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Developing a critical mindset

When we challenge researchers to think and write critically, we’re asking them to display not just intellectual and analytical skills, but also an attitude, or state of mind. Edward Glaser, in his seminal study of critical thinking in education in 1941, calls it ‘being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences.’ Poet and author Julia Copus dubs it ‘polite doubt’.

Advice about how to be more critical often highlights logic and reasoning, but effective critical scholarship also draws on qualities like confidence, motivation, curiosity and effort. Encouraging researchers to be more aware of their attitude when approaching intellectual tasks helps them better understand what being critical means, in their discipline.

A probing mind

When I work with first-year Humanities PhD researchers, I encourage them to establish the habit of noting their ideas and insights when they read. Strong feelings – spontaneous emotional responses to other scholars’ writings – are also worth exploring, because they might inform intellectual work later. A literature review is often researchers’ first major task, and this simple tip reminds them that their responses to sources are important and merit recording separately.

Assigning a colour to important themes as they emerge and connecting notes to the appropriate theme create a well-ordered stock of insights to draw on when planning the argument. I also remind researchers that reading is multi-tasking. As they read, they are summarising, synthesising, comparing and contrasting, as well as identifying questions answered and those that remain. Active reading means energetically questioning theories, methods, evidence and conclusions, so a hungry, probing, sceptical mind is essential.

A confident voice

It’s tempting, when writing a literature review, to want to summarise what you’ve read rather than create a clear through-line that leads the reader to your research question. PhD researchers often ask in workshops, ‘How can I get my own voice into my literature review?’ I tell them that voice is choice—selecting which experts and works to cite and which to omit, and choosing bold words to communicate your point powerfully to the reader.

You can also choose to prioritise your own point of view within the structure of each paragraph. A top tip is to avoid beginning a paragraph by stating someone else’s argument. Otherwise, this section of the PhD can become a list of what other people think, with your own ideas relegated to half-apologetic paragraph ends. Write your top-line argument for the literature review in a set of clear statements and use these to begin key paragraphs. Writing critically is not clinging to every source like a life raft; it is swimming freely in the open sea.

Recapturing the spark of curiosity

As your project matures, the spine of your argument (hopefully) becomes clearer. But as writing gets underway in the later stages of the PhD, the habit of scepticism can easily become self-doubt. Participants at the start of the Year 3 retreats I run with RLF colleague Katie Grant invariably report feeling de-motivated and unconfident about their writing. Students said:

‘I was feeling daunted and full of self-doubt.’

‘I had been feeling very overwhelmed and unsure of how to tackle the mountain of writing ahead.’

Supervisors, pressed for time and trying to be helpful when responding to drafts, often highlight what needs fixing without praising what is good. Praise is not just for morale; it helps the writer recapture the process that leads to good writing. During the retreats, we bring fresh eyes to researchers’ work and are vocal in our praise of good writing. We are curious, interested and enthusiastic; we ask questions to help them sharpen their ideas and suggest writerly ways to influence the hearts and minds of their readers.

Through freewriting, we also get them to reconnect with their ‘spark’, the passionate curiosity that drew them to their project in the first place. These exercises are designed to boost confidence and strengthen their identity as independent scholars. Feedback comments after the retreat often mention improved self-assurance and self-worth—essential qualities for critical writing:

‘feeling understood and taken seriously, like my work really matters’

‘I feel more confident and motivated to use my voice.’

‘I feel re-energised and confident.’

Recognising critical thinking

Supervisors can help researchers by making visible what ‘polite doubt’ looks like in their discipline, that is, directing them to writers who wield a sharp, critical knife yet come across as appropriately respectful. It’s not easy to pinpoint the words and phrases that communicate confidence or arrogance or defensiveness, but simply having this type of conversation can be enlightening and rewarding.

Once researchers appreciate good critical writing in their discipline, they need to recognise in their own writing when they are being critical rather than simply describing. In workshops, I use a review of a comedy series by an experienced television critic to model how description deepens into critical analysis. After outlining the premise of the show, the critic delves into why it works, how it works and how it matures from series 1 to series 3.

Armed with this example, researchers turn to their own work to find an example of critical analysis to read aloud in pairs. Reading aloud a bold critical statement that lands well with their listener encourages late-stage PhD researchers to write more confidently and helps them develop their style.

Thinking critically in PhD research means reading with energy, passion and an enquiring mind. It means being open to new ideas, but appraising them in the light of existing knowledge. Writing critically requires courage, and there comes a point when PhD researchers must throw off the shackles of ‘student’ and try on the mantle of ‘expert’. We can help them by bringing to light the attitudinal and emotional aspects of critical scholarship and encouraging them to trust their own instincts and expertise.

14 October 2021
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