Apr 192013

Misunderstandings of Critical Reading

One of the barriers students face in writing critically is their misunderstanding of exactly what this process entails. For example, if a student thinks a critical analysis of a major theorist in the field, a canonical text, or a widely accepted theorem involves showing how the theorist, author, or proof is wrong, this is an incredibly intimidating prospect. It would take an extremely confident, or extremely foolish, student to produce a demolition of a piece of work that was widely referenced, published in several languages, and generally regarded as authoritative. So one of the first things teachers have to do is wrestle learners away from the mistaken notion that criticism is inherently negative, which brings us to our first misunderstanding.

That It’s Negative

For many of us the word critical carries negative connotations. Being critical is equated with cynical pessimism, with taking great pleasure in knocking down what other people have created; in short, with attacking and destroying what we portray as the naïve and shortsighted efforts of others. It is important to say from the outset, then, that critical reading is a process of appraisal, involving the recognition of positive as well as negative elements. In fact, using the words positive and negative is mistaken because it only serves to reinforce a false dichotomy that we have to reach a verdict that something is good or bad. What critical reading and writing are all about is assessing the accuracy and validity of a piece of work. This means that we will usually find aspects of research, philosophy, or theory that we dislike, disagree with, and find incomplete or overly narrow. But we will also find aspects that seem to us well described, recognizable, and informative. Few pieces of writing we read in a doctoral program will be so unequivocally wonderful or awful that we can adopt a film critic approach to its appraisal, giving it an intellectual thumbs up or thumbs down. If we are reading critically we will almost certainly find that our appraisals are multilayered, even contradictory (as in when the same passages both excite and disturb). But central to all critical reading is the acknowledgment of what we find to be well grounded, accurate, and meritorious in a piece of scholarly writing, as well as what we find wanting.

That It Always Leads to Relativism

Critical reading and writing makes us aware that knowledge is always culturally and disciplinarily constructed—always the product of particular people thinking in particular ways at particular times in particular places. A common response to this discovery on the part of readers is to lapse into a relativistic state of defeatism. They conclude that because nothing seems to have universal certainty (even what passes for the laws of physics change according to time and place), no ideas have any greater legitimacy than any others. This conclusion can induce a kind of intellectual lethargy, a disconnection from the world of ideas.

In fact, critical reading can increase our sense of connectedness to a text by increasing our ability to give an informed rationale as to why we hold the convictions and beliefs we do. When we give a piece of literature a careful critical appraisal we have a sense of its strengths and weaknesses. The intellectual convictions we derive from this appraisal are informed by this same even-handed sense of what is strongest and weakest about our convictions and about why, on balance, we hold these even as we recognize their shortcomings. The point at which the best critical readers operate is the point of informed commitment so valued by the pragmatic tradition summarized in Chapter Two. Informed commitment means being able to give a rationale and to cite evidence for our ideas while always being open to reexamining and rethinking these in the light of further experience.

That It’s Only for the Philosophically Astute

Because so much academic writing on critical thinking is grounded in the paradigm of analytic philosophy and concentrates on argument analysis, it is easy to conclude that critical thinking is not for the philosophically challenged. But critical reading (one form of critical thinking in action) is not restricted to those who pursue majors in logic. I prefer to think of it as a survival skill within the competence of all, irrespective of their formally defined educational level. In fact, as extensive research into how people reason in everyday situations shows (Sternberg, Forsyth, Hedlund, Horvath, Wagner, and others, 2000), the ability to clarify assumptions, analyze evidence quickly, assess the importance of contending contextual variables, and come to informed decisions is evident in many non-academic contexts of adult life. Indeed, critical thinking informs how many of us negotiate and survive what we see as transforming episodes in our adult lives (Taylor and Cranton, forthcoming).

That It’s the Preserve of Politically Correct Left-Wingers

Because one stream of writing on critical thinking, critical analysis, and critical reflection emanates from adherents of the Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theory—a body of work interpreting and revising Marx for the contemporary era (Brookfield, 2004)—there is a tendency to equate any activity with a name that includes critical with left-of-center political views. Students sometimes complain that for some teachers critical reading has a predetermined ideological outcome of turning the student into anything from a liberal to a neo-Marxist. In adult education programs where I have taught, this feeling sometimes expresses itself in the charge that my choice of texts shows I am anti-business. Given that critical theory’s main critique is of the logic of capitalism, this complaint from students is hardly surprising.

However, it is important to remember that one of the most frequent responses to reading texts critically is for students to become much more skeptical of ascribed authority and much more likely to question ideas that were previously taken for granted. Since we live in a culture in which capitalist ideas are invested with such taken-for-granted authority that they constitute the dominant ideology, one possible consequence of critical thinking and reading is the student’s questioning of the moral basis and universality of this ideology. Critical theorists are quick to point out, however, that, critical reading in a totalitarian communist society would call into question the taken-for-granted authority of those dominant left-wing ideologies.

The point about critical reading, properly encouraged, is that critical questions are asked of all ideologies, disciplines, and theories. So a critical social science turns a skeptical eye on all claims to universal validity. For a teacher to mandate in advance—either explicitly or implicitly—that only one ideological interpretation or outcome is permitted in a discussion or assignment is to contradict a fundamental tenet of critical thinking. That tenet holds that all involved—including teachers—must always be open to reexamining the assumptions informing their ideological commitments. For teachers this imperative is particularly important, since one of the best ways in which they can teach critical thinking is for them to model the process in their own actions. I hope, personally, that a critical reading of texts results in students becoming more skeptical of conservative ideologies, and more aware of the inhumanity of monopoly capitalism. And I feel a duty to make my bias known. But I also must continually lay out my own assumptions, and the evidence for these, and invite students to point out omissions in my position and to suggest alternative interpretations that can be made of the evidence I cite. For me to decree that “proper” or “real” critical thinking occurs only when students end up mimicking my political views would be the pedagogic equivalent of papal infallibility. I would kill at the outset any chance for genuine, searching inquiry.

That It’s Wholly Cognitive

Critical reading, like critical thinking, is often thought of as a purely intellectual process in which rationality is valued above all else. The concept of rationality figures so strongly in work of critical theoreticians such as Habermas that it’s not surprising to find it prominent in discussions of critical thinking and reading. However, critical reading as it is outlined here recognizes that thought and reasoning is infused with emotional currents and responses. Indeed, the feeling of connectedness to an idea, theory, or area of study that is so necessary to intellectual work is itself emotional. Even our appreciation of the intellectual elegance of a concept or set of theoretical propositions involves emotional elements.

So in critical reading we pay attention to our emotions, as well as our intellect. In particular, we investigate our emotional responses to the material we encounter. We can try to understand why it is that we become enthused or appalled, perplexed or engaged, by a piece of literature. As we read work that challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions, we are likely to experience strong feelings of anger and resentment against the writer or her ideas, feelings that are grounded in the sense of threat that this work holds for us. It is important that we know this in advance of our reading and try to understand that our emotional reactions are the inevitable accompaniment of undertaking any kind of intellectual inquiry that is really challenging.


Brookfield, S. D. The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Sternberg, R. J., Forsyth, G.B., Hedlund, J., Horvath, J. A., Wagner, R. K., Williams, W. M., Snook, S. A., and Grigorenko, E. Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sep 162012

For many years, I have observed new faculty members devote enormous time to their teaching, neglecting their research. When I recommend putting a greater priority on research, they listen appreciatively but postpone action until “things aren’t so busy” — a time that never comes.

Then, in early 2008, I came across a short, punchy book by Tara Gray titled Publish & Flourish (Gray, 2005). It spells out a 12-step plan to become a prolific academic author and cites research to back up the plan. Gray’s plan enabled me to support faculty and graduate students to become much more productive.

The foundation of Gray’s 12-step program is quite simple: write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Gray draws heavily on the work of Robert Boice, who studied the habits of productive new academics (Boice 1990, 2000) and found that daily writing is the key to success. Should this be surprising? Coaches expect their athletes — swimmers, runners and so forth — to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Boice found that aiming to write in big blocks of time is not a good approach. The first problem is finding a big block. An earnest academic might say, “I’ll wait until the weekend … or until teaching is over … or until I’m on sabbatical.” Some never get started at all. Then, when the putative writing times arrive, it is all too hard to actually write.

The second problem is that a big block of time for writing makes the task seem onerous. Some writers are able to overcome their inertia — often when a deadline is looming — and push themselves into a marathon session of frenzied writing. This is exhausting. When finished, there’s little energy left for writing on following days. It takes a while to recover before mobilizing the mental strength for another lengthy session. Weeks can go by with only a few days of actual writing.

This pattern is analogous to a weekend athlete who is physically exhausted after a long workout and takes days to recover. Boice calls this pattern binge writing. It’s analogous to drinking or eating too much — you feel terrible afterwards.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Bingeing becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300–page thesis requires planning and sustained work.

Boice’s alternative is simple: brief regular writing sessions. For academics, the easiest regular pattern is daily. A daily writing session might be for half an hour, or even less.

Many academics, as soon as this option is proposed, begin a series of objections. “It takes me quite a while to get started — to get myself immersed in the subject.” “I can’t just turn on inspiration at will.” True enough. If you write infrequently, it does take a while to get back into the topic. If you write in binges, you won’t feel like doing it again soon.

Regular sessions provide a solution to these obstacles. When you get used to writing every day, you don’t need as much start-up time because you were dealing with the topic yesterday. The result is greater efficiency, as memory is primed and maintained more easily.

As for inspiration, Boice (1984) found that waiting for good ideas simply doesn’t work very well. Writing is the crucible for sparking ideas, rather than ideas being the trigger for productive writing.

The core of Boice’s and Gray’s prescription for productivity is daily writing — but not too much. The idea is to make writing so inoffensive, over so quickly, that doing it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When expectations aren’t so high, it’s easier to overcome your internal censor, that little voice that says to you, “What you’re writing is no good. In fact, it’s crap. Give up and wait for a better time.”

Perfectionism is a deadly enemy of good performance. It’s like being judged every time you write a sentence or paragraph. It’s far better to go ahead, make mistakes and learn from them. Rather than expecting great output from a burst of frenzied inspiration, the idea behind Boice’s brief regular sessions is to work with moderate daily expectations, knowing this will lead in time to better results.

Writing programs

My next step was to encourage others to adopt the Boice-Gray writing program. I started with my PhD students, most of whom were highly receptive. Six months into the program, one of them, Jody, wrote “It is just wonderful and I know if I keep it up I will get better and writing will become easier for me.”

I also set up programs with faculty and graduate students in the Arts Faculty. One of the participants, Nichole, wrote that the program has “provided me with a non-threatening way of untangling my messy thought process, thread by thread.” Running these programs enabled me to learn much more about obstacles to writing and what helps to overcome them.

Boice and Gray recommend that writers make themselves accountable to someone, as this will help sustain the habit of writing regularly. I asked my students to send weekly totals to me listing the numbers of minutes they had written each day and the number of new words produced. That way I could assess how they were doing and discuss, in our weekly phone calls, ways to fine-tune the program.

In helping others use the Boice-Gray writing program, I make some specific recommendations. I suggest making notes about the points to be covered in your new writing, doing this a day or week beforehand. I recommend that when you sit down to write, you close or remove all books, articles and other polished text. Why? Because reading the polished text switches your mind into its flaw-noticing mode, the enemy of creating your own new words. I also recommend not reading yesterday’s writing, but instead using just your notes to provide guidance to today’s writing.

I also recommend closing the door, turning off the telephone, closing email and web applications and generally removing all distractions. Producing new words, for many writers, is a delicate process. Interruptions are temptations to do something else.

Some academics say they are so busy they have no time to do 15 minutes of daily writing. What this usually means is that they have put writing too low on their priority list. These busy academics spend hours preparing lectures, marking essays, attending seminars and committee meetings — and checking emails, surfing the web, and gossiping with colleagues. Devoting 15 minutes to writing at the beginning of a nominal eight-hour working day can’t make much difference to getting other things done, can it?

The title of chapter 4 in Boice’s 2000 book Advice for New Faculty Members is a single word: “Stop.” If the first principle of productive writing is to start, the second is to stop — before doing too much. For regular writing, you need to feel fresh when you start. If you feel worn out from too much writing yesterday or the day before, then you may postpone your session until tomorrow, starting a cycle of boom and bust, namely binge writing. So, Boice says, stop sooner rather than later.

Gray in her 12-step program made the advice more specific: write for 15 to 30 minutes per day. This means stopping when you get to 30 minutes. That may not seem like much, but it’s only the writing part. There’s a lot of additional work required before this becomes publishable prose: studying key texts, obtaining data, running experiments, seeking comments on drafts, submitting articles, and perhaps revising and resubmitting. Writing is the core activity, something akin to the highest intensity part of an athletic training program, but it has to be supplemented by a lot of other work.

I added one tweak to the Boice-Gray program. I ask participants to begin each 15–30 minute session by writing new words, for 5 to 20 minutes, and only doing other writing activities, such as taking notes or editing previous text, after the new words have been produced. I request this because composing new text is, for most writers, the most difficult task they face and the one most commonly postponed.

One of the common laments of people using this program is “I don’t know what to write,” often accompanied by “I’m not ready. I need to do more reading, or thinking, or investigation.” This is an indirect expression of the familiar formula of researching first and then writing up the results. Boice and Gray want to turn this on its head. Their motto: “Write before you’re ready!”

This means starting writing even though you don’t know enough about the topic, you haven’t read all the background material and haven’t done the experiments or fieldwork or interviews. Indeed, you’re just starting work in a field that’s entirely new to you. How can you write about it?

One approach is to write about what you’re going to do. Describe the things you know and the things you need to find out. Tell about the experiments you’re planning and how you’ll set them up. Tell how you’ll analyze the data.

Another approach is pretty similar: start writing the paper that you’d normally write at the end of your research. When you come to any part that you don’t know or don’t understand, just do as well as you can and keep going.

This feels very strange at first. Here’s how it works. By writing, you stimulate your thinking. In order to make progress on your project, you need to think about it — and writing is an efficient way of making this happen. Even after you’ve finished writing for the day, your unconscious mind will be working away at the topic, trying to address the matters you expressed.

Of course it’s quite possible to think about your topic without writing about it. Writing is just a reliable way of sustaining and focusing the thinking process. How many people schedule 15 minutes per day of concentrated thinking about a topic? If you’ve tried it, you’ll know it’s not easy to sustain.

Unconscious mental processing — during the time you’re not writing — is one thing that makes daily writing more efficient than bingeing. When you do a long stint of writing, you’re attempting to do all the thinking in one burst. This intensive effort can be exciting, but despite appearances it’s not as productive as harnessing the mind over longer periods. The brain is like a muscle: it responds best to sustained, incremental training.

There’s another, more practical reason why writing first — before doing all the research — is more efficient than writing only at the end. Let’s say there are ten major books in the area you want to write about. The normal approach is to read them first, and probably you’ll want to read even more books and articles just to be sure you understand the topic.

When you write first, before doing all the reading, you find out exactly what you need to know. You find gaps in your argument, points where you need examples, and places where you need a reference. So when you turn to the ten books, you don’t need to read them in full. You know exactly what you’re looking for, so you can just check the relevant bits.

Does this mean you learn less? Not at all. When you read a book or article with a purpose, you’re much more likely to be able to remember crucial information because it fits within a framework you’ve developed.


Regular writing is a powerful tool, but for many it is extremely challenging. The temptations of procrastination are powerful. Therefore, rather than relying on willpower every day, the key is to establish conditions in your life that help develop and maintain a habit. These include finding a dedicated place and time for writing, keeping tallies of minutes spent writing, and reporting to a mentor. The task of undertaking writing sessions that are brief and regular helps reduce psychological resistance to starting, which is often the greatest barrier. Putting these steps into place can make it far easier to establish and maintain a habit that leads to high productivity.

However, only a few writers find themselves in the fortunate position of being encouraged and supported to make these sorts of arrangements. The wider social circumstances are not particularly supportive — indeed, they are at the foundation of bingeing behavior. Boice says that established writers and editors are actually unsympathetic, as they think people who aren’t publishing don’t have anything to say. He quotes one editor as saying, concerning a writing program, “Why bother? Too much is already being written and good writers don’t need help.” (Boice, 1990, p. 126). This sort of view, which Boice calls “elitist,” assumes that writers are born, not made.

The Boice-Gray program challenges this sort of elitist attitude. It is based on the assumption that with the right conditions, just about anyone who wants to become a much better writer can do so. The program is also a challenge to every academic — you can do better too.


Boice, R. (1984). Contingency management in writing and the appearance of creative ideas: implications for the treatment of writing blocks. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 21, 537–543.

Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gray, T. (2005). Publish & flourish: Become a prolific scholar. University Park, NM: Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University.

by Rick Reis, 4 de Setembro de 2012 01h09min59s WEST

the book: