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
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.
I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.
But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.
If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.
Often, the second half of the semester calls for students to present their research findings in class, or in front of professors/advisers evaluating independent work. Presentations are a different kind of assignment than, say, fifteen-page research papers — and they require a different set of skills. At this time last year, I found myself facing a new and unexpected presentation project: My fall writing seminar professor had asked me to revisit my final research paper and present it at the Quin Morton ‘36 Conference.
Now called the Mary W. George Freshmen Research Conference, this event is an opportunity for freshmen to share their writing seminar research with a wider audience through ten-minute presentations. I encountered many challenges while breaking down my paper—a feminist perspective on evaluations of sexuality in films— into slides and bullet points. However, I also learned a lot about presentations through the process. While this year’s participants are gearing up for the conference in early April, students presenting at Princeton Research Day are in the midst of similar preparation. In light of these upcoming events, and since many students will have to present their research as spring semester comes to a close, I have decided to offer some advice on research presentations. Below I throw in my two (three) cents on the topic.
It’s that time of year: freshmen get their first taste of research at Princeton through their third Writing Seminar assignment, quite unaffectionately known as D3. D3 defined my life in the last few months of 2014. My entire daily schedule was built around it. But at the end of the day, it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Through D3, I discovered a simple formula to find engaging research or project topics that would enhance my academic experience at Princeton. To this day, I still use that same formula, which I call the method of missing links, to stay engaged with my research.
Flashback to December of last year. I sat in my room utterly puzzled. I was supposed to write a paper that actively engaged with 10-12 scholarly sources in order to create an original argument. The last scholarly source I had read took me over five hours to fully understand. Now I was being asked to take 12 of these sources and use them in the framework of a larger self-created idea. And I wasn’t even given an end goal – I had no idea what I was supposed to prove.
Professors never fail to offer this piece of advice. As R3 deadlines approach, Writing Seminar professors are undoubtedly pushing students to shoot for originality in their writing. And who can blame them? No one wants to read a worn-out argument or encounter unsurprising research findings. But originality is not only your professor’s concern.
Throughout my research experiences, I have infallibly found that I benefit the most from original projects. In my writing seminar, The Politics of Intimacy, a creative purpose continuously drove my work. I began my research with the intention of writing about depictions of sexuality in films and their influence on movie ratings and reviews. I intended to use the film Blue Valentine (2010) as my primary evidence because extensive pop-culture articles and scholarly discussion have addressed the implications of its rating. The Motion Picture Association of America rated Blue Valentine NC-17 (their harshest rating) because they deemed certain sexual acts inappropriate to watch. This rating prompted significant controversy and feminist analyses of the MPAA’s policy that I found to be incredibly intriguing.
Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project that Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as aresearcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Dylan shares his story.
The Project That Made Me a Researcher. Hmm. It’s a loaded topic for me because it makes a big assumption: Am I a researcher? It feels awkward to ascribe the word to myself, like a shirt that doesn’t quite fit right.
I definitely do research. And I definitely love doing it. But a researcher? Something about it seems so … prestigious, perhaps? Important? World-changing? Where do I fit in all this?
The project that comes to mind is my freshman writing sem paper. I looked at how La Cage Aux Folles — the first Broadway musical to portray a gay couple at its center — tamed its queerness for a commercial 1983 audience. It was the first time I’d discovered that my niche interests could be considered academic, and I felt compelled to go out of my way to learn more than I might otherwise have. My ambition pushed me out of Princeton — twice — to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where an extensive archive of video recordings of theatre is maintained. There, wedged into a small cubicle with an archaic looking TV screen, I watched the original 1983 production and, on a second trip, the 2004 revival. Sitting there, surrounded by a smorgasbord of theater junkies fixated on their own little screens, I had an epiphany: research is fun.
Twice daily for seven years, I traversed the suburbs of Northern New Jersey on NJ Transit’s Main Line on my way to and from school. My journey began across from my home in the wetlands area of Secaucus and ended in the preened suburb of Ridgewood. I grew to memorize the sequence of towns I would pass in the voice of the train’s automaton announcer: Kingsland, Delawanna, Passaic, Clifton, Paterson, Hawthorne, Glen Rock, Ridgewood. I was fascinated by the changes in landscape from city to city, the most drastic of which occurred while passing through Paterson. Suddenly, the town station no longer overlooked comfortable suburban streets but rather looming factory remnants, blue rows of abandoned silk mills, and a bustling downtown area shadowed by mountains. The cultural makeup of the train shifted from a crowd of mostly-white businessmen to a multicultural diaspora of African-Americans, Peruvians, Arabs, and Latinos of all ages. Paterson was a sharp contrast to its upper class Bergen county neighbors, but I never understood why.
When I took my writing seminar on tragedy, I approached my final research project thinking about interpersonal relationships and wanting to write about something that was personally meaningful. I turned to public transportation, one of my favorite topics. I reread my blog about conversations with colorful commuters on New Jersey trains. Because I was already thinking about places of disconnect, my personal curiosity about Paterson spiked. How did it change from America’s wealthiest town to one of its poorest? What did residents experience, nestled in an otherwise pristine area of New Jersey? As in most research motivated by personal curiosity, I knew a bit of luck was key. I did not know whether literature on Paterson and theories I could apply to it even existed. Continue reading Pondering Paterson: Personal Curiosity as Academic Research