It’s difficult for me to truly critically evaluate scholarly ideas. Feedback from my tutors tells me that I sometimes achieve this quite well, and at other times less so. It’s rather hit-and-miss.
This could well be due to some aspect of my personality, or it could be because I have a human psyche. Lack of critical faculty seems to be the default human condition, which I find quite touching. What makes me suspect this? I did a psychological experiment a while ago using the Wason selection test. It was a replication of a fascinating study which demonstrated that the majority of people seek to test a rule by confirmation rather than the correct approach of attempting to disconfirm it. So it seems that for many of us, the art of critique must be consciously acquired.
This is important for us as essay writers, because, you’ve guessed it, evidence of critical engagement is one of the criteria by which our work is assessed. The Assessment Plus/Write Now criteria formally state that students should be:
“Determining the value, significance, strengths and/or weaknesses of something (e.g., research findings, theory, methodological approach, policy, another’s argument or interpretation). Good essays contain evaluative assertions or descriptive points about the strengths and weaknesses of elements referred to in the essay. Better essays contain systematic, reasoned explanations for the evaluative points being made”.
So, to rise in our tutors’ esteem, we should not only say how good a particular idea is, but exactly why we find it to be so. This suggests to me that I really need to get down and dirty with the material.
Actually I do have a me-specific issue with this, related to my being rather over-impressed by authority. My erstwhile boss once told me that the word gullible had been deleted from the dictionary and I believed him. Having been told this, you will appreciate the extent to which criticising a published concept doesn’t come naturally to me. So I try hard to think up alternative models and sharp critiques ahead of encountering the ones in the textbooks. At best it provides me with some material I can adapt for use in my essay, and at worst it wakes me up to the need to question everything I read. I always write out my ideas and alternatives as a letter to myself. It hits the spot and allows me some level of critical involvement before I am totally lost in admiration for Philip Zimbardo or whoever. There is also the fringe benefit of enabling me to satisfy my craving for originality. Parroting received wisdoms just isn't nourishing.
Having touched upon the idea of a critically engaged dialogue, I was wondering which of you out there (students and teachers) finds specimen essays to be useful. Like the assessors, I’d be especially interested in the reasons for your position.