Critical Vs Non Critical Thinking

My father used to say to me: "Don't go into teaching literature. There's no money in it."

But as a lecturer in English at a large university, I've come to the conclusion that he was wrong. Teaching literature at university is all about money - as well as power, status and bureaucracy. What my father should have said is: "Don't go into teaching literature. There's no literature in it."

This is, in part, because of the crushing weight of the institution, bearing down on the subject and academics through institutional audits, departmental audits, funding applications, research plans, periodic reviews, peer reviews, admissions, regulations, meetings, meetings about meetings and surveillance.

These pressures mean that the time academics spend actually reading literature is reduced to a minimum. The last time I saw an academic reading a book in my department was ... erm ... no, I can't recall.

Reading can't be measured, weighed, or accounted for by statistics. It has no place in institutions governed by notions of output. The god-forsaken research assessment exercise (RAE) places all its emphasis on what academics have "produced", either in terms of books, journal articles, or research funding.

Precisely what the RAE does not assess, though, is real research, in the form of reading books. As for assessing outlandish literary concepts, such as imagination, creativity, beauty or joy - these vanished off the radar long ago.

And they have disappeared for literary academics themselves. But institutional audits and the RAE can't take all the blame for the grind of modern literary studies. No, academics mirror back the practices and assumptions of these mechanisms. Literary academics don't talk to each other about books. God forbid. Instead, they talk endlessly about the RAE, institutional audits, meetings, meetings about meetings, career structures, who knows whom in which institution.

There is no idea among lecturers or students that literary criticism might have something to do with criticism - ie making informed value judgments about what's good and what isn't. Nor, in fact, does literary criticism have much to do with the literary any more: as I say, it's all about history, politics and social contexts.

This is because the ruling class in literary academia is now made up of Marxists, feminists and post-colonialists - and, yes, the idea of Marxists as a ruling class is meant to sound paradoxical.

These are the same people who were once so revolutionary (in a limited, institutional sense), overturning those terrible, benighted people of the past - those people who misguidedly just read the words on the page, who discussed issues, such as quality, who thought literature mattered on its own terms, not just in relation to politics and history.

By contrast, with the new ruling class, literature is almost effaced under the weight of their various political programmes; literature is now deeply suspect, because it is seen as part of the histories that this ruling class detest.

Literature of the past is there to be invaded, colonised, and (where necessary) annihilated by the theories of the new ruling class - because the new ruling class of literary academia knows better than those poor, uncivilised texts of the past. The idea that perhaps the best literature is sticking up two fingers at any ruling class never crosses anyone's mind.

I have met feminist academics who teach the students only about the covers of books. I have worked with other feminists who dismiss the work of Shakespeare and Dickens and other male writers as sexist, racist rubbish. I have worked with academics who tell students never to quote from the primary texts, just from other critics. I have worked with Marxist academics, who literally shred all of their books because they're available on CD-rom. Books are the product of a degenerate, bourgeois, capitalist society. (Computers obviously are not.)

If he were alive, I can't even begin to imagine how to explain the logic behind this to my father: here are people who teach literature for a living destroying literature, literally and figuratively.

There are, though, isolated moments where beauty, imagination, feeling, love and even literature are glimpsed, a moment when a student says: "I cried when I read Tintern Abbey," or when a mature student tells me that "Middlemarch changed my life."

Perhaps that's the best we can hope for - that, between the cracks of the university, away from its crushing gaze, when no one is looking, or auditing, or theorising, literature and its beauties might still peek through.

Literature, after all, will outlast these institutions and their ruling classes, just as the weeds outlast the "marble citys" in John Clare's great poem, The Flitting:

Time looks on pomp with careless moods
Or killing apathys disdain
- So where old marble citys stood
Poor persecuted weeds remain
She feels a love for little things
That very few can feel beside
And still the grass eternal springs
Where castles stood and grandeur died

· Dr Taylor is a lecturer in English and creative writing. His memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself will be published by Granta in September 2007

Critical writing depends on critical thinking. Your writing will involve reflection on written texts: that is, critical reading.

Your critical reading of a text and thinking about a text enables you to use it to make your own argument. You will be making judgments and interpretations of the ideas, arguments, and claims of others presented in the texts you read.

The key is this: don’t read looking only or primarily for information. Instead, read to determine ways of thinking about the subject matter.

TIP: Avoid extracting and compiling lists of evidence, lists of facts, or examples.

Non-critical vs. critical reading

Non-critical (or pre-critical) thinking/reading is concerned with recognizing what a text says about the topic. The reader focuses on understanding the information, ideas, and opinions stated within the text from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

To non-critical thinkers/readers, texts provide facts.
Critical thinkers/readers recognize not only what a text says, but also how the text portrays the subject matter.

How to read critically

1. Determine the central claims or purpose of the text (its thesis). A critical reading attempts to identify and assess how these central claims are developed and argued.

TIP: Many academic paragraphs have a topic statement at or near the beginning, which indicates the purpose of the paragraph.


2. Begin to make some judgments about context.

  • What audience is the text written for?
  • Who is it in dialogue with?
  • In what historical context is it written?

3. Distinguish the kinds of reasoning the text employs.

  • What concepts are defined and used?
  • Does the text appeal to a theory or theories?
  • Is any specific methodology laid out?
  • If there is an appeal to a particular concept, theory, or method, how is that concept, theory, or method then used to organize and interpret the date?
  • How has the author analyzed (broken down) the material?

TIP: Be aware that different disciplines (i.e. history, sociology, philosophy, biology) will have different ways of arguing.

4. Examine the evidence (the supporting facts, examples, etc.) the text employs. Supporting evidence is indispensable to an argument, so consider the kinds of evidence used:
Statistical? Literary? Historical? From what sources is the evidence taken? Are these sources primary or secondary?

5. Critical reading may involve evaluation. Your reading of a text is already critical if it accounts for and makes a series of judgments about how a text is argued. Some essays may also require you to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument.

Why to read critically

Critical reading is an analytic activity. The reader rereads a text to identify patterns of elements—information, values, assumptions, and language usage—throughout the discussion. These elements are tied together in an interpretation, an assertion of an underlying meaning of the text as a whole.

Modes of critical analysis

What a text says  – restatement. Talks about the same topic as the original text.
What a text does – description. Focuses on aspects of the discussion itself.
What a text means – interpretation. Analyzes the text and asserts a meaning for the text as a whole.

Steps to writing critically

1. Recognizing a text as a presentation in its own right.

  • The existence of a beginning, middle, and end.
  • The use of illustrations to explicate remarks.
  • The use of evidence to support remarks.
  • The use of stylish language to portray topics.
  • Organization, or a method of sequencing remarks – such as whether chronological, different aspects of the topic, steps in a logical sequence.

2. Describing the nature of these aspects of the text, classifying the nature of the material within the text.

  • The nature of the examples – what are these examples of?
  • The nature of the evidence – what kinds of authorities are invoked, what types of evidence are provided?
  • The nature of the choice or terms – what types of terms are applied to what topics?

3. Inferring the underlying assumptions and perspectives of the discussion, taking into account all of the elements of the text throughout the text as a whole. This step is concerned less with sequential development and more with recognizing patterns of elements interwoven throughout the presentation as a whole.

  • What is achieved by describing topics a certain way?
  • What is assumed by selecting certain types of evidence?

Implications for writing

Writing critically involves:

  • Providing appropriate and sufficient arguments and examples
  • Choosing terms that are precise, appropriate, and persuasive
  • Making clear the transitions from one thought to another to ensure the overall logic of the presentation
  • Editing for content, structure, and language.

An increased awareness of the impact of choices of content, language, and structure can help you as a writer to develop habits of rewriting and revision.

Example:  A non-critical thinker/reader might read a history book to learn the facts of the situation or to discover an accepted interpretation of those events.

A critical thinker/reader might read the same work to appreciate how a particular perspective on the events and a particular selection of facts can lead to a particular understanding.

TIP: An interpretation includes references to the content (the specific actions referred to), the language (the specific terms used), and the structure (such as the relationship between characters).

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