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Getting Critical

September 9, 2015

Two of the readings we’re discussing this week–those from Harris and Graff–address what professors and academic thinkers typically refer to as critical thinking. As we mentioned in Tuesday’s class, the word “critical” and all its variants (critic, criticism, criticize, critique) don’t always sound very pleasant. In common use, the word implies urgency (“critical condition”) or excessive negativity (“don’t be so critical!”). When we criticize someone, we’re usually pointing out a weakness or character flaw.

However, the process of critical thinking doesn’t have to be an act of ill-tempered fault finding. In fact, Harris suggests that critical thinking can (and should!) be both generous and assertive. To respond to someone else’s ideas, even if you disagree, you first need to offer a fair representation of what that person’s claims are. In the process, “your aim should be less to prove them right or wrong, correct or mistaken, than to assess both the uses and limits of their work” (25). In a similar way, Graff reminds us that critical thinking isn’t something that is restricted to great works of art or science. As he discovered, our own personal interests, no matter how unacademic they may seem, can often benefit from careful thinking and investigation.

More than anything else, critical thinking hinges on the way we ask questions. Although it may seem otherwise at times, academic questions are not typically aimed at finding a simple right or wrong answer or a correct interpretation. Instead, by asking questions, we’re trying to gain a better, fuller, more complicated understanding of the subjects we study. So rather than just sticking with the “facts” about an event, an academic would be more likely to ask, “why does the event occur the way it does,” “what is influencing the event,” and “what possible perspectives are we overlooking?” In this way, critical thinking requires that we suspend judgement about what we’re studying until we’ve investigated it from multiple angles.

As we begin discussing The Things They Carried, we’ll try to take on a critical mindset, and I hope we’ll be able to make some connections to what we’ve read so far. O’Brien’s account of life as a soldier in the Vietnam War doesn’t necessarily address writing or the academic life explicitly, but it is about the complex ways we think about and work through our own memories and experiences. As you begin reading, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Why does O’Brien choose to describe the confusing, disturbing, and often contradictory experiences of being a soldier in Vietnam as he does? As a writer, what strategies does he use to convey these experiences?
  • How is O’Brien using his writing to work through particular problems and concepts that are important to him? What’s his project as a writer?
  • Why is O’Brien so concerned with the nature of truth in the stories he tells? Does he want us to understand the book as a memoir (a “true” story) or as a novel (a fictional story)? What difference does it make?

Be looking for (and marking) specific moments in the text that stand out to you or that help us answer the questions above.

For background information, you might also want to to read a bit online about the Vietnam War (the Wikipedia entry on the war is a fine starting place) and about O’Brien himself.

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