Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Using Other Critics

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!


  1. Nervous students always look to critics first to feel they are giving a 'proper' answer. Build their confidence and encourage them to think for themselves with some really obscure texts that they will not be able to find any criticism of online or in the library. 18thC literary magazines are stuffed with anonymous verse and prose you can use for this.

    In the first instance ignore the 'essay' form and just ask for ideas. Get them to verbally explain their reasoning.

    Or find something obscure written by a local author. Then invite the author in to talk about it, after they have written about it.

    Then wean them on to criticism, making sure they all get to have fun ripping apart some really bad criticism, heavily based within one of the more bizarre modernist theories.

    Bad examples are good for training. Find a critical piece where you yourself had to re-read it a dozen times to work out what they were trying to say, so rich in jargon was the piece, and then do it as a group. When through it, get them to rewrite it in normal English, with only the terms they would use in their own work. That's an excellent way to train a future generation of critics who won't spend their days writing jargon-rich rubbish to pad out their books and their CVs.

    All you can do is give them the confidence to explore a text themselves, thinking for themselves, the open-mindedness to consider other views, and the strength of character to argue honestly and coherently with any view they disagree with, regardless of whose view it is (including that of their tutor).

    At which point they will never look back-such skills are a gift for life.

  2. What a great post! Would you mind if I passed this on to my (small group of) graduate students next semester?

  3. One thing that I think helps me with this in my upper-level classes is that when they propose their topics, I have them list five sources that they think will be useful (not annotated or anything - just in MLA format) on the proposal. Then, when I give the proposal back, I can nip this tendency in the bud by noting the issue and also by suggesting a couple of more recent sources that I think would be useful for the paper.

    Another thing I try to do is to talk about critical trends in an offhand way in class, as well as to have them use some criticism in their proposals. By connecting the work we do in class to criticism and by constructing it as literary criticism, I think that gives them a clue that I'm expecting them to engage with critics - not just to use them to support their claims.

    If you want, send me an email, Bardiac. I've got some handouts that I've made up that I give to my upper-level students that you might find useful (I seem to think I talk about this on one of them, though that might not be true... I don't remember, but all of that stuff is on my work computer so I can't tell for sure!)

  4. Bardiac, this is such a helpful post as I think about planning my next graduate course. I confess to having gone through three graduate degrees without anyone trying to teach me to what sort of use I was supposed to be putting other critics' work.

    Dr. Crazy, I'd love to have those handouts, too, if you don't mind sharing.

  5. Anonymous11:39 PM

    I don't know if I have any ideas that will help your student -- I'm still a student myself. And I figured out how to engage critical essays more productively, but started in the same way that you did, I think -- a fair amount of trashing them (mea culpa).

    I STILL pay a lot of attention to the way that essay writers use the sources in their articles -- and that's been tremendously useful, and has helped me learn a lot about the way that criticism has changed over the years. Maybe you could make that a component of your assignment? (which sounds quite helpful to me, for what it's worth)