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I recently sat outside to watch the Hudson Classical Theater’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)—a 90-minute romp through 38 plays and 154 sonnets. Part farce, but mainly playful, the performance combined comedy, spectacle and violence, with more than a few profound insights into Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance.

Sitting on the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, just 10 feet from the actors, you could see why the groundlings and stinkards loved the Bard’s works. How could one not be moved by the bawdy, gender-bending humor, the word play, the poetry, the histrionic overacting, the sword play and, of course, the plots about love, revenge, ambition, betrayal and power?

The crowd, though fewer than a hundred, consisting mainly of seniors and parents and their children, plus a surprising number of college students, roared, laughed and cried out as the instantly recognizable soliloquies passed by in rapid fire succession.

Not a high school English class version of Shakespeare, this was something quite different: a fun-filled frolic that celebrates the poetry of the Bard’s language, the complexities of his plots, and the drama, humor and tragedy that infuse his works.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this highly compressed approach to Shakespeare’s works can be as meaningful, in its own way, as a more traditional academic or theatrical approach.

A lively, abridged performance makes Shakespeare more approachable to a broader audience, including those who might find the original texts intimidating or difficult to understand. Through humor and highly dynamic acting, this approach captures the audience’s attention and makes the material especially engaging. This performance also encourages active audience participation, helping viewers connect emotionally with the characters and stories.

Even in an abbreviated form, the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and the power of his poetry are obvious, allowing audiences to appreciate his linguistic artistry. By succinctly conveying the complexities of Shakespeare’s plots, this mishmash of his works makes it easier for viewers to grasp the intricacies of the Bard’s storytelling. Without a doubt, this approach helps ensure his works remain a vital part of our collective heritage.

In a recent essay entitled "Can You Read a Book in a Quarter of an Hour?”, The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane reviews a number of phone apps, like Blinkist, that allow users to boil down books into micro-synopses.

Not surprisingly, Lane focuses on what is lost when a work is condensed: The original work’s poetic language, rhythm and stylistic nuances. The author’s distinctive voice and tone. The text’s subtle layers of meaning, complex themes, cultural references and moral ambiguities. The work’s literary devices, including its use of metaphors, symbols, wit, irony and wordplay. The depth of characters, the plot’s intricacies, and the subtle dynamics of relationships. The work’s pacing and build-up of tension or suspense. And, perhaps most important of all, readers’ experience of the text—how readers’ imagination fills in gaps and interprets the work in light of their own emotions, interests and concerns.

Yet, I must confess, that with many works of nonfiction, including many histories, I try to abstract the arguments to a nutshell and extract the themes to their most succinct form. The goal: to construct a mental model, simplified in some respects, but also streamlined and made more straightforward. After all, if we were to try to grasp scholarship in its full complexity, we’d be overwhelmed by detail.

In fact, all too often, I’m afraid, one can summarize a nonfiction book’s claims in a few sentences without losing its essence. Indeed, one of my goals as an instructor is to try to help my student learn how to digest, distill, outline or summarize a book or essay’s thesis. The rest, to misquote Shakespeare, is evidence.

Let me be clear: The greatest works of nonfiction, like Plato’s Republic or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, are as much works of literary craftsmanship as they are of philosophic or scientific argument, and need to be read with the same critical sensitivities as a novel. They demonstrate that rigorous works of humanistic or scientific inquiry and beautiful prose can coexist and complement one another.

Thus, in The Republic, Plato uses dialogue, dialectics, storytelling, rich imagery and rhetoric, symbolic language, and allegories and myths, such as the Allegory of the Cave, the Myth of Er, and the story of the Ring of Gyges, to illustrate his philosophical points about justice, the ideal state, the nature of the soul and the theory of forms.

Somewhat similarly, Darwin’s classic is both a scientific argument and a work of literature thanks to its eloquent, even poetic, prose, use of metaphor, vivid descriptions and analogies, and engaging narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end. He not only supports his arguments with extensive empirical evidence drawn from his observations and research, he employs literary techniques to make his arguments more accessible to nonspecialists. His richly depicted observations of the natural world and his inclusion of sensory details, such as colors, shapes, and movements of animals and plants add a literary quality to his scientific narrative.

When I was at Columbia, my dean expressed deep concerns about the quality of doctoral students’ writing. Not that the grad students didn’t write clearly—of course, they did. But most didn’t write stylishly and elegantly. To address that challenge, I offered an intensive summer seminar on nonfiction writing and brought in editors from major academic presses to evaluate and comment on the students’ essays and dissertation chapters.

That seminar underscored the vital importance of narrative and synthesis in scholarly writing.

Works like Plato’s or Darwin’s craft arguments into narratives—transforming evidence and arguments into a coherent, engaging and meaningful stories. By weaving evidence into a compelling narrative, writers make complex ideas accessible, create coherence and continuity, provide context and meaning, and make arguments more persuasive.

In nonfiction, as in fiction, narratives need not be linear or chronological. Nonlinear narratives, using flashbacks and flash-forwards, can provide context and highlight connections between past and present. Starting in the middle of a narrative—In Media Res—and then filling in background and contextual information, can work as well in nonfiction as in fiction by hooking readers’ attention, prompting questions, creating mystery and suspense, encapsulating an argument’s essence, and developing themes and arguments in a dynamic and compelling way.

While I certainly wouldn’t recommend stream of consciousness or epistolary approaches, scholarly authors might consider other narrative strategies used by writers of fiction, like the “framed” narrative that includes multiple case studies within a broader narrative; the “quest” narrative, that begins with an objective and a progressive journey; and “parallel” narratives, where two or more narratives are told simultaneously, often intersecting or converging at key points, exposing contrasts or similarities between different storylines.

Reflective narratives, where the author reflects on the research process, providing insights and commentary, offer yet another strategy for creating a deeper understanding of one’s themes and conclusions.

A big challenge, especially for novice humanities scholars, is to transform one’s research into a compelling story with a narrative arc that takes into account alternative stories and interpretations.

A second lesson that I took away from the seminar was that serious scholarship, certainly in the humanities, is as much a matter of synthesis as of original research. It takes disparate pieces of evidence and existing arguments and theories, and constructs something new from them. Synthesis involves constructing coherent arguments that draw on a wide range of evidence and perspectives. It builds on previous scholarship by integrating past research with new findings.

Synthesis, in other words, connects the dots of knowledge. By erecting bridges between ideas and interlacing threads of thought, works of synthesis bring coherence to complexity and create clearer, more intelligible narratives. That’s the power of scholarly synthesis.

And yet, often, works of synthesis are dismissed as “textbookish”—as lacking in depth, richness and originality.

At its best, synthesis is essential to the practice of scholarship. By drawing on previous work, combining different pieces of evidence, theories and perspectives from multiple disciplines, and engaging with big questions, synthesis is what contributes to the construction of new understandings of a particular topic or field. It’s no accident that Bloom’s Taxonomy of levels of cognition places synthesis at the top of his hierarchy.

Synthesis is as important in humanities and social science classrooms as in scholarship. It encourages students to construct their own frameworks of analysis and understanding, and to see connections between different pieces of information and disparate theories and approaches.

Effective syntheses also connect academic research to real-world issues, making scholarship more relevant and applicable to everyday problems and societal challenges.

For most scholars, certainly for me, the most profound and shattering moment in writing comes when you suddenly happen upon the story line that gives an article or book coherence and conceptual unity—a narrative that one can latch on to and develop.

I first felt the pang of revelation when I unexpectedly realized that the history of the American family was not a linear story of “progress” or “adaptation” but instead a story of radically shifting paradigms, structures and power dynamics—a series of “domestic revolutions” when a patriarchal yet permeable conception of family gradually gave way to the emotionally intense, bounded, inward-turning nuclear family, and then to the extremely fragile units that dominate today, with their unachievably high expectations about affective and sexual fulfillment.

I felt this same spasm of surprise again when I abruptly understood that the history of American childhood involved two very different stories. There was the history of children—peer relations, kid cultures, play activities and their everyday experiences, which are shaped by highly specific chronological, class, ethnic, familial, gender, racial, religious and school contexts, and the history of childhood, an imaginary world constructed, in part, by adults, who want to protect, insulate, shelter or prepare children, and by kids themselves, who, as they age, seek more and more autonomy and who regard their own childhood as an odyssey of self-discovery and self-formation.

I underwent such an eye-opening experience yet again when I recognized that the history of modern adulthood might be understood in terms of the gradual construction, beginning in the late 19th century, of a conception of this life stage defined in opposition to childhood and youth—as mature and well-adjusted as opposed to youthful dependence and impulsiveness—into a postmodern conception of adulthood that lacks clear rules or markers.

If we want to raise students’ writing to the next level, we must show them how to transform their research into analytical narratives that combine storytelling techniques with thoughtful analysis. That requires instructors to teach the importance of a synthetic narrative structured around a story arc. Here’s how.

  • Begin with a hook—a striking anecdote or anniversary or statistic that grabs the readers’ attention.
  • Craft an overarching argument that speaks to a larger debate or controversy.
  • Explain how this piece of writing will fill a gap in our understanding or refute, revise, modify, refine, test or confirm a widely shared opinion, myth, perspective or assumption.
  • Interweave evidence, argument and theory as seamlessly as possible.
  • Confront potential objections to the interpretation; assess counterarguments; and describe the evidences’ limitations.
  • Reflect on the research findings’ implications.
  • End with a kicker—a powerful concluding remark to leave a lasting impression.

Effective scholarly writing requires a narrative arc. This is what elevates academic research into a work that is coherent, compelling and engaging. So, help your students understand the power in storytelling, in crafting narratives that transform data to drama, that turn research into a compelling tale.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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