For many people the words ‘critical’ and ‘criticism’ have negative connotations. Of course it’s not helped by the impression many people have of professional critics who spend their lives reviewing the accomplishments of others. Tales are told of critics who can ‘make or break’ plays or restaurants who can with the flick of a pen and a few well chosen acid-tongued ‘put downs’. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that when students are faced with the prospect of writing their first critical essays that they think they have to don a black cape and mask and go MwaahhHHHAHAHAHAHA a lot.
Critical essays should offer balance. They are not opportunites for students to be ‘smart arses’ armed only with the knowledge on an introductory textbook. Many students fall into this trap. The general rule is: the more you’ve read the more critical you can be. If you try to dazzle with insights and wit based on a chapter in a textbook, it simply comes across as immature academic development, laziness and arrogance.
Often students rely too heavily on introductory texts because it is easy. It’s important to recognise that they serve the function only to introduce you to a topic, not become the fount of all of your knowledge. The publishing process in academia is notoriously slow. With the review process, it may take two years to get research into a journal. Then the textbook authors get their hands on it and after the editing and publishing process the information finds its way to you. By that time it is already out of date. Remember that textbook authors are often generalists rather than specialist researchers. So, once the textbook has set the scene and context, you should head for the journals.
Another main problem is that students are not necessarily taught how to write critical essays and so fall back on erroneous assumptions of what it means to be critical. This is more often than not ‘rip it to shreds’. Rarely, if ever, is this a wise approach. So what it?
Start by imagining that you are writing the essay of an intelligent fifteen year old. If you’re ask to ‘critically analysis’, don’t launch in with ‘theory X is a load of old rubbish and Dr X has a drink problem and was molested by gibbons when he was a child”. Instead begin by giving the reader a neutral account of the theories in question. Once you have established that, you can give an account of the pros (positives) of the theories, and then the cons (negatives). Obviously, reading around a topic will help to develop your critical skills as you encounter different perspectives. You are hardly likely to get this level of detail in a textbook.
This approach will communicate to your tutor that you are developing good academic skills. Yes it’s more work, but you aren’t studying to regurgitate what you already know or to demonstrate that you can get by for three of four years paraphrasing one book. Unfortunately some students do try this approach. Learning is about pushing the boundaries of what you know, and hopefully you may come up with critical analyses that is not in the textbooks.
Library cards to the ready and step away from that introductory textbook!
You can also find other insights of study skills and essay writing in my other posts: