The key to mature writing is learning to write critically. Without criticism, texts that you read have no life beyond that of the author. Without criticism, you also have no distance from the text by which you give life to yourself as a thinker. Why is this the case?
I'm sure that all of you have heard someone assert views with which you strongly concur or which you strongly oppose. If she/he does not attend to the nuances of her/his views and proposes ideas without attending to possible exceptions to them or problematic aspects of them, we soon turn away from her/him and dismiss her/his views. If we are sympathetic toward the position being asserted, we find that merely having our own views confirmed is of little interest. By analogy, most of us do not spend hours looking in a mirror: we look in a mirror to get our bearings for the day; then we go on about our business. Hearing or reading words that only mirror our own thoughts leads to the same result: we turn away to go on to more interesting activities. In sum, even if we are sympathetic toward the views expressed, only if an author exercises a capacity to call into question her own ideas do we find ourselves engaged by her words. We want to think further than we have previously about ideas with which we have sympathy.
On the other hand, if we read an article with which we very much disagree but which does not even hint of our views, we are similarly disinterested. Such writing has the aura of propaganda: we quickly say, "that author hasn't even thought about this point or observed this problem; why should I listen to her? By contrast, an article that approaches a topic critically, acknowledging our position even while disagreeing with it, captures our attention. We find ourselves thinking about the author's words long after we finish reading the article. We continue the conversation in our own heads, giving life to the author's ideas and life to ourselves.
But what is critical thinking? What does it look like? To be critical is not to be "negative" or even to "disagree." Rather, critical thinking refers to a process of reflecting deeply: in thinking critically we try to shed greater light on an idea, unpack its implicit assumptions, and build through distancing and recapitulation a larger, constructive view. The essence of criticism consists not of disagreement with the text, but of distance from the text. Achieving distance from the text does not require you to position yourself as an equal to the author. Rather, you may ask of yourself only that you stay one step ahead of your reader.
There are many time-honored strategies for critical writing. I would like you to work on each of these this semester. In my comments to you on your writing, I may recommend strategies that you may find particularly helpful.
You may want to think of how each of your précis or essay assignments may function as a kind of outline for a larger project. Keep in the back of your mind a vision of these projects that reminds you that, if you were able to write a 15-page paper on the text, your précis or essay would function as a skeleton of that paper.
Another way to push yourself to develop your critical skills into a sustained argument is to try to carry over ideas discussed in one précis or essay assignment into the next one. If you can maintain a critical train of thought from one week to the next, by summoning in your mind an agenda of your own making through which you will read the texts, you may be able to get a greater depth in your criticism. Generating a series of questions that may be asked of each author we read in this course can help you to formulate such a critical agenda.
Often, the greatest concern I have about your précis or essay assignments is the absence of your voice. Juxtaposed to your summary of the text should be your own reflections. While you are entertaining a few of your own ideas, you will want to strengthen your own voice. For each reading, you will want to ponder several questions. What are the strengths of the argument? What are the weaknesses? Do you agree with the author or disagree? Why or why not? One way to find your critical voice is to compare and contrast two or more of the authors. Construct a conversation in which they talk to each other. As you manipulate their voices, you will find your own voice as referee emerging. Because the authors are experts at sustaining a critical voice, when you latch on to one of them as a partner in conversation with another author, you will find yourself able to sustain your own voice longer than if you speak alone to an author. Writing a page or more of your own reflections may be awkward for you at first; however, by pushing yourself to do this, you will making the necessary preparations for writing subsequent essays that will prove satisfying to you.
One way to push yourself to develop critical skills is to offer a narrower range of critical comments and expand on them. After you make a comment criticizing an author, imagine how she might respond. Summarize her response for your reader ("the author might respond to my point by saying ..."). Then, follow up with a further rebuttal of your own ("But, notwithstanding the author's response, I continue to assert that ..... because ....). Also, when you make an observation or claim, always check for the follow-up sentence. "I claim 'x'" should always be followed with a "because of 'y'" sentence. Moreover, if you consider your critical reflections to be a conversation with an author, you will find yourself asking the author some questions. If you pose some of your criticisms in the form of questions (and imagine a series of responses from the author and follow-up questions by you), you will find yourself moving to a deeper and more nuanced level of engagement with the texts.
Of key importance in dwelling on these questions will be sustained attention to 2-3 of them. For example, were you to write on Sartre, you might says "I think 'x' about Sartres view of 'y." Follow this up with several sentences unpacking why you think this: "I think 'x' about Sartres view of 'y' because ....." Then, imagine how Sartre would respond to your assertion. Would he affirm your comments or disagree with them? Note his imagined views for your reader, and then follow up with your own response. By staging such a conversation, you will find yourself moving toward greater depths and breadth of engagement with the text that you are exploring.
In adopting a critical voice, you will explicitly share observations with your reader. What aspects of an author's position do you find compelling? Why? What are some weaknesses in her writing? If you don't find any weaknesses, imagine an imaginary critic who would find weaknesses. What would they say? How would you and the author defend yourselves against these criticisms? Why does it matter whether an author is persuasive in her analysis? If you are chatting with a skeptical friend about a chapter in a book that you have read, what do you want to hold up as valuable to your reader? Why? To find your own view, you will want to focus on the "why" word. After summarizing an author's views, determine whether you are in sympathy with them or not. What is persuasive and compelling? What is not? Either way, ask yourself "why?" Why does what she says matter? Why should we care about it? Why should we agree or disagree? Why is there more to be said on the subject? Why, if she has said it all, do you believe that she has said it all?
Consider one classic approach to finding your own voice. Moderate an imaginary conversation between two authors. Because you are the creator of that conversation, in choosing what the authors say to each other (what you find of particular value) for them to express, you are likely to find your own voice joining in on the conversation. Finding that voice, you can elaborate on it and magnify it.
Recall that a paper is always written for a reader other than your professor. When I write, I like to imagine someone who is less familiar (though not wholly unfamiliar) with the text I am discussing. You may wish to imagine a fellow student who is looking to you for advice. What will you say to her or him? If one of our texts is like a pair of shoes, you can imagine telling your reader that "these are shoes I've never seen before, I think that we (the reader and I) should look at them more closely." Now, imagine if your reader says, "these are the strangest shoes I've ever seen. I don't like them and I don't know why you would want us to keep looking at them." If your reader said such a thing, what points would you want to underline for your reader? What do you want your reader to look at again? Why would you want a reader to take an author seriously? Because you are one step ahead of that student, you can provide guidance.
As an alternative strategy for enhancing your critical voice, you may want to write for a skeptical reader. Rather than go one-on-one with a text (explaining why you disagree with an author) or opposing one author to another (the compare and contrast approach), on occasion you may want to argue with your reader. If your reader (imagine a fellow student in class) is wholly unsympathetic toward a text and doesn't see any worth in it, you may find a critical position in defending that text against your reader.
© Martha J. Reineke. Please send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org