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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Critical Thinking and Commentary
Most of the work you’ve done in this class this semester has involved some tool associated with the larger skill of critical thinking. Whether it’s expressive writing that observes an describes, objective writing that explains and analyzes, or persuasive writing that synthesizes and argues, by selecting topics and writing about them from your own perspectives, you’ve been developing your critical thinking skills.
A critical thinker is an independent thinker. Every college student should aspire to be an empowered, independent thinker. If your college education gives you anything, it must give you the sense that you are not dependent on others to tell you what to think…whether those others are parents, peers, or professors. Your education should give you the tools to think for yourself. You aren’t a lump of clay waiting to be shaped and molded; you’re not an inert sponge soaking up the opinions of your textbooks or your teachers. In a free, democratic society, education is not indoctrination.
When you join the public conversation as an independent, critical thinker, as an individual, you join it in your own individual voice, not the parroted voice of others. When you are not only confident but eager to do that, you’ll know you got your money’s worth from your college education.
Practicing or reading “commentary” is all about joining the great, free public conversation that goes on all around us. Trimbur says writing commentary is a way for people to analyze and interpret events, trends, and ideas. In other words, after observing your world you think critically about what you’ve observed and then you have something to say about it.
Trimbur tells us that the commentary goes beyond the reporting of fact; it attempts to help its audience make sense of the facts. There are no shortage of commentators in the mass media; some are highly respected while others are dismissed as “talking heads,” but they all will have a few things in common:
Commentary presents more than the facts; it presents the writer’s interpretation of the facts, the writer’s sense of what the facts mean—you might be thinking: we are in the realm, once again, of impression and opinion. You are right.
Are other people’s opinions always useful to us? Not really. Sometimes we can completely ignore other peoples’ opinions and be none the worse for it. When do other peoples’ opinions seem unhelpful?
When a commentary is purely subjective, purely opinionated with no supporting analysis, interpretation, synthesis, or evaluation it can seem pretty useless. For example, consider a hypothetical commentator (all too real) whose disembodied, enlarged head appears on the screen following a presidential debate to say things like, “Well, it was obvious to everyone who watched the presidential debate that the President looked very Presidential this evening” and from that you’re supposed to be persuaded that he performed successfully in the debate. There’s no supporting analysis of what Presidential “qualities” he’s referring to, no specific interpretation of his language other than his body language (as if to be “Presidential” you merely have to stand in a certain posture and use a particular tone of voice). There’s nothing to help you understand anything but that one person seems convinced that the President appeared presidential.
This would seem to be completely unhelpful. Uninteresting. Useless. In what sense, then, can other people’s opinions become more socially useful?
Consider the superficial example of a movie review. How can one person’s opinion about a movie become useful to you? Suppose there’s a movie reviewer who gives the latest flick a thumbs down. She says, don’t bother seeing this movie because the plot was predictable, the acting was forced, and the camera shots were really dull. The action sequences were full of stunts that have been done a thousand times before. You have a pretty clear idea why this reviewer didn’t like this film, and even if you don’t agree with her conclusion, you know why you probably would or wouldn’t like the film yourself. Even reviews we disagree with can be useful to us if the reviewer has included that kind of evaluative commentary. Maybe you don’t care about the plot as long as your favorite star is on the screen for 120 minutes; maybe the acting is less important to you than the posing; and maybe originality is not something you expect when you go to the movies. You’re a gun fight fan regardless of how many you’ve seen. You decide that even if this reviewer hated this film, the reviewer’s criteria helped you realize that you may like it a lot—the review was useful to you.
Commentary is really only socially useful and interesting when it includes some kind of objective analysis, interpretation, synthesis, or evaluation. It comes back around to critical thinking. If you’ve observed and considered your subject thoughtfully, readers have something substantial to work with. They can determine whether they agree or disagree with you and why. They gain a better understanding of your subject by understanding your perspective on it and how their own perspective may be the same or different.
Suppose you want to write a commentary on the cell phone trend.
You might use one or several of critical thinking tools to help you arrive at your own response to this trend.
Analyze: break into parts, examine each part closely, and make inferences
Questions? Contact me.
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2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.
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