Reading Critically

The ability to read critically is a habit that develops with practice over time. Reading is an activity where we seek to gain knowledge or information. Critical reading goes beyond that purpose to include analysis and evaluation. Reading as knowledge acquisition focuses on the memorization of key facts and themes from texts, and critical reading involves interpreting and evaluating. Most students at Mercer University are quite adept at gathering information. A primary goal of the First Year Seminar at Mercer University is to develop these skills of information gathering into habits of critical reading. Four recommendations for critical reading are listed below.

Broader Context: One of the most important hallmarks of a critical reader is that you acknowledge your role as a participant in a broader academic conversation. An important part of being a college student is the consideration of what work has already been done on a subject. Putting one text into conversation with other texts on the same topic deepens our understanding on an issue. At the most basic level, research, the process of finding multiple perspectives on a topic, provides the essential information you need to formulate a position and to make an argument. In addition, research can illuminate what other thinkers have considered about a subject. Often, there may be rival interpretations of what a text means. Consideration of these competing interpretations can help you to determine what you believe are the key passages so that your judgment of a text considers relevant scholarly works rather that merely representing your own thoughts on a reading.

Digging Deeply: Interpretation is central to making sense of what a text means. Within a reading, there are often layers of meanings, and a critical reader aims to explore the themes and motifs as well as the view of the world advanced in a work. This requires examining sub textual clues. For example, the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell appears on the surface to be a story for children about farm animals. A deeper reading reveals a powerful story about fascism and communism. Consider some recent movies. Do movies such as The Matrix and Avatar include elements that seem to suggest a commitment to a particular worldview? To read critically involves identifying the ideology at play in a text. Most of the works selected for the First Year Seminar advance arguments rather than simply providing details and descriptions of a subject. Critical reading means playing the role of sleuth and exploring texts for evidence of an argument. An essay will often have key passages where a particular view of the world is put forth or where an ideology emerges. As a critical reader, your goal is to be able to identify those passages and make sense of what ideological commitments are being defended or critiqued.

Asking Questions: Being a critical reader requires asking questions. Critical reading is a kind of inquiry and the more inquisitive you are, the more likely it is that you are developing the habits of critical reading. After a first read, consider whether there is a structure to the work and if the organizing logic is important to how the argument has been conceptualized. Another useful question is what you think the author wants you to believe. Next, consider whether this work develops a theme or argument that has been explored in other First Year Seminar readings and works. One final question worth considering is what big question we think a work attempts to answer or what question is the author grappling with. Asking questions can be guided by both reflecting on what other authors have proposed about the subject or your questions may stem from experiential evidence.  If you ask a question about the text because it does not resonate with your personal experiences, thoughtfully consider how your experiences have been shaped and how they are in conversation with the text. 

Taking Notes: Note taking is an important part of critical reading. As you read, circle words you are not familiar with and include their definitions in the margins. You can also use the margins to write comments about the work. Highlight important passages where the thesis of the work advances. Also highlight or underline parts of the text with imagery that sets the tone. Write a short summary at the end of the work that you can review before class. That summary should identify the topic of the work as well the main ideas. If there are ideas that remain unclear to you after carefully reading and thinking about the text, write those questions down and raise them in class.