It is very common for first year university students to have trouble critically reading their texts.

Instead, they read them much as one would read a novel. This is something I like to call “just looking at the words” in a fit of uncharitable crumudgeonry. The truth is that critical reading is a skill and must be developed over time. The following is a short set of questions to ask while reading a text that will provide a foundation to good critical reading. What is the point of the essay? The author is trying to tell us something in particular. Generally, this can be reduced to one or two sentences. It is NOT just a bunch of facts (these are much less important and are handled later), nor is the title always the main point. What is the argument? The author is not just telling us something for our edification. All essays are part of a broader argument. How does the one you are reading articulate with that argument: is it a debate about a theoretical perspective?; is it a supplementation of pertinent facts?; is it a criticism of another’s work?; etc. How is the argument structured? What resources or evidence are brought to bear? Here is where all of the facts fit in; they are just tools to promote the point of the essay. However, evidence is not just bits of factual data, but also is composed of deployment of other people’s arguments (citation), logical reasoning, etc. Is the evidence pertinent to the argument? What evidence seems superfluous? Missing? Can the argument be supported by this collection of evidence? Is the logic sound or is it flawed or inconsistent? Based on the above three headings, is the essay successful? Are you convinced by the essay? Can you trust the authority of this scholar? Is the essay really new and interesting or just a rehash of old stuff? An additional suggestion is to keep a glossary of the jargon you find. Any words that you come across that are opaque, you should write down and look up. At the very least, this could give you something to talk about in seminar. Throughout I have included quite a few yes/no questions. It is not simply good enough to answer as such. Keep in mind that the ghostly implied why?” is always hovering. Also, be constantly aware of the essay’s strengths as well as it’s weaknesses; every essay has plenty of both. Just noting the negative does not allow you to derive anything from the work—its kind of a shield from learning. Keep an open mind and consider what you read. Also, a benefit of critical reading is that it will improve your writing skills, as you will become attuned to how another may read your work. It’s a good deal! You get two academic skills for the price of one!

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