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Peer Blog: “Everybody’s a Critic”: Tips for Critically Engaging With Secondary Sources You Agree With

By: Jack Williams, 3rd year English Student

This past winter, I had a first-year student come into an appointment looking for help with an annotated bibliography for a Sociology paper. It was her first time ever writing one, and she was understandably concerned about navigating the tricky business of incorporating and evaluating secondary sources.

“It says to critically evaluate my sources,” I remember her saying, “but this source is perfect for my paper. I agree with everything they’re saying and I’m having trouble finding any flaws significant enough to write about, but I can’t just say ‘it was good’ and leave it at that—what am I expected to do here?”

I chuckled to myself; this was a pain I knew all too well. Be it in SOCY 122, ENGL 200, or ENGL 375, I have always found it exceptionally difficult to do more than simply agree with a secondary source that complements my own position. After all, students work with the writings of professional academics, so it is easy to feel as though there’s nothing to add. I have often fallen into the trap of simply reiterating and reaffirming a scholar’s arguments, missing out on the evaluative element which is so essential to the effective use of secondary sources.

It was not until I critically evaluated my working definition of “critical evaluation” that I figured out what I could do with those pesky articles I so inconveniently agreed with.

Drawing upon this (very recently acquired) understanding, I suggested to the student that she consider extending the argument rather than choosing between either supporting or criticizing it. Taking this kind of approach enables you to do a little bit of both; by identifying the relevance of a given article for a different but related issue or field of inquiry, you can express your support for the author’s logic and method while demonstrating critical engagement by expanding on the potential applications of their work. Understanding “critique” as encompassing the expansion of a source’s scope and the refocusing of its consequences in addition to disagreement or refutation is a helpful tool for thinking about how to converse with these sources in your own work and ensure that you are making explicit, meaningful connections which bolster the strength of your own argument.

For example, let’s say I decide to use the SASS website’s guide for writing critical reviews as a secondary source for this post. It outlines two different strategies for approaching a review, and sets out a number of useful questions to help kick start the reader’s thinking: there’s nothing there for me to refute or challenge. I could, however, extend it and claim that the various prompts it sets out are just as applicable to writing annotated bibliographies as they are to critical reviews, as the areas it addresses—scope, logic, evidence, objectivity, organization, style, and general value—are exactly the kinds of concerns which a good annotated bibliography addresses, and can serve as useful focal points for evaluating a given source.

I could extend its implications even further and claim that it can also serve as a useful guide for how to read secondary sources with an eye toward producing arguments from them. If you find yourself really agreeing with a scholar’s work, ask yourself—am I convinced by the evidence? The logic? The style? Why are these factors effective or ineffective? Are they appropriate to the point being made? How do they interact with one another? Could the work be improved by adding, taking away, or expanding on any of these strategies? Evaluative questions like these can form the kernels of arguments, which can help you determine the focus and trajectory of your paper. Thus, I could argue that the critical reviews guide has utility which extends beyond simply writing critical reviews.

Although working with secondary sources can, at times, feel intimidating (indeed, I have struggled with it for most of my academic career), I have found that viewing this engagement as a conversation rather than an argument per se has helped me make more effective use of secondary sources in my own work. As I hope to have demonstrated above, you do not have to criticize a source to engage with it critically: “criticism”, in the academic sense, is more helpfully understood as a holistic process of closely examining the form and content of a piece of writing in order to understand how and why it does what it does. In other words, you need not be a critic, in the polemical sense, to be critical.