Sunday, January 29, 2006

Why you need precis for your thesis

If you are in the ALM program, start writing precis for all of the books, journal articles, and dissertations you read that may be remotely connected with your thesis research. This will save you a lot of time and trouble later on.

Precis are structured documents that record the key points, research, analysis, theoretical point of view, and other details of these publications. Let's face it: two years down the road, when you start your thesis research, there's no way you are going to remember the key points of a book or journal article that you read in a previous class unless you've taken very good notes or written a precis about it. Here's the basic structure of a precis:




Author’s Intentions:


Type of History:

Structure of argument:

Evidence used:

Ideological orientation:

Strengths of book:


Contributions to the Field:


Right now, I am turning back to about a dozen precis I wrote over the course of the past three years to prepare my thesis proposal. The precis are especially good for two things: Preparing footnotes (I record page numbers of key passages in the outline section of my precis) and also the literature review (this is where the precis sections on Author’s Intentions, Thesis, Structure of argument, Evidence used, contributions to the field, Ideological orientation, and strengths and weaknesses are particularly useful). Without them, I would have to re-read the books in question, if I remembered the titles.

I also try to write precis on my computer, which helps in several ways:
  1. I can switch back and forth between precis and my draft proposal on my computer without having to dig through folders stuffed with papers.
  2. I can copy and paste bibliography information, quotes, and summaries from a precis to the draft proposal.
  3. I can easily backup the information by attaching a precis to an email message and sending it to myself.
  4. It allows me to search my entire hard drive for words or phrases without having to manually comb through the entire lot. Such was the case with the phrase "leading nucleus", which I remembered one of my readings had used to describe China's key leaders responsible for foreign policy. A hard-drive search turned up the precis which described the article, and the book it was in -- Lu Ning's "The Central leadersip, Supraministry Coordinating Bodies, State Council, Ministries, and Party Departments," in David Lampton (Ed.) The Making of Chinese Foreign Policy and Security Policy In the era of Reform: 1978-2000 (Stanford, University of California Press, 2001). I was able to transfer a lot of the information about the article right into my literature review.
I have written previously about precis here, and have posted a sample here (warning: long!). Also, I would like to credit Professor Sally Hadden, who taught "History of the Old South" at a summer school class several years ago, for introducing me to the concept. It's probably one of the best study aids I've picked up at the Harvard Extension School.

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