Critical Response
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Rebecca Moore Howard
The Writing Program
Syracuse University
rehoward@syr.edu

The Critical Response

Critical response, also known as critique, isn't nearly as negative as the word sounds. This is not a type of writing akin to someone's "criticizing" a friend. Rather, it is a matter of one scholar evaluating the work of another scholar. That evaluation may very well be a positive one. But positive or negative, the writer of a critique does arrive at value judgments about the text being discussed. Critique may very well involve either or both types of analysis listed above--content analysis or rhetorical analysis. But whereas a rhetorical analysis is not an evaluation of the argument itself but only its methods, critique does have the purpose of evaluating the argument.

One productive way of preparing to write a critique is to begin by writing an "uncritical" response to the text that you are to critique. Read the text through until you understand it. (A reader's summary is one way to understand even difficult texts.) As you read, jot down your ideas--your responses. Summarizing as you go along is useful; but so is writing down what you think and feel as you read the text. Do you believe what the text is saying? Do you believe that the topic is significant? Do you find the explanations clear? (Ask yourself, too, who the text was originally intended for. Sigmund Freud's Dora, for example, was written for psychoanalysts a century ago. Thus what constituted a "clear explanation" for Freud's intended audience is quite different from what a college student today would consider "clear.") Do you feel happy as you read this text? Excited? Bored? Confused? Overwhelmed? Does this text make you feel smart, or stupid? What relationship do you feel with the author of the text? Does the text make you feel that the author is your superior, your equal, or your inferior? Does it make you want to learn more on the subject, or does it make you want to drop this class?

Listed below are guidelines to help you produce a good response essay:

  • Write about something you care about.
  • Make a statement of belief (a thesis) about that topic. Sometimes that statement will be an argument for or against a position; at other times it will be a statement of confusion, when the writer isn't sure what to believe.
  • Explain your reasons for believing your thesis, so that your reader can understand why you are making this assertion. If your thesis is a statement of confusion, explain why you're confused!
  • Show what it was in the assigned text that made you think about this topic. If possible, compare and contrast the assertions of the assigned text with your own.
  • Next, ask yourself what it was in the text that made you think and feel the things you did as you read. If you felt bored, what was it that bored you? If you were excited, what was it that excited you? As you identify the "triggers" of your response, you are engaging in critical response.

    Now begin imagining yourself discussing your responses and your analyses of the text with your projected audience. What can you say about the text that this audience might find interesting? As you answer this question, you are shaping your thesis for the critical response.

    Once you have developed a thesis, you can begin outlining or drafting your essay. You will need to go back through your notes, and probably read the text again, to find evidence for your thesis. This evidence amounts to an explanation of why you believe that the thesis is true. Evidence for a critique is grounded primarily in the text. You'll need to quote, paraphrase, and summarize passages of the text in order to explain what led you to the belief that is expressed in your thesis.

    Critical response involves not just the text but also you, the person writing about that text, and it involves the audience to whom you are writing. Thus context, too, is important to a critical response--both the context in which you are writing, and the context in which the text that you are critiquing was written. Your critique can take into account other texts that you have read; texts that you believe your audience may have read; and texts to which your source refers or should have referred. Does the source text incorporate the work of other scholars writing on the same subject? Does it treat other points of view with respect? Does it include information that you believe is pertinent to the issue it discusses? You must determine, too, whether you can depend upon your audience to have read the text that you are critiquing. How much your essay summarizes that source depends upon whether the audience is familiar with it.

    "Context" can also mean the intellectual or social surroundings. What was going on when this text was written? What is going on as you write yours? When critiquing a text about the 1968 American Presidential election, for example, "context" might include the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. They are potentially a part of the context for the source text. But you are writing your critique several decades later, and your evaluation of the text is affected by the social and political conditions in which you find yourself. Your response and evaluation, therefore, take place on multiple levels. Considering and acknowledging these shifting contexts will help you write a thoughtful, useful critique.