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Critical Reading and Critique

Critical Reading and Critique - UP pas tor iugh'ov iugh...

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Unformatted text preview: UP pas- tor- iugh 'ov- iugh both i the ler it ding itro- is to vere, ter it s of a (see earnest sesame W When writing papers in college, you are often called on to respond critically to) source materials. Critical reading requires the abilities to both summarize and eval- uate a presentation. As you have seen in Chapter 1, a 3W a brief restatement in your own words of the content of a passage. AWwever, is a more dif- ficult matter. In your college work, you read to gain and use new information; but as sources are not equally valid or equally useful, you‘must learn to distin uish critically among them by evaluating them. W MW g W :2 There is no ready—made formula for determining validity. Critical reading and its written equivalentwthe critiqzzemrgfluire discernment, sensitivity, imagination, knowledge of the subjectLand above all,_willingi_iess to become involved in what you reamese skills cannot be taken for granted and are developed only through fe—pecited practice. You must begin somewhere, though, and we recommend that you start by posing two broad categories of questions about passages, articles, and books that you read: (l) What is the author’s purpose in writing? Does he or she succeed in this purpose? (2) To what extent do you agree with the author? Question Category 1: What is the Author’s Purpose in Writing? Does the Author Succeed in This Purpose? ’ All critical reading begins with [m acrzimte smnmary. Thus before at mpting an eval- uation, you must be able to locate an author’s thesis and identify the selection’s con- W You must understand the author’wAuthors write to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. A given piece may be primarily informative (a summary of the research on cloning), primarily persuasive (an argument on why the government must do something to alleviate homelessness), or primarily entertaining (a play about the frustrations of young lovers). Or it may be all three (as in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, which revolves around migrant workers during the Great Depression). Sometimes, authors are not fully conscious of their purpose. Sometimes their purpose changegas thev write. Also, more than one jur- W: An essay may need to inform the reader about an issue in order to ma e a persuasive point. But if the finished piece is coherent, it will have a prima— ry reason for having been written, and it should be apparent that the author is attempting primarily to inform, persuade, or entertain a particular audience. To identify this primary reason—this purpose—is your first job as a critical reader. Your 45 . g. 1'. 46 CHAPTER 2 Critical Reading and Critique WHERE DO WE FIND WRITTEN CRITIQUES? I Here are a few types of writing that involve critique: Academic Writing Research papers. Critique sources in order to establish their usefulness. Position papers. Stake out a position by critiquing other positions. Book reviews. Combine summary with critique. Essay exams. Demonstrate understanding of course material by critiquing it. Workplace Writing ¢ Legal briefs and legal arguments. Critique previous rulings or argu- ments made by opposing counsel. 0 Business plans and proposals. Critique other, less cost~effective approaches. 0 Policy briefs. Communicate failings of policies and legislation through critique. next job is to determine how successful the author has been. As a critical reader, you bring different criteria, or standards of judgment, to bear when you read pieces intended to inform, persuade, or entertain. Writing to Inform A piece intended to inform will provide definitions, describe or report on a process, recount a story, give historical background, and / or provide facts and figures, An informational piece responds to questions such as the following: What (or who) is ? How does work? What is the controversy or problem about? What happened? How and why did it happen? What were the results? What are the arguments for and against ? To the extent that an author answers these and related questions and the answers are a matter of verifiable record (you could check for accuracy if you had the time and inclination), the selection is intended to inform. Having 48 CHAPTER 2 Critical Reading and Critique disagree. Such an assertion, when it serves as the essential organizing prin— ciple of the article or book, is called a thesis. Here are two examples: Because they do not speak English, many children in this affluent land are being denied their fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. Bilingual education, which has been stridently promoted by a small group of activists with their own agenda, is detrimental to the very stu— dents it is supposed to serve. Thesis statements such as these—and the subsequent assertions used to help support themmrepresent conclusions that authors have drawn as a result of researching and thinking about an issue. You go through the same process yourself when you write persuasive papers or critiques. And just as you are entitled to critically evaluate the assertions of authors you read, so your professors—«and other students—are entitled to evaluate your assertions, whether they be encountered as written arguments or as comments made in class discussion. Keep in mind that writers organize arguments by arranging evidence to support one conclusion and oppose (or dismiss) another. You can assess the validity of the argument and the conclusion by determining whether the author has (1) clearly defined key terms, (2) used information fairly, (3) argued logically and not fallaciously (see pages 49—54). EXERCISE m Informative and Persuasive Thesis Statements With a partner from your class, write one informative and one persuasive thesis statement for three of the following topics: School prayer Gun control Sex education in schools Grammar instruction in English class Violent lyrics in music Teaching computer skills in primary schools Curfews in college dormitories fiourse registration procedures For example, for the topic school prayer, your informative thesis statement might read this way: Both advocates and opponents of school prayer frame their position as a matter of freedom. Ling prin- 11d ml all tu~ id to help 1 result of e process is you are , so your ssertions, a made in idence to issess the ether the an fairly, m itatements tersuasive tatement isition as Critical Reading Your persuasive thesis statement might be worded as follows: As long as schools don’t dictate what kinds of prayers students should say, then school prayer should be allowed and even encouraged. Don’t worry about taking a position that you agree with or feel you could support.The exercise doesn’t require that you write an essay at this point. Evaluating Persuasive Writing Read on pages 484~87 the argument ”Too Much of a Good Thing,” by Greg Crister, a recommendation to curtail the steep, recent rise in childhood obe- sity. We will illustrate our discussion on defining terms, using information fairly, and arguing logically by referring to Crister's argument. The example critique that follows these illustrations will be based on this same argument. EXERCISim Critical Reading Practice Before continuing with the chapter’s reading, look back at the Critical Reading for Summary box on page 6 of Chapter 1. Use each of the guidelines listed there to examine the essay by Greg Crister on pages 484—87. Note in the mar— gins of the selection, or on a separate sheet of paper, the essay’s main point, subpoints, and use of examples. Persuasive Strategies Clearly Defined Terms. The validity of an argument depends to some degree on how carefully an author has defined key terms. Take the asser- tion, for example, that American society must be grounded in ”family values.” Just what do people who use this phrase mean by it? The validi- ty of their argument depends on whether they and their readers agree on a definition of ”family yalues”—as well as what it means to be ”grounded in” family values. If an author writes that in the recent past, ”America’s elites accepted as a matter of course that a free society can sustain itself only through virtue and temperance in the people” (Charles Murray, ”The Coming White Underclass,” Wall Street Ioiirimi, 20 Oct. 1993), readers need to know what, exactly, the author means by "elites” and by ”Virtue and temperance” before they can assess the validity of the argument. in such cases, the success of the argument—its ability to persuade-hinges on the definition of a term. 80, in responding to an argument, be sure you (and the author) are clear on what exactly is being argued. Only then can you respond to the logic of the argument, to the author’s use of evidence, and to the author’s conclusions. 49 50 CHAPTER 2 Critical Reading and Critique Crister supports his argument for launching a campaign to end overcon— sumption by stating that efforts to stigmatize ”unhealthful behaviors . . . con- form with what we know about effective health messages." While Crister does provide examples of what he considers ”effective health messages,” his definition of effective is open to debate. By what measures have ”the campaign against unsafe sex and the campaign against smoking" been effective? The reader might well point to level HIV infection rates in the United States and continuing billion-dollar profits by tobacco companies and challenge Crister’s definition of effective. Fair Use of Information. Information is used as evidence in support of argu- ments. When you encounter such evidence, ask yourself two questions: (1) Is the information accurate and up—to—date? At least a portion of an argu- ment becomes invalid if the information used to support it is inaccurate or out- of—date. (2) Has the author cited representative information? The evidence used in an argument must be presented in a spirit of fair play. An author is less than ethical who presents only evidence favoring his views when he is well aware that contrary evidence exists. For instance, it would be dishonest to argue that an economic recession is imminent and to cite only indicators of economic downturn while ignoring and failing to cite contrary (positive) evidence. Crister uses the information he cites fairly and accurately: He presents sta- tistics in paragraph 2 on the rise of childhood obesity; he refers to a published study in paragraph 6 to refute the assertion that ”kids know when they are full"; and he cites studies again in paragraphs 8 and 9. However, Crister chooses not to use, 1e} alone mention, other information that bears on the topic of weight gainfi‘g’gr example, he argues that we should create an anti- obesity campaign that stigmatizes the behavior of those who lack the willpower to stop eating. The assumption: A lack of willpower is the prima- ry reason people are obese. Whether or not this View is correct, a great deal of information (scientific studies included) suggests that other causes may be implicated in obesity. By not raising the possibility that genes or hormones, for instance, might play a role, information about which Crister is undoubt- edly aware, he fails to present full and representative information on his chosen topic. True, the op-ed piece is a brief form, leaving not much room to develop an argument. Still, Crister leaves the impression that he has cited the most pertinent information on combating obesity when, in fact, he has dis regarded a great deal of information. Logical Argumentation: Avoiding Logical Fallacies At some point, you will need to respond to the logic of the argument itself. To be convincing, an argument should be governed by principles of logic—~clear and orderly thinking. This does not mean that an argument should not be biased. Abiased argument-{hat is, an argument weighted toward one point of view and against others, which is in fact the nature of argumentmmay be valid as long as it is logically sound. Several examples of faulty thinking and logical fallacies to watch for follow. )vercon— . con— : Crister ges," his impaign ive? The ates and Crister's of argu- testions: an argu- 'e or out- nce used less than F“ aware “gue that conomic ice. ents sta— ublished they are , Crister s on the an anti- lack the e prima— 1t deal of . may be rmones, ndoubt— n on his room to :ited the/ has disi tself. To ‘-clear l not be 1e point may be itch for Critical Reading Emotionally Loaded Terms. Writers sometimes attempt to sway readers by using emotionally charged words—words with positive connotations to sway readers to their own point of view (e.g., ”family values”) or words with nega— tive connotations to sway readers away from the opposing point of view. The fact that an author uses emotionally loaded terms does not necessarily invali— date the argument. Emotional appeals are perfectly legitimate and time-hon— ored modes of persuasion. But in academic writing, which is grounded in logical argumentation, they should not be the only means of persuasion. You should be sensitive to how emotionally loaded terms are being used. in partic- ular, are they being used deceptively or to hide the essential facts? Cristers suse of the word eluttom/ inserts an emotionally charged, moral- izing tone into his argument. Gluttony is one of the” seV en deadly sins that, for centuries, people have been warned against committing, so destructive are they of character. Crister takes pains to say that he is no moralist (”no one should be stigmatized for being overweight”), but that claim is made false by his introduction of a ”sin” into a discussion about public health. Crister oper- ) ates with a value judgment that he does not fully want to own. Critical read— ers might legitimately object to the notion that overeating is a ”sin” that ought to be stigmatized. Ad Hominem Argument in an mi Imminent argument, the writer rejects oppos- ing views by attacking the person whol holds them By calling opponents names, an author avoids the issue Consider this excerpt from a political speech. 1 could more easily accept my opponent’s plan to increase revenues by collecting on delinquent tax bills if he had paid more than a hundred dollars in state taxes in each of the past three years. But the fact is, he's a millionaire with a millionaire’s tax shelters. This man hasn’t paid a wooden nickel for the state services he and his family depend on. So 1 ask you: is he the one to be talking about taxes to 11s? It could well be that the opponentl 1as paid virtually no statet axes for three years but this fact has nothing to do with, and 1s a ploy to divert attention from the merits of a specific proposal for increasing revenues. The proposal is lost in the attack against the man himself an attack that V iolates the prin- ciples of logic WrWts b citin eVJ; dence in support of their views and by challenging contrary evidence Faulty Cause and Effect. The fact that one event precedes another in time does not mean that the first event has caused the second. An example: Fish begin dying by the thousands in a lake near your hometown An environmental group immediately cites chemical dumping by sever ral manufacturing plants as the cause But other causes sare possible: A disease might have affected the fish; the growth of algae might have contributed to the deaths, or acid rain might be a factor The origins of an event are usually complex and are not awl wavs traceable to a singlec cause So you must carefullV examine cause and- effect reasoning when you find a writer using it in Latin, this fall acv is known as post hoc, er 70 2 1 1' 7 ” fter this, therefoie because of this ). 51 52 loge refers to the overall Emotional effect produced by the writer's choice of language. Writers might use esmeo create a tone: A film reviewer might refer to a “magnificent perfor- mance” or a columnist might criticize ”sleazeball politics.” These are extreme examples of tone; but tone can be more subtle, particularly if the writer makes a special effort not to inject emotion into the writing. As we've indicated above in the section on emotion- ally loaded terms, the fact that a writer’s tone is highly emotional does not necessarily mean that the writer’s argument is invalid. Conversely, a neutral tone does not ensure an argument’s validity. Note that many instructors discourage student writing that projects a highly emotional tone, considering it inappropriate for academic or preprofessional work. (One sure sign of emotion: the exclamation mark, which should be used sparingly.) Crister claims in this argument that dietary restraint will help reduce child— hood obesity. Readers familiar with the literature on obesity know that a debate exists concerning the causes of the condition. For instance, some obese people may eat as little as their thin friends do but still lose no weight. For them, it is clear, lack of willpower does not contribute to their weight prob- lems. Genes and body chemistry may play causal roles, but Crister mentions no causes other than lack of willpower. Asserting that one cause leads to an effect-or failing to assert that multiple causes do—~gives readers the right to question the logic of an argument. Either/Or Reasoning. Either/ or reasoning also results from an unwillingness to recognize complexity. If an author analyzes a problem and offers only two courses of action, one of which he or she refutes, then you are entitled to object that the other is not thereby true. Usually, several other options (at the very least) are possible. For whatever reason, the author has chosen to over look them. As an example, suppose you are reading a selection on genetic engineering and the author builds an argument on the basis of the following: Research in gene splicing is at a crossroads: Either scientists will be carefully monitored by civil authorities and their efforts limited to acceptable applications, such as disease control; or, lacking regulato- ry guidelines, scientists will set their own ethical standards and begin programs in embryonic manipulation that, however well intended, exceed the proper limits of human knowledge. Certainly, other possibilities for genetic engineering exist beyond the two mentioned here. But the author limits debate by establishing an either/or 54 CHAPTER 2 Critical Reading and Critique alone is primarily the cause of obesity. Given the volume of compelling evi- dence (which he does not mention) that genes and other factors may play a role in weight gain, he would do well to arguewand not assume—«that lack of restraint is a primary reason people gain weight. But he assumes the validity of this important point instead of proving it. He also assumes the validity of two lesser points: (1) that the campaigns against unsafe sex and smoking have been effective; and (2) that obesity is a condition comparable to unsafe sex and smoking and, thus, a condition that would benefit from campaigns to stigmatize unhealthy behaviors. Non Sequitur. Nun sequitur is Latin for ”it does not follow"; the term is used to describe a conclusion that does not logically follow from a premise. ”Since minorities have made such great strides in the past few decades,” a writer may argue, ”we no longer need affirmative action programs.” Aside from the fact that the premise itself is arguable (have minorities made such great strides?), it does not follow that because minorities may have made great strides, there is no further need for affirmative action programs. Oversimplifica’tion. Be alert for writers who offer easy solutions to compli- cated problems. “America’s economy will be strong again if we all ’buy American,”’ a politician may argue. But the problems of America’s economy are complex and cannot be solved by a slogan or a simple change in buying habits. Likewise, a writer who argues that we should ban genetic engineering assumes that simple solutions (”just say ’no'”) will be sufficient to deal with the complex moral dilemmas raised by this new technology. For example, Crister does consider ho...
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