Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Verdichtend Reformulieren

"Verdichtend reformulieren" is German for paraphrasing and summarizing. There are those who believe that note-taking in the form of paraphrasing and summarizing difficult or long passages in one's own words, to make them clearer to oneself or to shorten them, has no place in note-taking any longer. Computers allow us to simply copy texts. Since this approach takes less time and even preserves formatting, it is considered superior to the relatively arduous processes of reformulating the information for oneself.

This is nonsense, of course. Simply copying a passages does nothing for one's intellectual engagement with the material. Nor is this approach all that new. Photocopying has served the same purposes for almost forty years. And before that there was always the possibility of copying out entire passages word for word, without attempting to understand them. Everyone who has collected reams of photocopies and thousands of quotes knows that such material is useful only in so far as it is re-read and paraphrased or summarized at a later date. Simply copying information is thus only postponing the inevitable, unless, of course, one takes the possession of the copy for the "real" thing. Paraphrase and summary (verdichtende Reformulierung) allows us to appropriates the information and make it our own, thus providing the starting point for our own reflections on the material. Indeed, it may only constitute the first reformulation in a long process of thinking or reformulating ideas that resulted from such note-taking. Copying and pasting per se does not start this process, just as photocopying and filing does not do so.

This is not to say that copying and pasting or photocopying and filing are never appropriate. It's just that it does not represent progress over the older strategies of paraphrasing and summarizing because they are entirely different things.

See also Note-taking versus Information Gathering.

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