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by Adam Liszkiewicz, Dept. of Media Study, SUNY at Buffalo
Yes, academic essays and texts are notoriously difficult. Not to mention boring and long! But critical reading can help make texts easier to understand, as well as easier to get through. Here are five strategies designed to help you read critically.
1. Focus on the big picture. Determine what the author thinks, and why. What is the author's argument? Write down the author's purpose (Why write this?), tone (Why write this way?), and thesis (What's her point?) as you read. This may seem time-consuming, but because you won't have to reread the essay you'll actually save time. You can always find details later. Just be sure you know where to find them.
2. Map the passage. In addition to noting the author's purpose, tone, and main idea(s), you should summarize each section of the essay as you read. Force yourself to be concise and precise; limit yourself to one or two short sentences. Again, this will save you time in the long run, especially if you have to return to the reading for a test or final paper. Note the location and relevance of important details, but don't get bogged down. Just try to keep the information straight. Since you know the author's argument, find the author's evidence and assess it. Jot down quick notes in the margins. You're going to forget where the details and evidence are, and your passage map will help you find them much more quickly.
3. Keep a critical distance. Can you tell the difference between the author's opinions and the opinions of people the author is quoting or referencing? And, perhaps more importantly, can you differentiate between those opinions and your own? It's okay to take arguments personally; you're a human being, with beliefs and emotions. But beliefs and emotions are not substitutes for logic. Respond to arguments as logically as possible, using evidence to justify your response. Otherwise, how will we understand why you believe and feel what you do? Confront the essay on its own terms, and address the author's specific assertions. In other words, act as though you are responding to a real person, in real time.
4. Anticipate and predict. Good essays are designed to be predictable. Academic authors write within a tradition and discipline of scholarship, using definitions and concepts that others have defined. Thus, the more critically you read one essay, the easier it will become to read and understand other essays. This, in turn, will save you even more time. If the author goes someplace unexpected in the essay, and you've been reading carefully, it often means one of two things has happened: - You missed something the author's thesis or purpose, the logic of the argument, an allusion, an implication, a hint, foreshadowing, etc. - The author missed something she or he improperly defined the relevant terms, implied the wrong thing, misapplied his or her own evidence, wrote a poorly organized essay, used tired and inappropriate rhetoric, tried to sell books by saying something fashionable, etc. Either way, it's probably important.
5. Read actively. Television, cinema, novels, and even the evening news have all trained us to take information in passively. You are not a sponge. Active reading means asking yourself questions as you read, such as: - What's the author's thesis? Why is the author writing this? (Strategy #1) - What and where is the evidence? (Strategy #2) - How can I justify my response to this? (Strategy #3) - Where is the author going with this? How does this relate to other arguments I've read, in other classes? (Strategy #4)
Remember: academic writing is BORING, LONG, and DIFFICULT. Reading actively will make the writing seem less boring, shorter, and easier, because it keeps you active and engaged. For more critical reading strategies, visit these websites:
This definition of active reading is taken directly from the 2007 Kaplan, Inc., SAT Lesson Book.
It should be noted that some of the content of this document is either adapted from Kaplan, Inc., strategies and methods, or informed by my experiences and personal development as a Kaplan instructor. As I have been a Kaplan instructor for several years, it is difficult for me to differentiate between training and experiences I have had at Kaplan and training and experiences I may have acquired elsewhere. In any event, I owe much thanks to Kaplan, Inc., and the personnel at the Buffalo Kaplan Center.