- Explain critiques and their purpose.
- Discuss the social aspect of academic reading.
- Identify the main argument of a text.
- Recognize implications that you should be aware of if you are not the primary audience for a text.
by Steven D. Krause
What’s a Critique and Why Does it Matter?
Critiques evaluate and analyze a wide variety of things (texts, images, performances, etc.) based on reasons or criteria. Sometimes, people equate the notion of “critique” to “criticism,” which usually suggests a negative interpretation. These terms are easy to confuse, but I want to be clear that critique and criticize don’t mean the same thing. A negative critique might be said to be “criticism” in the way we often understand the term “to criticize,” but critiques can be positive too.
We’re all familiar with one of the most basic forms of critique: reviews (film reviews, music reviews, art reviews, book reviews, etc.). Critiques in the form of reviews tend to have a fairly simple and particular point: whether or not something is “good” or “bad.”
Academic critiques are similar to the reviews we see in popular sources in that critique writers are trying to make a particular point about whatever it is that they are critiquing. But there are some differences between the sorts of critiques we read in academic sources versus the ones we read in popular sources.
- The subjects of academic critiques tend to be other academic writings and they frequently appear in scholarly journals.
- Academic critiques frequently go further in making an argument beyond a simple assessment of the quality of a particular book, film, performance, or work of art.
- Academic critique writers will often compare and discuss several works that are similar to each other to make some larger point. In other words, instead of simply commenting on whether something was good or bad, academic critiques tend to explore issues and ideas in ways that are more complicated than merely “good” or “bad.”
The main focus of this chapter is the value of writing critiques as a part of the research writing process. Critiquing writing is important because in order to write a good critique you need to critically read: that is, you need to closely read and understand whatever it is you are critiquing, you need to apply appropriate criteria in order evaluate it, you need to summarize it, and to ultimately make some sort of point about the text you are critiquing.
These skills– critically and closely reading, summarizing, creating and applying criteria, and then making an evaluation– are key to The Process of Research Writing, and they should help you as you work through the process of research writing.
In this chapter, I’ve provided a “step-by-step” process for making a critique. I would encourage you to quickly read or skim through this chapter first, and then go back and work through the steps and exercises describe.
Selecting the right text to critique
The first step in writing a critique is selecting a text to critique. For the purposes of this writing exercise, you should check with your teacher for guidelines on what text to pick.
Short and simple newspaper articles, while useful as part of the research process, can be difficult to critique since they don’t have the sort of detail that easily allows for a critical reading. On the other hand, critiquing an entire book is probably a more ambitious task than you are likely to have time or energy for with this exercise. Instead, consider critiquing one of the more fully developed texts you’ve come across in your research: an in-depth examination from a news magazine, a chapter from a scholarly book, a report on a research study or experiment, or an analysis published in an academic journal. These more complex essays usually present more opportunities for issues to critique.
Depending on your teacher’s assignment, the “text” you critique might include something that isn’t in writing: a movie, a music CD, a multimedia presentation, a computer game, a painting, etc. As is the case with more traditional writings, you want to select a text that has enough substance to it so that it stands up to a critical reading.
Starting with a “Close Reading”
The next and most important step in the process of critique writing is reading very carefully whatever it is you are going to critique. The type of “close reading” that is essential to the process of writing a good critique should not be confused with the sort of casual reading we do when reading the newspaper in the morning over coffee or surfing the Internet (?) or browsing through a magazine.
Close reading is a type of reading where the reader critically engages with the text in order to understand it, question it, evaluate it, and form an opinion about it. This is a method of reading where the reader has to slow down and think along each step of the way. The reader furthers her understanding of the text by writing as she reads and by stopping to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. Ultimately, once done with a close reading of a text, the reader has begun to form an opinion about the text and is ready to make an evaluation of it.
Close reading is not difficult to do, but it is an academic skill that can be challenging, time-consuming, and even exhausting to those who aren’t used to doing it. Learning to closely read is challenging at first, similar in many ways to the experience many of us have when we first start an exercise program. If you have not previously trained as a runner and are not in good physical condition from some other sort of athletic training, you would find it challenging if not impossible to run five miles. But if you start small, keep training, and learn and practice good habits, chances are that what once was impossible (running five miles) is now within your grasp.
The same is true with close reading: it can be a difficult and frustrating process, but with practice and patience, anyone can become a good close reader.
Here are some basic steps to help you in your close reading:
- Write while you read. This is the most essential part of closely reading.
Writing and reading are closely related activities, and when you write about your reading as you are reading (even in what you are reading), you inevitably understand what you are reading better than you do if you read without writing.
Close reading includes taking notes: writing down the most important points of the text, paraphrasing, summarizing, and so forth. Note taking is also an important part of the process of creating and maintaining an annotated bibliography and as part of the overall process of writing research.
But mostly, what I mean when I suggest you write as you read is much messier and less systematic than note taking. I’m thinking of activities where you write in what you are reading by writing in the margins, underlining key sentences and phrases, starring and circling text, and so forth.
What sort of things should you underline as you read and what sorts of things should you write “in” your reading? Generally speaking, you should underline key sentences and phrases and write comments in the margins that clarify the passage for you, that raise questions, that remind you that a passage contains a particularly important quote or idea, or that points out where you might agree or disagree with the text.
- Explain the main points of the text in your own words. When you put something in your own words, what you are essentially doing is “translating” the text you are critiquing into your own language and your own way of understanding something. This is an especially useful technique when you are closely reading complex and long texts—books or more complicated academic articles that you are having a hard time understanding. You might want to put the main points in your own words on a separate sheet of paper. Using a separate sheet of paper makes it easier to note questions or other points about the text as you read.
As well as helping you better understand a complex text, explaining the main points in your own words can create a sort of outline of the text you are critiquing, which is another way of understanding the text. I’m not suggesting you create what I would call a “formal” outline, complete with Roman numerals and appropriate letters underneath each heading. But if you put down on a separate sheet of paper a few sentences for the main points of the text, you will automatically have an outline of sorts, with each sentence describing the subject of a particular part of the reading.
- Use a dictionary. Chances are, you have had teachers tell you to do this all throughout your schooling. And if you are anything like me, you resisted using a dictionary while you read something for years because it slowed you down, because you couldn’t take a dictionary wherever you wanted to go, and because it just seemed like tedious busy work. But trust me: using a dictionary (even a small, paperback one) can be really useful in close reading because it can help you understand key words and phrases, especially words you can’t get from context.
Sometimes, I look up complex or abstract words (ideology, justice, democracy, etc.) in the dictionary, even if I know what they mean, because dictionary definitions will often expand or even change the way that I understand the term. If it’s a particularly important or puzzling word, I will even go so far as to look it up in different dictionaries. The slight differences in definitions can often help create a more full understanding of a term.
- Form an opinion as you read. The two main goals of a close reading are to fully understand what the text means and to form an opinion about whatever it is you are closely reading. If you follow the steps for close reading I outline here, you will inevitably end up with a more informed opinion about the text that can be a starting point toward writing critically about the text.
Certainly you don’t need to have a completely and neatly formed and complete opinion after you finish closely reading. But if you find yourself completing a close reading but still having no opinion about what it is you are closely reading, or if you have a vague and somewhat weak opinion about what it is you are closely reading (“it’s okay,” “there were some good points,” “I liked his main idea,” and so forth), then you probably have not read closely enough.
- Keep questioning the text. As you go along in your close reading, keep asking questions about the text: what is the point? do I agree or disagree with the text? why? what parts of the text are you confused about? how can you find answers to the questions you have? and how do you see it fitting into your research project? Keep asking these kinds of questions as you read and you will soon understand the text you are critiquing a lot better.If you do a thorough close reading of your text (taking notes, writing things in the margins, highlighting key points, looking up things in the dictionary, etc.), then you will start to develop opinions about the text, and you will obviously have reasons for these opinions. In the most basic sense, the reasons you have for forming your opinion is the criteria you are using to form your evaluation.Criteria are systems or standards for evaluation, rules or tests we use to make a judgment. We use criteria all the time. Take the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system, for example: films are assigned ratings of G, PG, PG-13, etc., by an MPAA board based on specific criteria (violence, language, adult themes, sexual content, etc.).In many college courses, students are asked to evaluate texts based on more or less predetermined criteria. For an example, an essay test question that asks you to critique a novel based on its depiction of women and children within the given historical contexts more or less has created criteria for you. If you decided instead to evaluate this novel based on some other criteria, your teacher might be interested in your reading, but he might also be disappointed in your response, especially given that it was a question on a test.More often than not though (and probably for your purposes here), writers choose their own criteria to the extent that they are appropriate for the text being critiqued. Suggesting that an article in an academic source is “bad” because it goes into too much detail, is written for a specialized audience, and doesn’t include any glossy pictures would be unfair, because, these criteria are not usually part of the goals or purposes of academic articles. The same could be true of an article you found in a popular magazine. Suggesting it was “bad” because it seemed directed at too general of an audience and it simplified certain details about the topic would be unfair as well.So, if there are no definite standard criteria to consider in a critique, how do you come up with criteria? Well, most of the questions suggested in chapter one on testing the credibility and reliability of your evidence might be used as criteria for your critique:
- Who wrote the text and what are their qualifications?
- What do you think motivated the writer to write the text?
- Is the information in the text accurate and specific?
- Has the author interpreted the material fairly?
- Has the author defined terms clearly?
- Does the writer seem to support her point with good research and reasoning?
- Where was the text published?
- When was it published?
Summarizing Your Research
Critiques usually include one other important component: a summary of the text being critiqued. As I discussed in chapters two and six, the most obvious reason to summarize the text you are critiquing is your readers are probably not familiar with it. After all, one of the main reasons why potential readers (your classmates, your teacher, and other readers interested in your topic) might read your critique is to find out what it is you (the writer) think about the text being critiqued so the reader can decide whether or not to read it themselves.
When writing your summary, keep in mind:
- Summaries don’t contain your opinion or feelings about whatever it is you are summarizing. Explain the key points and ideas of whatever it is you are summarizing, but save your opinions and reactions to your subject for the other parts of your critique.
- Generally, summaries don’t include quotes from the original source. The goal of the summary is to explain the key points in your own words. However, you will want to use the quotes from the original in your critique to support your own opinion of whatever it is you are critiquing.
- Summaries are short. Like this item.
Figuring out how much summary to provide in a critique can be tricky because it depends on factors like the text you are critiquing, your purposes in your critique, how much you can expect your readers to know about whatever it is you are summarizing, and so forth.
But keep in mind that the goal of almost any summary (in a critique or in other types of writing) is to get your reader familiar enough with whatever it is you are talking about so that you can go on to make your point.
Assignment: Writing a Critique Essay
As you work on the writing assignment for this chapter, put to work your new knowledge of the process of critiquing.
Critique a selection of writing you have found in your research as part of the ongoing research project. The main goal of this critique is to provide a detailed review of the particular selection of writing that will help your audience learn about your position on the writing selection and also to help your audience decide for themselves whether or not the writing selection is something they might be interested in reading.
Questions to consider as you write your first draft:
- If you are asked to choose your own text to critique, did you spend some time carefully considering possibilities? Why did you select the text that you did? Why did you rule out others?
- As part of your close reading, did you write both about and “in” the text that you are critiquing? What sort of marginal notes did you make? What are some of the key phrases or ideas that seemed important to you as you read that you underlined or noted with post-it notes in the margins? What kinds of questions about your reading did you write down as you read?
- How did you explain the main points of the text you closely read? What do you see as the main points of the text?
- Did you use a dictionary to look up words that you didn’t understand and couldn’t understand in context? Did you look up any complex or abstract terms? Did the dictionary definition of those terms help further your understanding of the word and the context where they occurred? Did you look up any terms that you saw as particularly important in different dictionaries? Did you learn anything from the different definitions?
- When you finished your close reading, what was your opinion of the text you closely read? Beyond a simple “good” or “bad” take on the reading, what are some of the reasons for your initial opinion about your reading?
- What criteria seem most appropriate for the text you are critiquing? Why? What would be an example of a criteria that would probably be inappropriate for this text? Did you consider some of the criteria that are similar to the tests for evidence I suggest in chapter one?
- Have you explained for the reader somewhere in the first part of the essay what your main point is? In other words, do you introduce the criteria you will be using to critique your text early on in your essay?
- Have you noted key quotes and passages that would serve as evidence in order to support your criteria? What passages are you considering quoting instead of paraphrasing? Are there other reasons you are turning to as support for your criteria?
- Have you written a summary of your text? How familiar do you think your audience is with whatever it is you are critiquing? How has that effected your summary?
Review and Revision
Considering the recommendations of classmates in a peer review group and of other readers is especially important for this project. After all, if the goal of a critique essay is to give readers an idea about what it is you think of a particular reading, their direct feedback can help ensure that you are actually accomplishing these goals.
Here are some questions you and your classmates want to consider as you revise your critique essays (of course, you and your teachers might have other ideas and questions to ask in review too!):
A Student Example:“A Critique of ‘Self-Report of ADHD Symptoms in University Students” by Ashley NelsonThe assignment for this student was similar to the one described earlier in this chapter, to write a brief critique essay about an important piece of research. Ashley’s topic was on the use (and misuse) of drugs to treat attention deficit disorders in adult-aged patients. Ashley’s essay begins with an introduction that explains how this exercise fits into her overall research project and a brief summary of the article she is critiquing. But most of her essay focuses on her critique of the article.A Critique of “Self-Report of ADHD Symptoms in University Students: Cross-Gender and Cross-National Prevalence,” by George J. DuPaul, Elizabeth A. Schaughency, Lisa L. Weyandt, Gail Tripp, Jeff Kiesner, Kenji Ota, and Heidy StanishWhile researching my topic, I came across many article that were interesting and that I thought could be useful for me with my research topic. When I read “Self-Report of ADHD Symptoms in University Students: Cross-Gender and Cross-National Prevalence,” by George J. DuPaul et al, I knew it would be a good article to critique, too.The article explains the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and describes an experiment with university students in the United States, New Zealand, and Italy. 1,209 students took two different self-reported surveys. The goal of the survey was to examine the percentage of students who have ADHD symptoms, if symptoms vary between gender and country, and also to find out if symptom patterns agree with the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM creates the criteria to diagnose ADHD in young children. Most of the research on ADHD has been conducted with young children; therefore understanding the symptoms in college students has not been widely studied (370).The results showed that gender was not a big factor in the United States. However, in Italy and New Zealand women had about a ten percent increase in the hyperactive-impulsive category. The results also proved that using the age adjusted diagnostic criteria, compared to the DSM, more college students reported having either one symptom or both.I think this article is good for several reasons. DuPaul and his colleagues explain what ADHD is and why it is important for college students to be diagnosed with the right criteria. The authors are also clearly experts in their fields. I also liked this article because the authors provide very good details about the results of their study.DuPaul et al explain that ADHD “is characterized by developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention and impulsivity, and motor activity” (370). ADHD begins usually in early childhood. If a child is not treated for the disease, the symptoms will still appear in adulthood. These factors lead to “university students being at a higher risk for academic impairment and underachievement relative to their counterparts without ADHD” (370). Despite the risks to college students, according to DuPaul et al, most of the research on ADHD has focused on children, which is one of the motivations for this study in the first place.The authors of this article were clearly qualified to conduct this study, too. Most of the researchers are college professors in psychology departments around the country and around the world. Further, most of the researchers specialize in issues having to do with ADHD (370). I think the authors’ qualifications show that they are all motivated and dedicated to help people with this disease. This experience and dedication makes me believe that these writers conducted a credible study.I also like this article because the authors do a good job of explaining their research and the results. They provide lots of information about the results throughout the article, and they also provide a number of useful tables, too. The authors believe that the DSM’s standards of criteria for what counts as ADHD are wrong for young adults because it was created for children. So the researchers constructed a 24 item survey called the Young Adult Rating Scale that was based on traditional ADHD symptoms and on symptoms that would appear in college-aged young people (372).The researchers point out that there were a variety of limitations with their study. For example, the students who participated in the survey were only from five different universities. In addition, the students were not asked any personal questions that could have effected the outcome of the survey (378). However, DuPaul and his colleagues believe that this study helps to pave the way for future students which “would provide a better understanding of the age-related changes associated with ADHD symptoms and the relevance of these changes to diagnostic criteria for ADHD in university students and other adults” (378).I think that “Self-Report of ADHD Symptoms in University Students” is an informative and interesting article, one I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about ADHD in young adults. DuPaul and his colleagues explained and interpreted the results of their survey very effectively.
- Do your readers understand (generally speaking) the text that you are critiquing? Of course, how much your readers understand the essay you are critiquing will depend on how familiar they are with it, and as the writer of the critique, you will probably know and understand the text better than your readers. But do they understand enough about the text to make heads or tails of the critique?
- Is there too much summary and not enough critique? That is, do the comments you are receiving from your readers suggest that they do fully understand the article you are critiquing, but they are not clear on the point you are trying to make with your critique? Have you considered where you are including summary information in different parts of your essay?
- Do your readers understand the main point you are trying to make in your criteria? Have you provided some information and explanation about your criteria in the beginning part of your essay?
- Do your readers seem to agree with you that your criteria are appropriate for whatever it is you are critiquing? Do they have suggestions that might help clarify your criteria? Do your readers have suggestions about different or additional criteria?
- Are you quoting and paraphrasing the text you are critiquing effectively? Are there places where your readers have indicated they need more information from the critiqued text? Are there places where your readers think you might be relying too heavily on quotes or paraphrases from the critiqued text and wish they could read more about your opinion?
- As your readers understand the article you are critiquing and the points you are making about it, do you think you have created any interest in your readers in actually reading the article themselves?
by Karen Rosenberg
If at First You Fall Asleep . . .
During my first year in college, I feared many things: calculus, cafeteria food, the stained, sweet smelling mattress in the basement of my dorm. But I did not fear reading. I didn’t really think about reading at all, that automatic making of meaning from symbols in books, newspapers, on cereal boxes. And, indeed, some of my coziest memories of that bewildering first year involved reading. I adopted an overstuffed red chair in the library that enveloped me like the lap of a department store Santa. I curled up many evenings during that first, brilliant autumn with my English homework: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. I’d read a gorgeous passage, snuggle deeper into my chair, and glance out to the sunset and fall leaves outside of the library window. This felt deeply, unmistakably collegiate.
But English was a requirement—I planned to major in political science. I took an intro course my first semester and brought my readings to that same chair. I curled up, opened a book on the Chinese Revolution, started reading, and fell asleep. I woke up a little drooly, surprised at the harsh fluorescent light, the sudden pitch outside. Not to be deterred, I bit my lip and started over. I’d hold on for a paragraph or two, and then suddenly I’d be thinking about my classmate Joel’s elbows, the casual way he’d put them on the desk when our professor lectured, sometimes resting his chin in his hands. He was a long limbed runner and smelled scrubbed—a mixture of laundry detergent and shampoo. He had black hair and startling blue eyes. Did I find him sexy?
Crap! How many paragraphs had my eyes glazed over while I was thinking about Joel’s stupid elbows? By the end of that first semester, I abandoned ideas of majoring in political science. I vacillated between intense irritation with my assigned readings and a sneaking suspicion that perhaps the problem was me—I was too dumb to read academic texts. Whichever it was—a problem with the readings or with me—I carefully chose my classes so that I could read novels, poetry, and plays for credit. But even in my English classes, I discovered, I had to read dense scholarly articles. By my Junior year, I trained myself to spend days from dawn until dusk hunkered over a carrel in the library’s basement armed with a dictionary and a rainbow of highlighters. Enjoying my reading seemed hopelessly naïve—an indulgence best reserved for beach blankets and bathtubs. A combination of obstinacy, butt-numbingly hard chairs, and caffeine helped me survive my scholarly reading assignments. But it wasn’t fun.
Seven years later I entered graduate school. I was also working and living on my own, cooking for myself instead of eating off cafeteria trays. In short, I had a life. My days were not the blank canvas they had been when I was an undergraduate and could sequester myself in the dungeon of the library basement. And so, I finally learned how to read smarter, not harder. Perhaps the strangest part of my reading transformation was that I came to like reading those dense scholarly articles; I came to crave the process of sucking the marrow from the texts. If you can relate to this, if you also love wrestling with academic journal articles, take joy in arguing with authors in the margins of the page, I am not writing for you.
However, if your reading assignments confound you, if they send you into slumber, or you avoid them, or they seem to take you way too long, then pay attention. Based on my experience as a frustrated student and now as a teacher of reading strategies, I have some insights to share with you designed to make the reading process more productive, more interesting, and more enjoyable.
Joining the Conversation1
Even though it may seem like a solitary, isolated activity, when you read a scholarly work, you are participating in a conversation. Academic writers do not make up their arguments off the top of their heads (or solely from creative inspiration). Rather, they look at how others have approached similar issues and problems. Your job—and one for which you’ll get plenty of help from your professors and your peers—is to locate the writer and yourself in this larger conversation. Reading academic texts is a deeply social activity; talking with your professors and peers about texts can not only help you understand your readings better, but it can push your thinking and clarify your own stances on issues that really matter to you.
In your college courses, you may have come across the term “rhetorical reading.”2 Rhetoric in this context refers to how texts work to persuade readers—a bit different from the common connotation of empty, misleading, or puffed up speech. Rhetorical reading refers to a set of practices designed to help us understand how texts work and to engage more deeply and fully in a conversation that extends beyond the boundaries of any particular reading. Rhetorical reading practices ask us to think deliberately about the role and relationship between the writer, reader, and text.
When thinking about the writer, we are particularly interested in clues about the writer’s motivation and agenda. If we know something about what the writer cares about and is trying to accomplish, it can help orient us to the reading and understand some of the choices the writer makes in his or her work.
As readers, our role is quite active. We pay attention to our own motivation and agenda for each reading. On one level, our motivation may be as simple as wanting to do well in a class, and our agenda may involve wanting to understand as much as necessary in order to complete our assignments. In order to meet these goals, we need to go deeper, asking, “Why is my professor asking me to read this piece?” You may find clues in your course syllabus, comments your professor makes in class, or comments from your classmates. If you aren’t sure why you are being asked to read something, ask! Most professors will be more than happy to discuss in general terms what “work” they want a reading to do—for example, to introduce you to a set of debates, to provide information on a specific topic, or to challenge conventional thinking on an issue.
Finally, there is the text—the thing that the writer wrote and that you are reading. In addition to figuring out what the text says, rhetorical reading strategies ask us to focus on how the text delivers its message. In this way of thinking about texts, there is not one right and perfect meaning for the diligent reader to uncover; rather, interpretations of the reading will differ depending on the questions and contexts readers bring to the text.
Strategies for Rhetorical Reading
Here are some ways to approach your reading that better equip you for the larger conversation. First, consider the audience. When the writer sat down to write your assigned reading, to whom was he or she implicitly talking? Textbooks, for the most part, have students like you in mind. They may be boring, but you’ve probably learned what to do with them: pay attention to the goals of the chapter, check out the summary at the end, ignore the text in the boxes because it’s usually more of a “fun fact” than something that will be on the test, and so on. Magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket also have you in mind: you can’t help but notice headlines about who is cheating or fat or anorexic or suicidal. Writers of scholarly sources, on the other hand, likely don’t think much about you at all when they sit down to write. Often, academics write primarily for other academics. But just because it’s people with PhDs writing for other people with PhDs doesn’t mean that you should throw in the towel. There’s a formula for these types of texts, just like there’s a formula for all the Cosmo articles that beckon with titles that involve the words “hot,” “sex tips,” “your man,” and “naughty” in different configurations.
It’s just that the formula is a little more complicated.
The formula also changes depending on the flavor of study (physics, management, sociology, English, etc.) and the venue. However, if you determine that the audience for your reading is other academics, recognize that you are in foreign territory. You won’t understand all of the chatter you hear on street corners, you may not be able to read the menus in the restaurants, but, with a little practice, you will be able to find and understand the major road signs, go in the right direction, and find your way.
How can you figure out the primary audience? First, look at the publication venue. (Here, to some extent, you can judge a book by its cover). If the reading comes from an academic journal, then chances are good that the primary audience is other academics. Clues that a journal is academic (as opposed to popular, like Time or Newsweek) include a citation format that refers to a volume number and an issue number, and often this information appears at the top or bottom of every page. Sometimes you can tell if a reading comes from an academic journal based on the title—e.g., do the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education or Qualitative Research in Psychology sound like they are written for a popular audience? What if you’re still not sure? Ask your reference librarians, classmates, your instructor, or friends and family who have more experience with these types of readings than you do.
There are two implications that you should be aware of if you are not the primary audience for a text. First, the author will assume prior knowledge that you likely don’t have. You can expect sentences like “as Durkheim has so famously argued . . .” or “much ink has been spilled on the implications of the modernization hypothesis” where you have no idea who Durkheim is or what the modernization hypothesis says. That’s OK. It might even be OK to not look these things up at all and still get what you need from the reading (but you won’t know that yet). In the first reading of an article, it’s smart to hold off on looking too many things up. Just be prepared to face a wall of references that don’t mean a whole lot to you.
Second, if you’re not the primary audience, don’t be surprised if you find that the writing isn’t appealing to you. Whereas a novelist or a magazine writer works hard to draw us in as readers, many academic authors don’t use strategies to keep us hooked. In fact, many of these strategies (use of sensory language, suspense, etc.) would never get published in academic venues. By the same token, you’ll use very different strategies to read these scholarly texts.
You may be wondering, if you’re not the intended audience for the text, why do you have to read it in the first place? This is an excellent question, and one that you need to answer before you do your reading. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of the role of the reader, you may need to do a little sleuthing to figure this out. In addition to the suggestions I provided earlier, look to your course notes and syllabus for answers. Often professors will tell you why they assign specific readings. Pay attention—they will likely offer insights on the context of the reading and the most important points. If after all of this, you still have no idea why you’re supposed to read six articles on the history of Newtonian physics, then ask your professor. Use the answers to help you focus on the really important aspects of the texts and to gloss over the parts that are less relevant to your coursework. If you remain confused, continue to ask for clarification. Ask questions in class (your classmates will be grateful). Go to office hours. Most faculty love the opportunity to talk about readings that they have chosen with care.
Once you have an idea who the intended audience is for the article and why you are assigned to read it, don’t sit down and read the article from start to finish, like a good mystery. Get a lay of the land before you go too deep. One way to do this is to study the architecture of the article. Here are some key components to look for:
The title. As obvious as it sounds, pay attention to the title because it can convey a lot of information that can help you figure out how to read the rest of the article more efficiently. Let’s say that I know my reading will be about the Russian Revolution. Let’s say I even know that it will be about the role of music in the Russian Revolution. Let’s say the title is “‘Like the beating of my heart’: A discourse analysis of Muscovite musicians’ letters during the Russian Revolution.” This tells me not only the subject matter of the article (something about letters Russian musicians wrote during the Revolution) but it also tells me something about the methodology, or the way that the author approaches the subject matter. I might not know exactly what discourse analysis is, but I can guess that you can do it to letters and that I should pay particular attention to it when the author mentions it in the article. On the other hand, if the title of the article were “Garbage cans and metal pipes: Bolshevik music and the politics of proletariat propaganda” I would know to look out for very different words and concepts. Note, also, that the convention within some academic disciplines to have a pretty long title separated by a colon usually follows a predictable pattern. The text to the left of the colon serves as a teaser, or as something to grab a reader’s attention (remember that the author is likely not trying to grab your attention, so you may not find these teasers particularly effective—though it is probably packed with phrases that would entice someone who already studies the topic). The information to the right of the colon typically is a more straightforward explanation of what the article is about.
The abstract. Not all of your readings will come with abstracts, but when they do, pay close attention. An abstract is like an executive summary. Usually one paragraph at the beginning of an article, the abstract serves to encapsulate the main points of the article. It’s generally a pretty specialized summary that seeks to answer specific questions. These include: the main problem or question, the approach (how did the author(s) do the work they write about in the article?), the shiny new thing that this article does (more on this later, but to be published in an academic journal you often need to argue that you are doing something that has not been done before), and why people who are already invested in this field should care (in other words, you should be able to figure out why another academic should find the article important). The abstract often appears in database searches, and helps scholars decide if they want to seek out the full article.
That’s a whole lot to accomplish in one paragraph.
As a result, authors often use specialized jargon to convey complex ideas in few words, make assumptions of prior knowledge, and don’t worry much about general readability. Abstracts, thus, are generally dense, and it’s not uncommon to read through an abstract and not have a clue about what you just read. This is a good place to re-read, highlight, underline, look up what you don’t know. You still may not have a firm grasp on everything in the abstract, but treat the key terms in the abstract like parts of a map when you see them in the main text, leading you to treasure: understanding the main argument.
The introduction. The introduction serves some of the same functions as the abstract, but there is a lot more breathing room here. When I started reading academic texts, I’d breeze through the introduction to get to the “meat” of the text. This was exactly the wrong thing to do. I can’t remember how many times I’d find myself in the middle of some dense reading, perhaps understanding the content of a particular paragraph, but completely unable to connect that paragraph with the overall structure of the article. I’d jump from the lily pad of one paragraph to the next, continually fearful that I’d slip off and lose myself in a sea of total confusion (and I often did slip).
If the author is doing her/his job well, the introduction will not only summarize the whole piece, present the main idea, and tell us why we should care, but it will also often offer a road map for the rest of the article. Sometimes, the introduction will be called “introduction,” which makes things easy. Sometimes, it’s not. Generally, treat the first section of an article as the introduction, regardless if it’s explicitly called that or not.
There are times where your reading will have the introduction chopped off. This makes your work harder. The two most common instances of introduction-less readings are assigned excerpts of articles and lone book chapters. In the first case, you only have a portion of an article so you cannot take advantage of many of the context clues the writer set out for readers. You will need to rely more heavily on the context of your course in general and your assignment in particular to find your bearings here. If the reading is high stakes (e.g., if you have to write a paper or take an exam on it), you may want to ask your professor how you can get the whole article. In the second case, your professor assigns a chapter or two from the middle of an academic book. The chapter will hopefully contain some introductory material (and generally will include much more than the middle of a journal article), but you will likely be missing some context clues that the author included in the introduction to the whole book. If you have trouble finding your footing here, and it’s important that you grasp the meaning and significance of the chapter, seek out the book itself and skim the introductory chapter to ground you in the larger questions that the author is addressing. Oddly, even though you’ll be doing more reading, it may save you time because you can read your assigned chapter(s) more efficiently.
Roadmaps included in the introduction are often surprisingly straightforward. They often are as simple as “in the first section, we examine . . . in the second section we argue . . .” etc. Search for these maps. Underline them. Highlight them. Go back to them when you find your comprehension slipping.
Section headings. A section heading serves as a title for a particular part of an article. Read all of these to get a sense of the trajectory of the text before delving into the content in each section (with the exception of the introduction and the conclusion which you should read in detail). Get a passing familiarity with the meanings of the words in the section headings—they are likely important to understanding the main argument of the text.
Conclusion. When writing papers, you’ve likely heard the cliché “in the introduction, write what you will say, then say it, then write what you just said.” With this formula, it would seem logical to gloss over the conclusion, because, essentially, you’ve already read it already. However, this is not the case. Instead, pay close attention to the conclusion. It can help you make sure you understood the introduction. Sometimes a slight re-phrasing can help you understand the author’s arguments in an important, new way. In addition, the conclusion is often where authors indicate the limitations of their work, the unanswered questions, the horizons left unexplored. And this is often the land of exam and essay questions . . . asking you to extend the author’s analysis beyond its own shores.
At this point, you have pored over the title, the introduction, the section headings, and the conclusion. You haven’t really read the body of the article yet. Your next step is to see if you can answer the question: what is the main argument or idea in this text?
Figuring out the main argument is the key to reading the text effectively and efficiently. Once you can identify the main argument, you can determine how much energy to spend on various parts of the reading. For example, if I am drowning in details about the temperance movement in the United States in the 19th Century, I need to know the main argument of the text to know if I need to slow down or if a swift skim will do. If the main argument is that women’s organizing has taken different forms in different times, it will probably be enough for me to understand that women organized against the sale and consumption of alcohol. That might involve me looking up “temperance” and getting the gist of women’s organizing. However, if the main argument were that scholars have misunderstood the role of upper class white women in temperance organizing in Boston from 1840–1865, then I would probably need to slow down and pay closer attention.
Unless the reading is billed as a review or a synthesis, the only way that an academic text can even get published is if it claims to argue something new or different. However, unlike laundry detergent or soft drinks, academic articles don’t advertise what makes them new and different in block letters inside cartoon bubbles. In fact, finding the main argument can sometimes be tricky. Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. The abstract and the introduction are the best places to look first. With complicated texts, do this work with your classmates, visit your campus writing center (many of them help with reading assignments), or drag a friend into it.
Once you understand the different parts of the text and the writer’s main argument, use this information to see how and where you can enter the conversation. In addition, keep your own agenda as a reader in mind as you do this work.
Putting It All Together
Collectively, these suggestions and guidelines will help you read and understand academic texts. They ask you to bring a great deal of awareness and preparation to your reading—for example, figuring out who the primary audience is for the text and, if you are not that audience, why your professor is asking you to read it anyway. Then, instead of passively reading the text from start to finish, my suggestions encourage you to pull the reading into its constituent parts—the abstract, the introduction, the section headings, conclusion, etc.—and read them unevenly and out of order to look for the holy grail of the main argument. Once you have the main argument you can make wise decisions about which parts of the text you need to pore over and which you can blithely skim. The final key to reading smarter, not harder is to make it social. When you have questions, ask. Start conversations with your professors about the reading. Ask your classmates to work with you to find the main arguments. Offer a hand to your peers who are drowning in dense details. Academics write to join scholarly conversations. Your professors assign you their texts so that you can join them too.
1. In this discussion, I draw on Norgaard’s excellent discussion of reading as joining a conversation (1–28). By letting you, the reader, know this in a footnote, I am not only citing my source (I’d be plagiarizing if I didn’t mention this somewhere), but I’m also showing how I enter this conversation and give you a trail to follow if you want to learn more about the metaphor
of the conversation. Following standard academic convention, I put the full reference to Norgaard’s text at the end of this article, in the references.
2. I draw on—and recommend—Rounsaville et al.’s discussion of rhetorical sensitivity, critical reading and rhetorical reading (1–35).
provided by Writing Commons
Use a double-entry format to extend your thinking on a topic or to critique an author’s presentation.
One very effective technique for avoiding note-bound prose is to respond to powerful quotations in what writing theorist Ann Berthoff calls the double-entry notebook form. The double-entry form shows the direct quotation on the left side of the page and your response to it on the right. There are two advantages to this technique: First, it helps you think about your subject; second, it helps you step away from your sources and discover your own approach and voice.
Double-Entry Example: Extending Thinking
They [i.e., creative ideas] may indeed occur at times of relaxation, or in fantasy, or at other times when we alternate play with work. But what is entirely clear is that they pertain to those areas in which the person consciously has worked laboriously and with dedication. Purpose in the human being is a much more complex phenomenon than what used to be called will power. Purpose involves all levels of experience. We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment. The deeper aspects of awareness are activated to the extent that the person is committed to the encounter.
(Rollo May, The Courage to Create, 46)
I’m absolutely certain that Rollo May is right: Total involvement in the “encounter” of the creative process is crucial for the emergence of the Eureka moment.
Unfortunately, I think, too many people are too uncomfortable about the intrusion of the disruptive “right brain” or “unconscious.” They dislike the creative process because of the fear of chaos and of failure.
How, then, can we encourage people to “submerge” themselves, to lose themselves in an idea or feeling, long enough to experience the Gestalt, the felt sense, the joy, the bliss, the jouissance? If students could only experience this passion for the creative process, they would learn that writing is not a boring, mechanical process of filling in completed thoughts into pre-established modes of discourse.
Double-Entry Example: Critique a Passage
Below is an example of how a double-entry format can be used to critique a document. When reading the following excerpt on the greenhouse effect, what questions do you believe a skilled reader would raise?
The greenhouse effect is likely to change rainfall patterns, raise sea levels 4 to 7 feet by the year 2100, and increase the world’s mean temperature 2.7 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050 (Brown and Flavin 6, 16). Everyone will suffer as irrigation and drainage systems become useless and agriculture faces its first changes in a “global climatic regime” that has changed little since farming began (Brown annd Flavin 16). Some places will cease to be productive, such as the North American heartland and the Soviet Union’s grain belt (Brown and Flavin 17). Although some areas, previously unproductive, will suddenly become good farmland, scientists say these climate shifts could occur so abruptly that agricultural losses would be hard to readily adjust for (Brown and Flavin 16). On what evidence is this information based?
According to the Works Cited section, this information appears in the following source: Brown, Lester R., and Christopher Flavin. “The Earth’s Vital Signs.” State of the World (1988): 5-7, 16-17. Critical readers would probably question the reliability of this source because the claims are so controversial and because they are not familiar with the journal.
The credibility of this information could be significantly improved by “power quoting.”
Brown and Flavin may be correct in their dire predictions. However, chances are that critical readers such as your instructors would be more likely to believe these predictions if additional information about the authors and their research were provided or if the authors could “power quote”—that is, cite numerous other studies that reached similar conclusions.
the process of research writing
peer review group
when you read a scholarly work
reading academic texts
two implications that you should be aware of if you are not the primary audience for a text
figuring out the main argument
Use a double-entry format to extend your thinking on a topic or to critique an author’s presentation
Licenses and Attributions
CC LICENSED CONTENT, ORIGINAL
Composing Ourselves and Our World, Provided by: the authors. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
YouTube Video: Critical thinking and reading, Marc Franco, PhD, Snap Lauguage eLearning Platform, published April 8, 2016CC LICENSED CONTENT INCLUDED
The Process of Research Writing, by Steven D. Krause, Eastern Michigan University Version 1.0,Spring 2007. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License
Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources by Karen Rosenberg * This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License
DuPaul, George; Elizabeth A. Schaughency, Lisa L. Weyandt, Gail Tripp, Jeff Kiesner, Kenji Ota, and Heidy Stanish. “Self-Report of ADHD Symptoms in University Students: Cross-Gender and Cross-National Prevalence.” Journal of Learning Disabilities. 34.4 (July/August 2001). 370-379.
Norgaard, Rolf. Composing Knowledge: Readings for College Writers. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
Rounsaville, Angela, Rachel Goldberg, Keith Feldman, Cathryn Cabral, and
Anis Bawarshi, eds. Situating Inquiry: An Introduction to Reading, Research,
and Writing at the University of Washington. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2008. Print.