Responding as a Critical Reader
Intellectual work is fundamentally about response. As a reader, speaker, or writer your chief responsibility as an intellectual or academic person is anchored in responding to your object of study, be it a biological process, a social event, a political movement, a painting, a piece of music, or a text. Most often, you won’t be asked or expected to create de novo responses to your objects of study. Instead, you will consider how previous readers, researchers, and investigators have responded, and will situate your own response in relation to what’s come before. Academic writing typically requires three interrelated moves:
- Familiarize yourself with the traditions of inquiry, experimental practices, or historical context that surround your object of study. The degree of such familiarization will depend on the course level (introductory courses typically require less familiarization, while a senior seminar will require extensive familiarization). Your professor may direct you to particular past experiments or analyses or arguments about your object of study, or may ask that you locate such discourses in the library.
- Determine which aspect(s) of previous analyses and arguments you’d like to grapple with. Which prior findings do you want to re-test or take issue with? Which prior analyses would you like to scrutinize or comment on, praise or call into question?
- Determine what your response to these previous findings will be. Will you support what’s been said? Add to or extend earlier findings? Call some aspect into question? Partially or fully disagree with a previous claim?
As you read another’s analysis or argument, and want to respond to that discourse in anticipation of writing a paper based on your responses, you may do well to keep in mind some of the varieties of response available to you. We offer here a basic list of those moves:
At first glance, summary may not seem much like a response at all since summary focuses resolutely on what someone else has said rather than commenting on or critiquing that analysis or argument. But summary can be thought of as a first order of response in at least two ways.
- You summarize in order to familiarize your readers with the gist of another’s argument or analysis, and by doing so, you are in effect saying: “As a reader, I am interested in presenting another’s position or line of thinking in the most fair, non-tendentious way that I can.” You imply: “I am a careful reader. I am a fair reporter of another’s ideas. I want to show readers my ability to represent another’s argument or analysis scrupulously, without critiquing or judging it.”
- Though good summaries represent another’s argument or analysis fairly and scrupulously, in as objective a way as possible, each summarizer will construct his/her summary uniquely. By nature, summarizers will construct and sequence summary sentences differently, will choose various verbs to indicate how a position is offered (Does X writer propose, or argue for, or aver or contend?), and will highlight certain features of another writer’s discourse (depending on the summarizer’s interests, purposes, commitments, and so on). In other words, if we put two summaries side by side, we may notice that they are constructed quite differently, but that each qualifies as a fair and complete summary.
Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them form but often we are not even aware of them. When, for some reason, they flash to the surface of our consciousness, they evince a poignancy that the more deliberative acts- –the actively sought experiences- –cannot match. Intimate experiences are hard to express. A mere smile or touch may signal our consciousness of an important occasion. Insofar as these gestures can be observed they are public. They are also fleeting, however, and their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning and action. They lack the firmness and objectivity of words and pictures. (136).
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience
Summary of the Passage
Yi-Fu Tuan reminds us that personal encounters generate memories that reside within a deep interiority, but may be triggered and brought to the surface of consciousness in ephemeral and unpredictable ways. (136).
Paraphrase also counts as a variety of response since the paraphraser represents another’s point or finding in fresh language not found in the source text. Like a summary, a good paraphrase ( typically comparable in length to the passage in the source text) translates another’s point or finding so as to demonstrate that the writer has a good understanding of the source text’s point. In fact, perhaps the best way to think of composing a paraphrase is to bring to mind the phrase “In other words. . .”. The translation conveys the quality of the writer’s understanding.
Vietnamese tradition wisely forbade the confiscation of land for the payment of debts, but the French ignored this tradition. A peasant’s land was treated like any other real asset that could be seized for the payment of debts. Fearing the confiscation of their land for non-payment of taxes, many peasants turned to wealthy Vietnamese for loans (at interest rates that often exceeded 100% per annum) to meet their tax obligation in a futile attempt to stall off the inevitable. Slowly but surely Vietnam was transformed into a land of huge estates on which approximately seventy percent of the population toiled as sharecroppers. French tax policy was exploitative and shortsighted. Within two generations it created the social and economic conditions for revolution. (114).
K. Quincy, Hmong: History of a People
[This is an incorrect paraphrase because it recycles many of the words (underlined) from the original source into the paraphrase.]
Vietnamese tradition did not allow the seizing of land for the payment of debts. The French, however, ignored the tradition and treated land like any other asset. Fearing the loss of their property many peasants went to wealthy Vietnamese for loans at the highest interest rates. Eventually, Vietnam was changed into a collection of huge estates, where nearly three-fourths of the people worked as sharecroppers. The tax policy of the French was unfair and misguided, and it set the stage for revolution. (114).
Quincy attributed political instability in Vietnam to misguided and harsh French tax policies, by which the peasants forfeited their small landholdings to tax collectors or to greedy money lenders. As the confiscated lands were consolidated into large estates, most of the population ended up sharecropping for wealthy landowners. Eventually, the peasants rebelled. (114).
This is a form of approbation regarding another’s ideas, method of analysis, theories proposed, evidence brought forward, style of writing used, sensibility conveyed, experimentation carried out, etc. Strong readers don’t praise another’s work simply because it has been published; instead they offer a reason for their valuing another’s work, and often go on to show how another writer’s ideas, methods, analysis, or findings can be put to good use as a solution to a new problem, or as a model for some intellectual work at hand.
Kristin Luker sketches a proposal for transcending the dichotomy of either abstinence-only or comprehensive sex education. She speculates: “Why not put the hidden agenda on the table and tell young people that Americans hold two very different views about sexuality, views rooted in very different notions of the relationship of sexuality to marriage.Why not acquaint them with the fact that Americans have a deep conflict about sex and gender, that this kind of liberal-conservative debate is driving political elections, not just sex education?” (258). Luker’s proposition calls for respect rather than inculcation. It conceives of young people as citizens rather than children. It moves from the routine of information to the realm of ideas, the most powerful of which may be the idea of democratic life where choices are tied to values, which differ across publics.
Refreshingly, Fine and McClelland insist that the population they advocate for (the young impoverished women of color damaged by abstinence-only education) be viewed in their total vulnerability. As they put this, “we want to leave the reader with a sense of how we might educate and research with the recognition that young minds, souls, and bodies desire broadly, in areas that are economic, educational, health-minded, and, indeed, sexual” (325). Their approach refuses to disentangle the knot of constraints, interests and desires that combine to create the whole person. Surely, this holistic perspective restores a vital status to adolescents who, caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood, suffer the costs of diminished status as informed citizens.
add to (extend)
Here, you positively value some aspect of another’s work, and suggest that this aspect (another’s theory, analysis, claim, or argument) could be made yet stronger, more effective, or more nuanced, when you offer your suggestion. You might offer new evidence, gesture toward new applicability, change a term, enhance a definition, make a new distinction, etc. Your extension of or addition to the source text’s work is an act of generosity since you are allying yourself with the essence of what someone else has said, and want to help another’s ideas, analysis, or argument evolve. We have underlined the phrases where the writer adds to the source text.
Drawing in part on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of the public sphere as a space of visibility, Judith Butler envisions how the public sphere can be constrained by the state and/or the media’s control over the distribution of images and reports of others’ suffering. Without such representations, our ability to recognize fully the humanity of distant others is limited, thereby excluding such persons from normative status as members of the global community. As Butler puts this, “The public sphere is constituted in part by what can appear, and the regulation of the sphere of appearance is one way to establish what will count as reality, and what will not” (xx). Though Butler’s examples of such constraint come from the arena of contemporary global politics, one might well include the historical example of the censorship of images and reports from the Nazi extermination camps during the early years of World War II. Without ready access to such information, the Jews, homosexuals, Romany, and others who were imprisoned and killed became “distant others,” and the robust compassion of U.S. citizens curtailed.
add to, with a twist (extend with a difference)
In this form of response, you show that you have located a new piece of evidence or data that troubles some aspect—but not all of—the source text’s analysis or argument. The new piece of information you’ve discovered doesn’t require jettisoning the source writer’s claim, but requires instead some modification of the source text’s claim and argument. In “adding with a twist” you determine that the source text’s claim or conclusion won’t need to be scrapped completely, but you suggest that it will need to be reworked or revised in order to account for the new evidence, counter-evidence, or data you’ve located. The constituent question, in other words, is: “OK, but how about this new case?” or “I like the general thrust of this idea, but I believe it deserves to be qualified or limited to include X.” We have underlined the phrases where the writer has added to the source text, but with a twist.
Drawing in part on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of the public sphere as a space of visibility, Judith Butler envisions how the public sphere can be constrained by the state and/or the media’s control over the distribution of images and reports of others’ suffering. Without such representations, our ability to recognize fully the humanity of distant others is limited, thereby excluding such persons from normative status as members of the global community. As Butler puts this, “The public sphere is constituted in part by what can appear, and the regulation of the sphere of appearance is one way to establish what will count as reality, and what will not” (xx). The absence of images, voices, and information about distant others no doubt defines a particular public sphere, but it may be that the saturation of images and narratives constrains the public sphere in yet another way. Think, for instance, of the wide distribution of videos of recent police brutalities against young African American men. Clearly, numbers of citizens are in peril, but neither the number of images nor their graphic content may necessarily stimulate a new “mattering” for black bodies.
call an aspect into question
Calling into question is more negatively critical than the previous modes of response. You can call any aspect of a source text into question: a sentence, a concept, a term, an analytic method, a form of reasoning, a particular point. Here, you are not attempting to fully refute or rebut the thesis, conclusion, or central findings of the source text. (That’s an act of countering). Instead, you single out an important aspect of another writer’s work that you find problematic, inaccurate, unfair, hastily-formulated, or otherwise troubling, and spend some time identifying the difficulty, saying something about what it occludes, disrupts, or problematically implies or entails. To call into question you: 1) identify what exactly is problematic; 2) describe the costs or consequence of this problem. You might call a single term, phrase, or passage into question, or you might discover a pattern of troubles that deserve attention. Calling into question shouldn’t be confused with nit-picking. It is fine-grained in its approach, but that doesn’t make the act of calling into question frivolous or trivializing. We have underined the phrases that call an aspect of the source text into question.
Fine and McClelland’s argument in favor of comprehensive sex education for young women of color coalesces in the concept of what they call “thick desire,” a young woman’s expectations for an open future, free from delimiting constraints (300). But by fashioning this important concept in terms of desire, which typically is understood in terms of pleasure, they imply—however inadvertently—that young Black women are promiscuous, thereby invoking a racist stereotype.
Over and again, Fine and McClelland warn us that the Abstinence Only Until Marriage curriculum may seem mild, but is in fact dangerous and potentially damaging: “the campaign for abstinence in schools. . .may seem trivial, an ideological nuisance, but at its core it is a further violation of human rights and a betrayal of our next generation” (305). The “violation of human rights” is a serious and important charge, but the authors fail to spell out exactly what rights are violated, leaving readers to infer harms that may not be pertinent to their case. Do they have in mind traditional human rights such as education, health care, and personal safety? Or, are these rights more closely allied to women’s rights and feminist precepts?
counter (or refute) the whole
When you counter another’s work, you have located a problem that is so systemic, so substantive, or so extensive that you recommend that the central claim, the majority of the argument, or the bulk of another’s analysis be rethought, redone, or jettisoned in favor of some very different way of thinking, analyzing, or arguing the issue under consideration. To refute or rebut, you need to: 1) identify what is problematic; 2) describe the costs or consequences of this line of thinking; 4) offer your alternative; and 4) describe the benefits of this new line of thinking.
In March 1965, the Office of Policy Planning and Research at the United States Department of Labor produced a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Written by an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor with social scientific training but with a short publishing history on race and racism, the document launched a national debate so powerful that it became known as the Moynihan Report, after its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Infamous on the left for his description of black family life as a “tangle of pathology” and celebrated on the right as a (perhaps the first?) victim of “political correctness,” Moynihan is more cited than read. Reflecting on the legacy of the report fifty years after it was first published, many commentators seem to agree: Moynihan was right to point out that family structure is central to the perpetuation of poverty among African Americans. Whether from conservatives like the Wall Street Journal‘s Jason Riley or from liberals like the New York Time‘s Nicohas Kristof, this adulation of Moynihan centers on the idea that he was a “prescient” figure who boldly preached a “taboo” subject in order to tell hard truths. These writers portray Moynihan as a prophet without honor, whose unpopular message carried great potential but went sadly unheeded.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent months yet another report, this one from the Center for Contemporary Families, shows that his predictions of an increase in juvenile crime and in inequality due to the rise of single-parent families were spectacularly false. Not only was Moynihan wrong, but the controversial thesis of his work gained him unprecedented public attention—indeed, the report made him a household name. As both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tressie McMillan Cottom point out in recent pieces in the Atlantic, the report’s condemnation of black family life made its author a celebrated public intellectual and launched his career in politics. Coates sees mass incarceration of African Americans as the “national action” that America chose to undertake to address the problems Moynihan described. Moynihan’s framing of poverty as a problem of black families—of black people—has enabled political leaders for a century to look away from restitution and towards punishment as a way to address social problems.
Sam Klug, “The Moynihan Report Resurrected,” Dissent, Winter 2016: 48.
You should keep in mind that our responses often don’t fall neatly into a “agree/disagree” dichotomy. At times, responders have good reason to “be of two minds” or to be genuinely undecided in their appraisal, or for a variety of reasons unable to respond fairly and/or critically. It is possible to build a paper explaining what makes a source text difficult, confusing, or ambiguous. It is also possible to compose a paper that explains your own ambivalence about another writer’s claims or conclusions. In either case, you’ll want to show that your ambivalence is neither a refusal, a deferral, nor an act of blunt resistance. Instead, present your good reasons for confusion, indeterminacy, or indecision.
In his recent commentary on the state of cultural writing, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth, A.O. Scott reminds us of the litany of public intellectuals who worry about the effects that digital modalities will have on the state of critical writing in the United States: “The shape of the digital future is hard to predict—which will hardly deter self-appointed prophets and well-paid consultants from doing just that. What is certain is that there will be no shortage of words. Physical and economic barriers to the production and circulation of discourse have crumbled; digital culture is a culture of abundance., of and, of more. And yet this deluge is often perceived as a drought. The sheer quantity of text in the world threatens to erode the value of particular texts, to undermine the authority and integrity of writing as an enterprise.” (251). Such predictions are difficult—perhaps impossible—to answer responsibly. One can affirm or refute such predictions with quite reasonable arguments on either side. The fact is that only quite vast historical hindsight will make possible an evaluation of how the state of critical writing fares the winds of change. Until that moment of critical distance arrives, we are left with ambiguity.