually copying whatever Mill said, except if you feel that quotations are necessary.

Note that this is not a review. A review would require that you provide commentary on the weaknesses/strengths of the author’s arguments. For a summary, you simply need to describe the main ideas of the text.

As you can see, this exercise ideally helps students to understand how to flesh out and explain someone else’s ideas with clarity. Some tricks to help you:

Draw a mind-map of the text. Put a big circle in the middle of a piece of paper, and draw lines to other circles to understand what the author is trying to explain.

To prevent yourself from overusing quotations, after you’ve highlighted a particular passage or quote, close the book/text and think about how you would convey the same message, but in much simpler language. I always like to imagine that I’ll be teaching the text to someone, so I try to lose the hard words and even incorporate pop culture references to make sure the potential reader understands. This is called the Feynman technique. But be careful not to overdo it; the summary still has to be about the original author.

Mind your word/page limit! Summaries tend to have very limited word/page allowances (usually 2-3 pages, 5 if the text is longer (rule of thumb I like to use is 1:10)). This means that you would need to use concise language. This also means you need to dump the less important ideas and highlight the main ideas of the text. For a 2-page summary, consider elaborating and summarizing 1 or 2 of Mill’s major ideas, rather than other fluff that doesn’t contribute to his main argument.

The review paper

This is a step up from the summary. If a summary only asked you to summarize the author’s main ideas, a review paper asks you to… well, review the ideas.

What does “reviewing” actually entail? Understanding the argument is the first step. Then, you would need to explain: (1) what are the strengths of the argument? (2) what are the weaknesses? and/or (3) why did the author make the argument?

For example, let’s explore the idea of Plato’s philosopher-king which presents itself in Books 2 and 3 of Republic.

Why did Plato make this argument? Departing from “craft analogy”, Plato assumed the ideal leader of the state ought to be someone who was wise and well-versed in politics. Plato believed that the masses were hardly a good source of political authority, since they didn’t know much and therefore, should not be trusted with the machinations of the state.

What are the strengths of the argument? Plato’s “craft analogy” is highly intuitive; we would, without second thought, agree that someone capable should be at the helm. If we were to leave politics to someone wise, we would all benefit from their leadership and we wouldn’t have to squabble over petty political affairs.

What are the weaknesses of the argument? What if the leader became corrupted? Plato would argue that their knowledge and extensive training would prevent such, but what if it actually happened? Furthermore, would the philosopher-king really understand what the people wanted or would they only be able to make approximate assumptions of the common good?

How does the argument contribute to the body of knowledge? By proposing the philosopher-king argument, Plato provides a refutation to democracy and offers what could be construed as a “benevolent dictatorship”.

That is, in short, how you may want to write a review paper. For examples of proper reviews, you may want to look up the many book reviews in either the New York Review of Books or the book review section in academic journals.

The response paper/commentary

A response paper is a step up from a review paper. If in the review paper you have to flesh out the main ideas of the argument while at the same time analyzing the strengths/weaknesses and/or mechanisms and implications, in the response paper, you are expected to provide some sort of commentary or evaluation of the original text. As such, in this type of paper, you would really need to demonstrate critical thinking along with articulation.

You’ll have to excuse me as I gratuitously cite myself in the following example. Two years ago, I started writing commentaries in the Jakarta Post. Here’s an example of one of my early commentaries, in which I “complain” about defense modernization in Indonesia (truncated for clarity).

… Though Jokowi does have a grand maritime vision for the country, there are a lot of challenges ahead before Indonesia can become a global maritime fulcrum in Southeast Asia.

The first challenge is devising a sound defense strategy. Currently, the public document that can be relied on to connect the dots of the scattered defense documents Indonesia has is the Defense White Paper…

The second challenge would be naval and aerial modernization in order to construct the foundations of the GMF….

The third challenge would be the revitalization of defense industries to further increase Indonesia’s self-reliance….

The fourth (but not last) challenge would be inter-service friction….

The current defense modernization efforts may be considered a small step in what could be a large leap in Indonesian defense, and ultimately, in Indonesia’s political standing in the region. However, the battle is an uphill one, and to keep the ball rolling is a monumental task for not just the incumbent leader, but also for us as a nation.

As you can see, what I basically did was summarize and review Indonesia’s defense problems. In the conclusion, I provided a sort of “judgment”… or to put it in more neutral terms, an analysis of what the future may hold should current conditions stay as they are. This is essentially your “response” or commentary. It may be approving, disapproving, or simply neutral.

There are not many tips that I can offer for a paper of this kind. It really depends on how well you manage to summarize and review existing information and be able to conduct a meaningful analysis of that information. The only tip is practice and practice.

Conclusion

We’ve discussed three more types of papers: the summary, review, and response. Each paper tests a different set of skills, from the ability to gather and present information in an articulate way to critically thinking of the information and drawing conclusions. Hopefully, this helps and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment!

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