Critical Reading and Rhetorical Analysis
Good researchers and writers examine their sources critically and actively. They do not just compile and summarize these research sources in their writing, but use them to create their own ideas, theories, and, ultimately, their own, new understanding of the topic they are researching. Such an approach means not taking the information and opinions that the sources contain at face value and for granted, but to investigate, test, and even doubt every claim, every example, every story, and every conclusion. It means not to sit back and let your sources control you, but to engage in active conversation with them and their authors. In order to be a good researcher and writer, one needs to be a critical and active reader.
This section of the first learning module concerns the importance of critical and active reading. It is also about the connection between critical reading and active, strong writing. Much of the discussion you will find in this chapter is fundamental to research and writing, no matter what writing genre, medium, or academic discipline you read and write in. Every other approach to research writing and every other research method and assignment offered in other courses is, in some way, based upon the principles discussed in this chapter.
Reading stands at the heart of the research process. No matter what kinds of research sources and methods you use, you are always reading and interpreting text. Most of us are used to hearing the word “reading” in relation to secondary sources, such as books, journals, magazines, Web sites, and so on. But even if you are using other research methods and sources, such as interviewing someone or surveying a group of people, you are reading. You are reading their subjects’ ideas and views on the topic you are investigating. Even if you are studying photographs, cultural artifacts, and other non-verbal research sources, you are reading them, also, by trying to connect them to their cultural and social contexts and to understand their multiple meanings. Principles of critical reading, which we are about to discuss in this chapter, apply to those research situations as well.
I like to think about reading and writing not as two separate activities, but as two tightly connected parts of the same whole. That whole is the process of learning and the creation of new meaning. It may seem that reading and writing are complete opposites of one another. According to the popular view, when we read, we “consume” texts, and when we write, we “produce” texts. But this view of reading and writing is true only if you see reading as a passive process of taking in information from the text and not as an active and energetic process of making new meaning and new knowledge. Similarly, good writing does not originate in a vacuum, but instead is usually based upon, or at least influenced by, other ideas, theories, and stories that come from reading. So if, as a college student, you have ever wondered why your writing teachers have asked you to read books and articles and write responses to them, it is because writers who do not read and do not actively engage with their reading, have little to say to others.
Life presents us with a variety of reading situations which demand different reading strategies and techniques. Sometimes, it is important to be as efficient as possible and read purely for information or “the main point.” At other times, it is important to just “let go” and turn the pages following a good story, although this sometimes means not thinking deeply about the story you are reading. At the heart of writing and research, however, lies the kind of reading known as critical reading. The critical examination of sources is what makes their use in research possible and what allows writers to create rhetorically effective and engaging texts.(4)
Key Features of Critical Reading
Critical readers are able to interact with the texts they read through carefully listening, writing, conversation, and questioning. They do not sit back and wait for the meaning of a text to come to them, but work hard in order to create such meaning. Critical readers are not made overnight. Becoming a critical reader will take a lot of practice and patience. Depending on your current reading philosophy and experiences with reading, becoming a critical reader may require a significant change in your whole understanding of the reading process. The trade-off is worth it, however. By becoming a more critical and active reader, you will also become a better researcher and a better writer. Last but not least, you will enjoy reading and writing a whole lot more because you will become actively engaged in both.
Critical reading, then, is a two-way process. As reader, you are not a consumer of words, waiting patiently for ideas from the printed page or a web-site to fill your head and make you smarter. Instead, as a critical reader, you need to interact with what you read, asking questions of the author, testing every assertion, fact, or idea, and extending the text by adding your own understanding of the subject and your own personal experiences to your reading.
The idea behind the rhetorical theory of reading is that when we read, we not only take in ideas, information, and facts, but in the process we also “update our view of the world.” This is what it means to be a monitoring citizen. You cannot force someone to update his or her worldview, and therefore, the purpose of writing is persuasion and the purpose of reading is being persuaded. Persuasion is possible only when the reader is actively engaged with the text and understands that much more than simple retrieval of information is at stake when reading. (4)
The following are key features of the critical approach to reading:
- No text, however skillfully written or authoritative, contains its own, pre-determined meaning. Audiences bring their education, situated knowledge, and experience to bear on texts in order to better understand their meanings.
- Readers must work hard to create meaning from every text. All complex texts contain surface meaning and subtext. Often, readers have to think of the bigger picture in making sense of how a subject can influence broader culture.
- Critical readers interact with the texts that they read by questioning them, responding to them, and expanding them, usually in writing.
- Critical readers actively search for related texts to place these works in conversation with each other to advance important ideas. Consider how subjects from your other courses and experiences connect to the sources you are reading. (5)
From Reading to Writing
As stated earlier in this chapter, actively responding to difficult texts, posing questions, and analyzing ideas presented in them is the key to successful reading. The goal of an active reader is to engage in a conversation with the text that he or she is reading. In order to fulfill this goal, it is important to understand the difference between reacting to the text and responding to it.
Reacting to a text is often done on an emotional—rather than on an intellectual—level. It is often quick and shallow. For example, if we encounter a text that advances arguments with which we strongly disagree, it is natural to dismiss those ideas out of hand as flawed and unworthy of our attention. Doing so would be reacting to the text based only on emotions and on our pre-determined opinions about its arguments. It is easy to see that reacting in this way does not take the reader any closer to understanding the text. A wall of disagreement that existed between the reader and the text before the reading continues to exist after the reading.
Responding to a text, on the other hand, requires a careful study of the ideas presented and the arguments advanced in it. Critical readers who possess this skill are not willing to simply reject or accept the arguments presented in the text after the first reading right away. To continue with our example from the preceding paragraph, a reader who responds to a controversial text rather than reacting to it might apply several of the following strategies before forming and expressing an opinion about that text.
- Read the text several times, taking notes, asking questions, and underlining key places. Look for “starring sentences,” or those phrases or passages that use language in creative, memorable ways to underline key points.
- Study why the author of the text advances ideas, arguments, and convictions, so different from the reader’s own. For example, is the text’s author advancing an agenda of some social, political, religious, or economic group of which he or she is a member?
- Study the purpose and the intended audience of the text.
- Study the history of the argument presented in the text as much as possible. For example, modern texts on highly controversial issues such as the death penalty, abortion, or euthanasia often use past events, court cases, and other evidence to advance their claims. Knowing the history of the problem will help you to construct a more comprehensive meaning of a difficult text.
- Study the social, political, and intellectual context in which the text was written. Good writers use social conditions to advance controversial ideas. Compare the context in which the text was written to the one in which it is read. For example, have social conditions changed, thus invalidating the argument or making it stronger?
- Consider the author’s (and your own) previous knowledge of the issue at the center of the text and your experiences with it. How might such knowledge or experience have influenced your reception of the argument?
Taking all these steps will help you to move away from simply reacting to a text and towards constructing informed and critical response to it. (6)
Strategies for Connecting Reading and Writing
If you want to become a critical reader, you need to get into the habit of writing as you read. You also need to understand that complex texts often require multiple close readings. During the second and any subsequent readings, however, you will need to write, and write a lot. The following are some critical reading and writing techniques which active readers employ as they work to create meanings from texts they read.
Students should get into the habit of composing extended responses to readings. Writing students are often asked to write one or two-page exploratory responses to readings, but they are not always clear on the purpose of these responses and on how to approach writing them. By writing reading responses, you are continuing the important activities of critical reading which you began when you compiled notes on the salient points of the text you are analyzing. You are extending the meaning of the text by creating your own commentary to it and perhaps even branching off into creating your own argument inspired by your reading. Your teacher may give you a writing prompt, or ask you to come up with your own topic for a response. In either case, realize that reading responses are supposed to be exploratory; they are designed to help you delve deeper into the text you are reading than mere note-taking or underlining will allow.
When writing extended responses to the readings, it is important to keep one thing in mind, and that is their purpose. The purpose of these exploratory responses, which are often rather informal, is not to impress your classmates and your teacher with “big” words and complex sentences. On the contrary, it is to help you understand the text you are working with at a deeper level. The verb “explore” means to investigate something by looking at it more closely. Investigators get leads, some of which are fruitful and useful and some of which are dead-ends. As you investigate and create the meaning of the text you are working with, do not be afraid to take different directions with your reading responses. In fact, it is important to resist the urge to make conclusions or think that you have found out everything about your reading. When it comes to exploratory reading responses, lack of closure and presence of more leads at the end of the piece can actually be a good thing. Of course, you should always check with your teacher for standards and formatting with regard to reading responses. (6)
Guidelines for Writing a Successful Response
Try the following guidelines to write a successful response to a reading:
- Remember that your goal is often exploration. The purpose of writing a response is to construct the meaning of a difficult text. It is not to get the job done as quickly as possible and in as few words as possible.
- As you write, “talk back to the text.” Make comments, ask questions, and elaborate on complex thoughts. This part of the writing becomes much easier if, prior to writing your response, you had read the assignment with a pen in hand and marked important places in the reading.
- If your teacher provides a response prompt, make sure that you understand it. Then, try to answer the questions in the prompt to the best of your ability. While you are doing that, do not be afraid to introduce related texts, examples, or experiences. Active reading is about making connections, and your readers will appreciate your work because it will help them understand the text better.
- While your primary goal is exploration and questioning, make sure that others can understand your response. While it is sometimes fine to be informal in your response, make every effort to write in a clear, error-free language that is amenable to academic writing at the collegiate level.
- Involve your audience in the discussion of the reading by asking questions, expressing opinions, and connecting to responses made by others.
Many of the weekly assignments in this section of ENC 1102, which include quizzes and class-wide discussions, have a minimum guideline of at least eight paragraphs in length. For most student writers, this roughly equates to composing a two-page essay. Students should become comfortable with composing sufficiently insightful, clearly written analyses in this format, as the two-page document is a common length for writing outside of the classroom and in the workplace.
Now, it is time to practice what you have learned concerning the formal approaches to rhetorical theory and critical reading. Before you take this week’s quiz, critically read and analyze the following essay on the prevalence and consequences of fake news. When you feel that you have a stronger understanding of what Professor Pablo Boczkowski is saying about our contemporary information culture, navigate to the quiz and record your response to the questions in the prompt. (7)