Carnegie Mellon University

Authoring the Critique: Taking Critical Stances on Disciplinary Texts

Author: Maureen Mathison
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1993

Thirty-two undergraduate students in an upper-level sociology course critiqued a text as an assignment for the class. Their texts were analyzed and compared on the following basis: the types of topics students selected, the types of commentary they provided on those topics, the types of support they supplied their commentary, the organizational patterns their texts signaled, and the length of their texts. Texts were also rated holistically for quality by professors in the discipline. To see what features were valued by the professors, quality scores were tested for their relationship with the measures from the discourse analyses: (1) negative commentary, (2) disciplinary source of support, (3) organizational patterns, and (4) length. Quality scores were tested for their relationship to educational level and status as major or non-major. Finally, to see whether or not there were commonalties among the kinds of comments students made as they worked, think-aloud protocols produced by a subset of five students were analyzed and compared with their written texts.

Text analyses showed considerable variability among the students in the types of topics they chose. Critiques also varied in the nature of commentary. Even though most critiques were heavy in negative commentary, some were overwhelmingly positive and some were more neutral, suspending judgment. Students supplied personal and disciplinary support for their commentary, although more students tended to substantiate their commentary within a disciplinary framework. In organizing their critiques, students were more likely to employ a Separate Text Configuration, presenting topical information before moving on to present evaluative commentary rather than to use an Integrated Text Configuration, interweaving topical and evaluative information. Also, critiques varied considerably in length, ranging from 15-65 sentences. The test of the relationship between professors' summed holistic quality scores and the text measures showed that all four text features in combination were important for predicting a quality critique, but length was less important than the other three. The higher quality scores tended to be awarded to critiques that included more negative commentary and disciplinary source of support; the higher quality critiques were also more likely to have an Integrated Text Configuration. The test of the relationship between academic standing and quality showed educational level to be a better predictor than status as a major in the discipline, although neither one of these was a strong predictor of quality ratings nor were the two in concert. Analysis of the five students' think-aloud protocols showed individual differences among the five in types of comments, but also showed that, even though all commented negatively about the text as they read, the majority of negative comments they made were edited out of their final written critiques.