I got an email from one of my students, one who hadn't cited any work after the 1970s in her graduate course research essay. She wrote to tell me that she'd read later critics, but didn't find much in them she could use.
The way she wrote the note gave me the sense that she's looking at critics to support her argument. I know that's certainly the way I looked at works of criticism when I started writing papers. I'd want to argue that "green means fertility and growth" in some work (I vaguely recall trying to write something horrifically dull like that about one of Toni Morrison's works. Morrison, forgive me, please!) So I would go look up critics who'd say that green means fertility and/or growth, and use them to support my argument (in all the dreadful ways that such assertions really don't work across cultures and such). Or I'd look for critics who'd written about Morrison and try to find handy quotations. Too often, I thought what I was reading was somehow "fact" because it was in print. I think that's a common mistake when students (and sometimes others) write about literature (and probably other fields of study).
I want to teach my students to read criticism for itself, to understand the argument and think about why they find it useful or not, why they agree or disagree. I want them to think about the argument as an end in itself, and not as a means to their end. (Obviously, I haven't succeeded so far with my grad student this semester.)
Disagreeing with another critic is often most helpful, because it makes you think about why you think what you do, and why you disagree. Are you wrong, is it possible? Do you start with different assumptions? If so, why? Do you interpret something basic about the text differently? Why? Do you interpret historical information differently, or do you have access to different historical information? Do you find the methodology problematic? Why?
In my own experience of learning to write, I went through a period when I'd basically start out an essay by working through some other critics' approach and trashing it. (Forgive me, Writers and Former Teachers, for what I have done.) I gradually learned that the trashing writing is useful as pre-writing, and not so useful in actual drafting. But it still helps me figure out why I think I have something new to say when I respond to another critic. At least I learned to read arguments carefully and to think about them as arguments.
I also learned to rethink my arguments in response to other critics' works. I start out with an idea of what I think is happening in a text, and then try to learn about the text so that I can figure out if my thinking makes good sense or not. Sometimes, it doesn't. I think I've got a GREAT and wonderful argument, and learn something that just overturns it completely. That sucks, but it's better to be honest about things than to fake things. More often, I learn something that helps me fine tune and adjust my argument, making it stronger.
This semester, I had my graduate class find and read critical essays for each work, and asked them to write about the question they thought the essay was trying to answer (whether explicitly or implicitly), and about the assumptions and methods the essay was using to get at the answer. It's a different sort of assignment, but they had several opportunities (including for revision), and I thought it would be useful in getting my grad students to read essays for the argument and such.
I'm not sure if the students who've written promising drafts learned from my assignment or already somehow learned and knew.
I need some better ideas for this student!