Being critical, being present

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An EdD student asked me today, during a tutorial – what precisely  does it mean ‘to be critical’ and how can I be present and critical in my writing. There are so many answers to this question, but actually the most definitive answers I was able to offer – it seemed to satisfy – was, it means using the type of sentences in your text that go something like this:

  • A major criticism of Smith’s work is that or
  • The key problem with this explanation is that
  • However, there is an inconsistency with this argument; it is that …

As referee, being present and visible as a writer – means that you start your sentences with your own voice. The authorities may be referred to in named, dated brackets to support your line of thinking, at the end of what you have said. But, as referee – your direct voice is what leads. The other voices are there as a choral support or challenge for what you have to say.

Manchester Academic Phrasebook is an excellent resource here. They list a series of sentences (as above) that hint at how the visible scholar is both present and critical, representing themselves on paper.

There is a danger. The sentences they suggest offer a hint at how it might be possible to tread that cautious line between being overly respectful or unnecessarily ‘umble in your writing. It is also important to avoid being caustic as if you desire to annihilate your adversary. After all, if you pummel your giants into the ground, their heads and their shoulders – made that much lower, diminish your own capacity to stand to the fullest possible height.

There are several colleagues who suggest the conceptual paper might be like hosting a dinner party. My colleagues at LiteratureReviewHQ elaborate upon this in detail.

You have the choice about the scholars and ideas you wish to invite. Invite those guests that will make the dinner an entertaining success, who will have interesting things to say to each other that are not so similar that they become repetitive. Nor are they so different that all they d is shout at each other.  The good host may well be critical of her company but certainly does not poison her guests. You make the choice about who can speak when – without being intrusive. You set the tone and theme of the sessions. The guests are there to help you accomplish what it is you have set out to do.

There is of course a very real danger of using something like the academic phrasebook – someone else words might well sound uncomfortable and odd in your text. So – as always what matters is that you explore the idea but not necessarily the specific detail.


2 thoughts on “Being critical, being present

    LeeFallin said:
    March 21, 2015 at 11:28 am

    I like this approach to introducing critical thinking. In appointments or workshops, I usually start with the Academic Phrasebank to show students what kind of language we are looking for when we ask for ‘criticality’. I find it easier to work from this and then unpick the idea in more detail. I do agree with your critique of the examples – and perhaps this is the problem of presenting this technique in a generalist way, taking the skill out of context.

    One of my personal goals for the next year is to develop our central resources on criticality and I would appreciate some input from academic colleagues 🙂


    maxhope1 said:
    March 2, 2015 at 11:15 am

    I think this post is really useful. As academics, we frequently ask students to ‘be more critical’, but it can be hard to explain what this looks like in practice. The examples given here really help, and the resources should be very useful (especially the Manchester Academic Phrasebook). Thanks for posting – I was not familiar with these resources.

    Liked by 1 person

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