Here is a little glimpse of the kind of content you'll find in our Academic Reading Training Seminar, drawn from the new online version that debuted last week —and which continues this week! It involves about nine hours of content plus time spent putting those skills and strategies to work. We won't just feed you the information. We'll train you to apply it, to get used to it, eventually to master it yourself.
These four tips are not the famous Six Critique Questions you're probably looking for! To discover those, you'll need to register for the next Academic Reading Training Seminar, either online (available now) or in-person at the Wordsmith Writing Coaches office (when quarantine restrictions are lifted in Los Angeles). These four tips are a more fundamental understanding of critique of any kind, especially geared toward academia. As you think them through, you may think of ways to apply these criteria to other kinds of critical thinking, developmental editing, and self-revision. Because they are more general, they are more broadly applicable, if you take the time to translate them into other contexts.
So here you go:
Academic critique begins with four criteria.
The first three have to do with the completeness and coherence of the document:
- Does it have all the information it needs to have?
- Is all of its necessary information correct?
- Are there any problems with its logic, its argument?
Thinking in terms of the jigsaw-puzzle metaphor: does the puzzle have all its pieces? Are any of them fake or wrong puzzle pieces? Do they all fit together in a sensible way to form a recognizable whole?
The last criterion is less precise than the first three, and is probably where you'll spend most of your time if the work you're critiquing draws upon good strong sources:
4. Is it adequate? Did it really achieve its goals?
There are all kinds of different directions you could go with this last criteria. Adler suggests a few:
- Maybe its conclusions were fine as far as it went but didn't address all the questions it raised; it left unsolved something that was really important.
- Maybe the argument was valid as far as it went but missed some important implications, corollaries, or ramifications. (Many rhetoricians and logicians would say this is a problem with the argument itself and ought to fall under point #3, but "normal" academics have a narrower definition of "logic" and say this inadequacy had more to do with limited scope than flawed logic.)
- Maybe certain key terms were too general, and finer distinctions should have been made with their definitions. (Another logic problem that most people see as an adequacy problem!)
- Maybe the argument itself should have been carried further than it was, and its conclusions were too timid, too restrained. (This is a question of opinion, not logic, so if you're going to say this, you need to back up your opinion really well!)
If you find something wrong with the first three criteria, you disagree with the author.
If you find something wrong with the last criterion, Mortimer Adler would say you are not in disagreement with the work, you are disappointed with the work.
I disagree. I don't think you need to suspend judgment concerning those flaws, as Adler says we must. Critiquing its adequacy is a kind of judgment of the work. Not in a condemning way, perhaps, as you might if there were substantive flaws in one of the first three criteria. But in a helpful way: affirm the first three criteria were met, and then say "it could have been better in this way and that way."
Of course, even if an academic work fails badly in one or more of the first three criteria, you will scrupulously follow proper intellectual etiquette. There is no need to condemn it in a harsh way. Simply stating the facts you discover, and pointing out the implications of those facts, will feel harsh enough to the author. Smooth those truths with a calm and gracious tone, and it will be no less crushing a revelation.