I often find that Princeton professors assume that we all know how to “read critically.” It’s a phrase often included in essay prompts, and a skill necessary to academic writing. Maybe we’re familiar with its definition: close examination of a text’s logic, arguments, style, and other content in order to better understand the author’s intent. Reading non-critically would be identifying a metaphor in a passage, whereas the critical reader would question why the author used that specific metaphor in the first place. Now that the terminology is clarified, what does critical reading look like in practice? I’ve put together a short guide on how I approach my readings to help demystify the process.
Put on your scholar hat. Critical reading starts before the first page. You should assume that the reading in front of you was the product of several choices made by the author, and that each of these choices is subject to analysis. This is a critical mindset, but importantly, not a negative one. Not taking a reading at face value doesn’t mean approaching the reading hoping to find everything that’s wrong, but rather what could be improved. Continue reading In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically
How many times have you had to research a topic outside of your area of interest? Whether you are fulfilling a distribution requirement or testing out a new field, developing sound arguments in areas that are new to you can be intimidating. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips that always help me when my I’m especially unfamiliar with my research topic:
Look for a rebuttal argument: Rebuttal articles usually clarify and outline the argument you’re researching in order to argue against it. This helps clarify some of your own ideas while also giving material to complicate your own arguments. I do this early in the research process, as it helps me solidify a direction with my paper when I have a lot of general ideas. I recently used this technique while writing a paper on Evangelical
environmentalism. I struggled to develop an argument until I read a text explaining why this framework would not be economically feasible. I used this rebuttal in conjunction with articles on viable economic models of Evangelical environmentalism to help me jumpstart my argument. Without the rebuttal article, I would have had a less clear understanding of the topic and would have approached my paper with a more limited perspective. Continue reading Writing Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Sound Like an Expert on an Unfamiliar Topic
I recently got back a midterm essay and, as it turns out, I didn’t do so well. I didn’t give myself enough time to fully flesh out my arguments, and ended up with lots of logic gaps as a result. I was pretty disappointed, but I realized that I could turn this setback into a learning opportunity. So for the final essay, I chose to develop the ideas from this paper, working through its problems and retooling arguments. With the process of rewriting in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips to help you revise drafts and papers.
Talk to your professor. This might be intuitive, but don’t revise your paper using only your professor’s notes in the margins. Ask in person what worked and what didn’t so you can get a better sense of where to go. Then continue from there.
Start thinking about your thesis. Be honest with yourself, do you agree with it? Is it logical? My thesis was a huge part of what detracted from my essay, because I didn’t properly outline my ideas or prove the argument I had made. Think about how you could tweak your main argument relative to the evidence you already have so you avoid writing an entirely new paper.
After looking at the midterm essay prompt for my French class, I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of readings I would have to review and analyze. Dozens of articles, books, and excerpts loomed on the syllabus, and I had no idea where to begin. I often run into this problem. Synthesis is a meaningful combination of several sources, and can be difficult to do when everything seems important. The pressure to come up with a unifying and relevant thesis makes these initial stages of finding information even more stressful. Having experienced this struggle several times, I’ve come up with a few ways to organize sources that will hopefully be useful in the writing process!
Writing begins with a research question. That question might come from a given prompt, or from a personal interest. Either way, it provides a loose focus that will help eliminate irrelevant information when you’re reviewing and searching for sources. To speed up this process, make sure that if you’re reviewing sources you’ve already read in the semester, you’re just reviewing and not re-reading! You’ve already done the brunt of the work: simply skim through the readings to select ideas and passages that relate to your research question. Also, don’t feel pressured to use every source you’ve skimmed. Ultimately sources should function to bolster your own conclusions, so instead of crowding your paper with them, further analyze the ones most relevant to your research focus.
Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.
Uh-oh. I am trying to write the first essay for my environmental nonfiction class. But, sitting down to write, I can already feel the despondent haze of writer’s block descending. I swivel in my chair. I check my email but have no new messages. I type fdsajkl; on the first line of the page, and then delete it. What’s wrong with me? I think. Am I a writer or not?
Around this time last year, I took my first final exams at Princeton. Like many other freshmen, I left exam rooms in disbelief of how hard tests were, especially in some of my more quantitative classes. The time constraints, the amount of material covered, and the insightfulness required to answer questions always make Princeton exams challenging – something that every student learns quickly.
But what I didn’t pick up on was the incredible advantage of having a study group. In high school, exams weren’t as difficult, and consequently, I could get through classes by studying alone. I would sit in my room, take in all the material days before an exam, and feel confident that I knew it. During my first year at Princeton, I tried to emulate this same strategy but would just end up feeling overwhelmed. And for a long time, I couldn’t pinpoint any solutions to my stress.
Inspiration came during office hours last spring, when my friend and I went to pick up our math exams. Our instructor remarked that between us, we solved all of the problems on the test, even though individually we hadn’t performed as well. While walking back to my dorm, I thought about this more. If my friend and I had simply taken the time to study together, we would’ve not only done better on the test, but also thoroughly learned the material.