Welcome to another book review! Today I’m reviewing another book about critical thinking but this one is focussed on academic critiques for use in literature reviews and other academic work. Join me as I review Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates (3rd Ed.) by Mark Wallace and Alison Wray, a thoroughly modern guide to critical reading and writing.
Wallace and Wray are both professors at Cardiff University and it is clear, from the slick design to the excessive use of tables*, that this is aimed squarely at students and, in particular, new postgraduates. Unsurprisingly this makes it very easy to read and the information is accessible and well presented. It covers the basics of critiquing academic writing and forming your own arguments that are robust to critical analysis. The book is very compact and I got through it in a little over 2 days which means it was a little pricey at nearly £20. Hopefully, it will prove it’s worth as a quick reference for my thesis. However, I would recommend trying to get hold of a library copy in the first instance to check if you want it permanently on your shelf.
Aside from the price another downside is that if you aren’t a social scientist the book steadily becomes less and less directly applicable. A lot of the “things to look out for” are relevant only to the social sciences and it can be difficult to apply to other areas. Particularly in maths, I find there is a real dearth of advice relating to critically reading maths papers. I think we all baulk at the idea of checking mathematical working (particularly as often steps are missed out) and it is not quite as straightforward as criticising an experimental design. My supervisor mentioned the other day that he felt maths papers were “not meant to be read” and were really recordings of the writer’s process. This makes them particularly challenging, in my opinion, to critique. I would be very interested in any books / resources aimed at teaching us how to critique more theoretical papers. Here, there was little exploration of what logical inconsistency or bad experimental design might look like. It seemed assumed that you would recognise this and the book focussed on helping your methodically identify relevant arguments and their evidence which you could then apply your critical faculties to. This might be seen as weakness as by following the book you’ll only get half the job done: you’ll identify the arguments but the actual critique is left up to you.
On the other hand, the critical mindset the book invokes in the reader is useful and generally applicable. I did find it easier to start a critique of a paper having read the book and I feel more confident in my natural inclination to question academic papers. As Wallace and Wray point out our undergraduate careers can make academic articles seem infallible and we may initially be too intimidated to critique papers at all. To help you start off a critique they provide a number of forms to fill in that allow you to be methodical in your analysis. They start you off slowly building from a single critical synopsis to a full critical review comparing a number of texts. This book is designed like a module where everything slowly builds to your final goal of being a competent critical reader and writer. It is cleverly interspersed with asides and case studies to maintain interest and provide examples. They also provide a companion website with the critique forms available for download which is helpful and should encourage the use of the forms provided.
The website, like everything about the book, is very modern, clean and easy to navigate. It also contains some videos where the author’s talk you through key concepts, which is a useful primer for the book. I have to say I love the book’s monochromatic green colour scheme and the simple use of different shades of green within the text make it quite soothing and ensure that the structure is very clear. This isn’t a case of style over substance but more that style and substance have been carefully balanced. This is a stylish, handy little book and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know where to start with their critiques.
*Also, you know, from the title.