Gina L. Vallis - Reason to Write. Applying Critical Thinking to Academic Writing [2011]


Full text














This handbook is a practical guide designed to offer students the means to

apply critical thinking to academic writing.

Critical thinking is a challenging term. Sometimes it is presented in relationship to formal logic, which is too rigid to use as a strategy for writing instruction. Sometimes critical thinking is made synonymous with analysis, although they can be clearly differentiated as separate cognitive activities. Sometimes critical thinking is reduced to writing prompts on selected readings, or exemplar asides.

Reason to Write introduces the critical question, a pre-writing strategy that

both stipulates a working definition for critical thinking, and, in doing so, reorients the approach to academic writing as fundamentally inquiry-based. Critical thinking provides specific strategies designed to help student writers to work through the relationship between thinking and writing. When given the opportunity to develop a line of inquiry based upon a question, students acquire not only critical thinking skills, but also the means to be

self-corrective in their writing, and to transfer those skills into new contexts. In three major sections, students are guided through steps that build upon foundational critical thinking skills, and that reinforce academic writing as a practice designed to answer a question, solve a problem, or resolve an issue.

Gina L. Vallis received her Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in critical

theory, and teaches Writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and presents on topics concerning rhetoric, communication, critical and literary theory, and film and visual studies. She is certified in graphic design, has published poetry, and vendors an intervention program for children with ASD, in relationship to which she contributed a chapter for a book on autism intervention. She is currently completing a pending

publication of a collaborative web-text for the praxis category of Kairos, as well as preparing a manuscript concerning writing about film, titled Screening



Applying critical thinking to academic writing



Applying critical thinking to academic writing


his handbook is a practical guide designed to off er students the means to apply critical thinking to academic writing.

Critical thinking is a challenging term. Sometimes it is presented in relationship to formal logic, which is too rigid to use as a strategy for writing instruction. Sometimes critical thinking is made synonymous with analysis, although they can be clearly diff erentiated as separate cognitive activities. Sometimes critical thinking is reduced to writing prompts on selected readings, or exemplar asides. Reason to Write introduces the critical question, a pre-writing strategy that both stipulates a working defi nition for critical thinking, and, in doing so, reori-ents the approach to academic writing as fundamentally inquiry-based.

Critical thinking provides specifi c strategies designed to help student writers to work through the relationship between thinking and writing. When given the opportunity to develop a line of inquiry based upon a question, students acquire not only critical thinking skills, but also the means to be self-corrective in their writing, and to transfer those skills into new contexts.

In three major sections, students are guided through steps that build upon foun-dational critical thinking skills, and that reinforce academic writing as a practice designed to answer a question, solve a problem, or resolve an issue.

Gina L. Vallis received her Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in critical theory, and teaches Writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and presents on topics concerning rhetoric, communication, critical and literary theory, and fi lm and visual studies. She is certifi ed in graphic design, has published poetry, and vendors an intervention program for children with ASD, in relationship to which she contributed a chapter for a book on autism intervention. She is currently completing a pending publication of a collabora-tive web-text for the praxis category of Kairos, as well as preparing a manuscript concerning writing about fi lm, titled Screening Arguments.


Kona Publishing and Media Group Higher Education Division Charlotte, North Carolina

Copyright © 2010 by Kona Publishing and Media Group

All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photography, or any informational storage and retrieval system, without permission from the publisher.

All names of teachers, teacher learners, students and places are pseudonyms or are used with permission. Teacher and student work samples are used with permission.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders for permission to reprint borrowed material. We regret any oversights that may have occurred and will rectify them in future printings of this work.



Applying critical thinking

to academic writing


p u b l i s h i n g & m e d i a g r o u pp u b l i s h i n g & m e d i a g r o u p



Acknowledgements xi Preface xiii



1 a reason to write 3

Blinking Cursor Syndrome 4 Questions and Answers 5

Th e Case Against the Five-Paragraph Form 8 Process vs. Product 11

Review 14

2 critical thinking 19

What’s Diff erent about Critical Th inking? 20 Critical Th inking and Logic 20

Critical Th inking and Academic Writing 23 Why is Critical Th inking Important? 25 Th e Role of Curiosity 27

Th e (Provisional) Case Against the Prompt 28 Writing is Risky Business 30

Review 34

Th e Critical Question 36


Sample Critical Questions 37 3 questions in context 39

Revising Five Writing Rules 40 Review 49


Th e Question Map 52

Th ree Parts to the Question Map 53 Example Question Map 54


4 saying what we mean-meaning what we say 59

Writing has Words in it 60 Language and Associates 61

Metaphor: Words are Slithy Toves 67 Guard Rails for the Tricky Bits 69 Review 76

Ways to Defi ne 77

Types of Defi nitions/Examples 78


Example Completed Ways to Defi ne Guide 82 Th e Shortcut 87



5 performing analysis 93

Two Principles of Analysis 94 Opinions, Facts, and Analysis 99 Types of Analysis: General Analysis 101 Analysis and Roller Skating 106

Formalist Analysis 109 Rhetorical Analysis 112 Review 114

Performing Analysis 116



6 fi nding common ground 123

Th e Organizing Principle 124 First Th ings First: Th e Title 130

Exordium : “Yo” or “Lo” 131 Types of Openings 133 Review 136

Organizing/Opening the Essay 138



7 arrangement 141

Beyond Exordium 142

Fancy Names and Functions 143 Formatting is Fun! -Not 151

Primary and Secondary Sources: Raw or Cooked 155 Review 157

Th e Draft 160




8 communication and rhetoric 167

“Th at’s Just Rhetoric” 168 Appeals 172

Fallacies and Other Fallacies 175

Getting Our Darned Ice Cream Cone 177 Review 181

9 feedback and revision 185

Everyone’s a Critic 186

On Beyond Spellcheck: Editing vs. Revision 188 Mirroring Documents 189


Th e Secret of the Hard-Copy Edit 190 Revision 190


10 joining the conversation 193

Kinds of Writing 194

Writing in Professional Contexts 195

Conference Presentation/Publication for Undergraduates 196 Joining the Conversation 199



Sample Undergraduate Conference CFP 201 Sample Undergraduate Journal CFP 202

recommended Readings 203 WORKS CITED 207




irstly, I would like to say how grateful I am to Roy, both for building the fort, and also for holding it down.

Secondly, I would like to thank my students for their generosity in allowing me to use their writing in this text. All samples of student writing included in this text were drawn from undergraduate, lower-division writing, primarily in entry-level courses.




ne of the challenges facing writing instructors is that while students will tend to recognize quality academic writing, they often do not appear to translate that recognition into practice in relationship to their own prose. Nor can an instructor assume that students will automatically adopt a habit of inquiry merely by being exposed to the questions of others. In addition, this form of instruction reinforces the idea that it is the student’s function to provide answers, but it does not allow them to rehearse generating their own questions. For as long as students are given tools for recognizing the elements that facili-tate or inhibit academic inquiry, they can engage in critical thinking through the composing of a question-based essay, from an initial point of curiosity. Reason to Write makes a clear distinction between critical thinking, rhetoric, informal and formal logic, and analysis, for the purpose of demonstrating various connections between ways of thinking, and stages of writing. Writing exercises are broken down into steps that engage with those relationships, from pre- writing to fi nal draft, as well as conference presentations and publication guidelines. Th is handbook would be appropriate for use by any instructor engaged in entry-level post-secondary education courses for the purpose of an introduction to critical thinking and academic writing.

It can also be used as a supplement to course material, across disciplines, for the purpose of writing instruction, provided that the course structure allows the student to generate independent questions, upon which to write, based upon the course topic.

How to use this text

Reason to Write is a practical guide, and is designed as a map to guide students through steps to writing. Each chapter off ers a clear explanation of a given way of thinking, and matches it to a stage in the writing process, culminating in a writing step that allows the student to put that relationship into practice. Th rough these sequential stages, each step serves to advance the student toward the fi nal paper that will be produced, using the strategies covered in that sec-tion. As such, while perfectly suitable for use in conjunction with other instruc-tional material, all sections should be included, and taken in order.




Th is section serves as an introduction to a basic reorientation of academic writ-ing as inquiry-based, and opens by drawwrit-ing attention to common diffi culties students face with the thesis statement.

Th e demand to produce a thesis in the fi rst stage of writing often generates confusion between the process of academic writing, which is inquiry-based, and the fi nal presentation of the written product. Th is fi nal presentation is often reorganized in a rewrite in order to forefront conclusions.

By putting the steps into their proper order, students come to understand that thinking and writing are related acts, the components of which can be subse-quently redistributed in the fi nal draft stage, based upon the conventions within a given discipline.


After learning about the role of inquiry within academic writing, students are introduced to a clear defi nition for critical thinking, its relationship to academic writing, and common sources of cognitive bias that impede eff ective reasoning. Th is section culminates in Step 1 , the Critical Question Guide , in which the stu-dent formulates a critical question based upon a set of guidelines that explain how to formulate an area of inquiry upon which to write, providing the tools for students to begin the pre-writing stage of independent inquiry into a specifi c issue.


Because students have often been given contradictory or ambiguous directives in relationship to academic writing, this chapter explores the reasoning behind common writing rules. In doing so, it translates those rules into practical guides for understanding the role of academic writing.

Once a student has a critical question upon which to begin to write, the stu-dent then engages in Step 2 , the Argument Map Guide , designed to refi ne the question to an appropriate level of specifi city for the length of the writing, and to connect the question to a context from which to draw elements for analysis.



Until students have the opportunity to gain a basic understanding of how language functions in written argumentation, they may not understand the need for precision in the transmission of ideas, linked, as it is, to the metaphori-cal quality of language.

In addition to providing a new way for students to evaluate the prose that they produce, this chapter off ers the opportunity for students to explore the notion of stipulating the defi nition of a term, a practice that is common in writing drawn from critical thinking.

Th is chapter provides Step 3 in the series, the Ways to Defi ne Guide , in which the student advances the critical question upon which he or she is working. Th e student is given the opportunity to explore and engage in a controlled defi nition of the terms of that question.

Finally, the end of Section 1 off ers “Th e Shortcut,” a condensed model for prewriting designed to initiate critical thinking in relationship to writing an essay. Th is model can be quickly implemented for future writing in which the student will engage, after the student has a working understanding of the tools necessary to generate ideas, how to avoid common traps that impede critical thinking, and has gained a sense of precision and control over aca-demic prose.



In defi ning critical thinking as a strategy of informal logic designed to aid a writer in remaining conscious of those elements that facilitate or inhibit clear reasoning, analysis can be defi ned, for the student, in contradistinction.

As the primary act in which the student will engage in order to move from ques-tion to answer within academic writing, analysis is treated as an act involving the breaking down of an element into its constituent parts, for the purpose of producing knowledge.

Th is chapter off ers Step 4 , the Steps to Analysis Guide , in which the student completes four steps of analysis on the question that the student has posed,


in the process drawing conclusions that will eventually serve in the recursive strategy of writing the body of the essay.


In performing analysis, students will encounter categories through which to produce an organizing principle for the essay. Bypassing common writing for-mulas, the organizing principle develops from the unique quality of the answers at which the student arrives, allowing a paper organization that follows from that reasoning.

Th us, the essay may follow a pattern of hierarchical, comparative, categorical, chronological, etc., organization, based upon the specifi c nature of the rela-tionship between the questions and answers that the student produces within analysis.

Once the student has established an organizing principle, strategies for exordium —the paper’s opening—are reviewed, and the student begins the paper by writing the opening paragraph, which includes elements the student has acquired through previous exercises: the question at hand, context, and defi nition. Th e student then provides a plan for the organization of the paper. Th e execution of this plan comprises Step 5, the Opening/Organizing Principle

Guide .


Once the student has all of the requisite elements, and has introduced the paper, the student is ready to produce a draft of the essay. In this chapter, students initiate the fi rst step of their organizing principle, and proceed through that organization, returning each conclusion to the question at hand.

Students are also given information regarding typical elements found within the critical essay, which the student comes to understand not as formulaic in nature, but as specifi c functions that each serve a purpose within the communi-cation of ideas within academic writing.

In previous exercises, students will already have worked on rhetorical elements such as exordium , defi nitio, narratio, partitio, and amplifi catio , and come to understand those terms through the work they have already completed, in a way that does not result in the alienation often produced by those terms. Students are then exposed, in a straightforward manner, to refutatio, stasis, and epilogus


as additional functions of the academic essay, which students can then plan in the execution of their draft.

Because students will be engaged in the drafting stage of the paper, at this point in the writing process, this chapter gives a brief explanation of established rules that govern the citation of source material.

Th e resulting Step 6 , the Essay Draft Guide , closes this section with the pro-duction of a provisional essay of requisite length upon which students could potentially receive feedback, and begin the process of revision and preparation for publication.



In many instructional situations, the student will be waiting to receive feedback on a draft. In other situations, the student will be best served by combining Chapter 7 (Arrangement) and Chapter 9 (Feedback/Revision), as well as Steps 6 and 7 , before submission of a fi nal paper.

Th is chapter covers further issues of rhetoric and its relationship to critical thinking, by exploring those elements of rhetoric that provide information regarding common sources of cognitive bias, and elements of communication, including communication designed to produce suasion.

Students learn about the fi ve elements of communication, rhetoric as a disci-pline, fallacies, and appeals. Although not directly applicable to the advance-ment of the production of the fi nal essay, students are off ered practice exercises that deepen their understanding of these rhetorical concepts. Th ese exercises allow the student to engage with the notion of rhetoric as a discipline, provide more sophisticated general tools for analysis of real-world issues, and reinforce strategies for attending to the elements of communication situations.


Either following the return of the fi rst draft, or as rewrite strategy for the com-pletion of a fi nal essay, this chapter covers strategies for making use of feedback,


rewriting, editing, proofreading, and global revision for the purpose of crafting a fully developed fi nal essay based upon critical thinking.

A careful distinction is made between those elements that pertain to all aca-demic writing, across all disciplinary fi elds, and those elements that concern the fi nal presentation of the paper according to standardized conventions within a discipline, and that may dictate rules concerning such things as format, tone of voice, positioning of elements, etc.

In addition to the information provided regarding rewriting, this chapter pro-vides Step 7 , the Self-Diagnostic Guide . Th is guide presents a comprehensive checklist of all information covered in this text, against which the student com-pares the fi nal writing that he or she has produced. It serves as a review of important concepts of critical thinking, and a check for ways in which the stu-dent may have engaged in areas of cognitive bias that impede the full explora-tion of his or her quesexplora-tion to produce a valid and true conclusion, or thesis. JOINING THE CONVERSATION

In the fi nal chapter of Reason to Write , students are off ered a breakdown of dif-ferent kinds of writing that occur in a variety of contexts, in order to emphasize the role of academic writing in facilitating a conversation related to the produc-tion of knowledge.

Th is is reinforced through discussion concerning conference presentation and academic publication. Th is serves to redirect the notion of academic writing as a classroom activity, instead of a scholarly dialogue in which students can, and do, participate. It off ers information regarding submitting a paper for submis-sion for conference presentation or publication.

Reason to Write concludes with Step 8 , the Submission Guidelines Page . While this step does not require students to actually follow through in submitting papers for presentation or publication, it does include preliminary work that would be required to do so, including the acquisition of guidelines pertaining to submissions to the specifi c conference or journal.





Chapter 1

A Reason to Write





5 REVIEW . . . 14


1 blinking cursor syndrome

“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

—Gene Fowler


f this book were to begin with one suggestion regarding how to begin writing an

essay, it would be this: Find common ground with your reader. In other words, it is often helpful to open with a series of simple statements that a typical reader would fi nd reasonable and fair.

Of course, many students have been taught to summarize—and therefore com-press—all of an essay’s argument into the opening paragraph. Th is is why one of the more common complaints about the whole business of starting to write an essay is something that one could call Blinking Cursor Syndrome . You sit down to write an essay. You call up a new document in a word processing program. Within the frame, the page is empty except for a single cursor that blinks with mechanical indiff erence. It blinks for as long as it takes you to muster something to say. Th ere you sit. Th ere it blinks.

Writers can experience this moment as a kind of pre-defeat. In part, this is because the fi rst thing that many students have often been taught is that they should begin writing an essay with a strong, original idea, often called a “thesis statement.” Th e second thing that students have often been taught is that it is their task, upon the spontaneous arrival of this strong, original statement, to spend the rest of the essay arguing for that statement until it has been proved to a reasonable reader’s satisfaction.

Yet our hypothetical writer may be a bit confused: From what tree of inspiration, exactly, is one supposed to pluck this strong, original statement? Is one supposed to have an arsenal of such statements at hand? A writer may even begin to suspect, having checked his or her internal thesis-statement stockpile, and found it to be rattling about with a few fairly interesting, but

half-formed speculations, that a clever person

would have had a few good ones stashed away, for just such an occasion.


A hyphen is used when two or more words are brought together to describe another word, as in “ star-crossed lovers” or “ plant-covered yard. ” Th e hyphen is NOT necessary if the descriptive word is an adverb, as in “ lovely night” or “ slippery walk.” Th ere is a diff erence between a hyphen and a dash .


In this case, Blinking Cursor Syndrome can sometimes turn into a source of self-judgment, like: “I don’t really have anything important to say,” or “I’m just not good at this kind of writing.” Th is often leads to the student to conclude: “If I must perform this task, it is probably best to fi nd a thesis statement that is easily defen-sible. I will, therefore, pick one that is not too boring or diffi cult.”

One of the things covered in this text is that while academic writing may be hard work, it is actually quite a logical process. If something about writing an essay doesn’t make sense, there’s probably a reason. Critical thinking is designed to help writers to recognize the way in which writing follows from thinking, not by memorizing a for-mula, but by understanding that relationship. Critical thinking is a series of strate-gies designed to help you to pay attention to the way you think through a given idea. Most people, when faced with a problem to be

solved, will employ what is called a heuristic . People have commonsensical ways in which to go about puzzling through a problem. Th is is because people are thinking, rational beings. Critical thinking takes this a step further. Critical thinking off ers specifi c and sophisticated tools for paying attention to the way we think through a question.

To illustrate, one could pose the question:

Why do so many students fi nd it diffi cult, in begin-ning to write, to spontaneously produce a thesis statement?

2 questions and answers

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

—Graham Wallace


he thesis, although not always a single “statement,” is an essential part of an

academic essay. One helpful general critical thinking tool is to carefully defi ne what one means by a given word or phrase. In this case, the question becomes: What is a thesis statement?


A heuristic is a word for the infor-mal ways in which most people go about thinking when they solve problems or answer questions. Some are more eff ective than others.

An example would be trial-and-error .

As an aside, one treats an “h” as a vowel (hence a heuristic) if the “h” sound is not aspirated (if you do not hear the “h” sound in the word). Th us, it would be an hour, and a hat.


Although students are taught to use a thesis, it is often not clearly defi ned. Without looking it up, write a short, precise defi nition of a thesis statement:

A thesis statement is

Many students will use the phrase “thesis statement” synonymously with “topic” or “argument,” or “opinion.”

Starting from what you might have written, here, it is helpful to understand that there are many ways to defi ne a word or phrase. One could go to a dictionary. One could use examples. One could off er synonyms. Each way of defi ning a word can serve a specifi c purpose. One of ways to defi ne a word is called a Negative Defi nition .

A Negative Defi nition can help to clear up confusion when a word has an ambiguous meaning, or is routinely misunderstood. Following is an example of negative defi ni-tion, and how it can be useful.

• A Th esis is not the topic of an essay

A thesis is not the topic of an essay, because a topic refers to the paper’s area of inquiry, or what the essay “is about.”

One could say: “Th e topic of the essay is global warming.” One would not say: “Th e thesis of the essay is global warming.”

• A Th esis is not an argument

A thesis is only one part of an argument. Th e idea of “argumentation” goes back to formal logic , and formal logic off ers several parts to an argument, each of which serves a purpose.


A Negative Defi nition is a way of defi ning a word or a phrase by comparing it to what it is not . Example: “An apple is not an orange, a peach, or a banana.”


Logic is a systematic method for establishing what is valid and true based upon inference from premises.


Th e most formal system of logical argumentation uses something called the Logical Syllogism.

It may be surprising to learn that formal logic is not very helpful in composing academic writing. Formal logic is useful for evaluating existing arguments, but is too rigid to use as a writing strategy. Logic is very precise; mathematics, for example, is a subset of logic.

Th e following example of a logical syllogism should be familiar to you. All logical syllogisms must be “True” (the premises are true) and “Valid” (the conclusion follows the premises).

Major Premise: All Men (A) are Mortal (B) A = B Minor Premise: Socrates (C) is a Man (A) C = A Conclusion: Socrates (C) is Mortal (B)* C = B

✓ True (Th e Premises are True)

✓ Valid (Th e Conclusion follows from the Premises) * Sadly, in fact, it is true: Socrates is dead.

In logic, a true conclusion follows from true premises. Th e conclusion is not, by itself, the argument. It is the logical result of the inferences drawn from those premises. Th e combination of all of these elements is, in total, an argument.

Th e conclusion of a syllogism is designed to answer a question. In this example, the obvious (although unstated) question is: “Is Socrates Mortal?” Th e conclusion, or answer, to this question, is supported by the premises, and could be written in the following way: “Socrates is mortal because he is a man, and all men are mortal.” Th is is classical formal argumentation.

Real-life questions are not always so straightforward. However, it is true that, because academic writing is logical in nature, there are certain similarities. Th e essay serves the same purpose as a syllogism: it answers a question that has been posed, based upon valid conclusions that are derived from true premises, and results in an answer. Th at answer serves as the thesis of the essay.

By coming to reasoned conclusions, academic writing answers questions, solves problems, and resolves issues. A Th esis , then, is an answer to a question that the


writer poses. In syllogistic form, the question “What is a thesis?” would be answered in the following way:

Major Premise: An Answer is the Result of a Question A = B Minor Premise: A Th esis is an Answer C = A Conclusion : A Th esis is the Result of a Question C = B

What all this means is that, in academic writing, or in any system of inquiry that seeks to further knowledge, answers usually follow from questions, and not the other way around. While this statement seems obvious, many students have been taught to begin to write the academic essay with an answer. In other words, one cannot produce a thesis without fi rst having a question, and then working through that question in a rea-soned manner. Th is is because it is commonly understood that all academic writing is specifi cally designed to answer a question, solve a problem, or

resolve an issue .

3 the case against the fi ve-paragraph form

“Th e most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector.”

—Ernest Hemmingway

HERE IS A FORMULA WITH WHICH MANY OF YOU WILL BE FAMILIAR Paragraph 1 Opening Introduce the thesis statement

Th esis Statement A single, original statement to be

proved in the paper

Paragraph 2 Point 1 Th e “strongest” point that supports the thesis statement

example 1 A single example of Point 1

Paragraph 3 Point 2 Th e next point that supports the thesis statement

example 2 A single example of Point 2


Only italics are used for emphasis within an essay. Bold or underline are never used to emphasize a word or sentence in an essay.


Paragraph 4 Point 3 Th e next point that supports the thesis statement

example 3 A single example of Point 3

Paragraph 5 Conclusion Restate the thesis statement with the three main points included


Dogs Should Be Leashed

Opening Every year, thousands of people are bitten, pets are

lost, and people are exposed to health risks because

Th esis pet owners do not leash their dogs. All dogs should be

on a leash.

Point 1 Dogs that are unleashed are a danger to people.

example 1 Last year my neighbor’s dog bit my cousin. He had to get

stitches, and my aunt had to pay $300 for the hospital bill. Point 2 Without a leash to restrain them, dogs will run away,

causing heartbroken owners who want them back.

example 2 You can hardly pass a street without seeing a “lost

dog” sign.

Point 3 Dogs that are allowed to wander can be a health hazard to people. Wandering dogs can eliminate in public parks. Dogs can carry some diseases, like rabies.

example 3 A child coming into contact with animal waste can

become very ill.

Conclusion In conclusion, all dogs should be on a leash. If not,

they are a danger to people, they can get lost, and they can be a health hazard.

Unfortunately, such writing formulai do little to advance students as critical thinkers and writers. In fact, because it privileges the structure of the essay over any kind of content, as Rosenwasser and Stephen note, it actually disables critical thinking:

Th e fi ve-paragraph form has the advantage of providing a mechanical format that will give virtually any subject the appearance of order [but] lops off a writer’s ideas before they have a chance to form…Th is simplis-tic scheme blocks writers’ abilities to think deeply or logically, restrict-ing rather than encouragrestrict-ing the development of complex ideas. (111)


Academic writing is a lot like thinking, on paper. When one writes, one employs logic. One groups, categorizes, fi nds similarities and diff erences, and makes sure to account for all sides of a given issue.

If an instructor were to assign the example-essay titled: “Dogs Should Be Leashed” as a reading for classroom discussion, students, being reasoning people, would prob-ably immediately challenge the conclusion that is drawn. Students might ask:

Is a leash the only way to control a dog? What about keeping the dog in a fenced yard, or in a house? What about a well-trained dog? Don’t wan-dering dogs also increase the population of unwanted animals? Does a dog need to be leashed on a farm?

In other words, even though this example essay provides the requisite structure for a fi ve-paragraph essay, including thesis statement, main points, and examples, it still fails, logically. If a thesis is always an answer to a question that has been posed, it is easier to understand why such an essay fails to support its thesis statement if one knows the question that it answers.

Any statement can be turned into a question, and any question can be turned into a statement. Th e statement “Th e ball is round” could be changed to the question: “Is the ball round?” Th e question “Is the box square?” could be changed to the statement “Th e box is square.” Between a question and a statement is the real issue at hand— their “true” relationship to one another.

Th e statement in the example essay is: “All dogs should be leashed.” It is the thesis of this essay, and therefore it is an answer to a question. Th e implicit question this thesis answers is: “Should all dogs be leashed-yes or no?”

Let’s do a reality check. Most people, if asked, and given a moment or two to consider the question, would probably respond by saying that a far more


A longer quotation from a source is set off from your text by the indenting the whole quotation fi ve spaces. Th ere are no quotation marks needed. Th e period goes after the quotation, and before any citation. How long a quotation should be before it must be put in this form depends on the type of formatting that you are using in your essay. For example, in MLA style, it must be over 4 lines before requiring indentation.


If something is implicit , it is not stated outright, but off ered indirectly. If something is explicit , it is stated directly. All academic writing is based upon a question, whether that question is implicit, or explicit.


accurate and fair answer to that question would be: “Many dogs should be leashed, under certain circumstances, but not all dogs.” Th at’s why this essay fails to prove its thesis—not because it does not have a structure, but because it provides an inad-equate answer to the question that it poses.

Yet far more important than the essay’s failure to prove its thesis is the fact that the real answer to this question is obvious: one might as well produce a thesis from a question querying the existence of rocks, or whether a human is a piece of fruit, or if two-plus-two usually turns out to equal four.

In other words, the real fl aw of this essay is: What’s the point? Who cares? Th is is what happens when writers are required to provide an answer before being given the opportunity to formulate a thoughtful question.

4 process vs. product

“We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.”

—Richard Peck


thesis is an essential part of an academic essay. Th e thesis is present even if it is implicit. It is present even if it is explicit, no mat-ter where it is placed in the fi nal draft—in the beginning, shortly after the beginning, or at the end of the paper.

So, too, a question always plays an essential part in academic writing. Th at question is present even if it is implicit. It is present even if is explicit, and wherever it is placed in the body of the paper, although it usually shows up pretty early in the writing, because the reader needs to know what’s in question.

Following are excerpts from three essays taken from a textbook entitled: Making Sense: Essays

on Art, Science, and Culture. Th e authors of

this  anthology included these essays because the


Double quotation marks (“) are used to indicate that you are quot-ing someone else’s words within your prose. Single quotation marks (‘) are used only to indicate that the person whom you are quoting is quoting someone else, as in “Jane said ‘I like you.’”

In general, all punctuation goes inside of single or double quota-tion marks, like this. Th e only exception is if there is an interrup-tion between the end of the words in a sentence, and the end of the sentence, as when “one is quoting from a source” (Author 11).


textbook is designed to provide examples, to students, of eff ective academic writing, across disciplines.

In the excerpt of each essay, pay attention to how the writer treats the issue at hand: • Sven Birkerts: “Th e Owl Has Flown”

Reading and thinking are kindred operations, if only because both are invisible. … How do people experience the written word, and how have those experiences, each necessarily unique, changed in larger collective ways down the centuries? (70)

• Julie Charlip “A Real Class Act”

I once asked a sociology professor what he thought about the…middle class.

His defi nition was: If you earn thirty thousand dollars a year working in an assembly plant, come home from work, open a beer and watch the game, you are working class; if you earn twenty thousand dollars a year as a school teacher, come home from work to a glass of white wine and PBS, you are mid-dle class . How do we defi ne class? Is it a matter of values, lifestyles, taste? Is it the kind of work you do, you relationship to the means of production? Is it a matter of how much money you earn? Are we allowed to choose? (79)

• Richard Florida

“Th e Transformation of Everyday Life”

Here’s a thought experiment. Take a typical man on the street from the year 1900 and drop him into the 1950’s. Th en, take someone form the 1950’s and


Some writing instructors discourage the use of “I” (fi rst-person voice) although it is used routinely in published academic essays. George Orwell used fi rst-person voice in his famous 1946 essay “Politics in the English Language.”

Some instructors also discourage the use of passive voice, which is one of the best ways a writer can avoid fi rst-person voice. Passive voice is also frequently used in essays, because it produces a certain eff ect: “Th e experiment was conducted” sounds more objective and credible than “I conducted the experiment.”

Both are a stylistic and genre choice, and both are sometimes eff ective. How else could politicians say things like: “Mistakes were made”? Th at said, there are a few things to keep in mind: 1) Always follow your instructor’s guidelines; 2) “I” voice is no reason to make an essay a personal narrative; 3) Passive voice gets boring, very quickly, for the reader.


move him Austin Powers-style into the present day. Who would experience the greater change? (194)

Obviously, there are no thesis statements in these opening paragraphs. Rather, the writer poses an interesting question. In posing this question, the writer strikes an attitude of curiosity and promises to try to answer this question in a thoughtful, reasonable manner.

Some academic writing does, in the opening, off er an answer to the question that the writing poses. However, that answer, or thesis, is not placed at the beginning because the writer thought of the thesis when she he or she started to write.

Scholarship is the ability to ask smart questions, and to answer them well. It is more than becoming a walking encyclopedia of factual information; it is to have a certain ability to put the knowledge that one has acquired to good use. People do not place answers in front of questions. Rather, the answer is moved, in a rewrite, because disciplines have developed conventions in the writing that occurs in certain academic disciplines.

Rather, the thesis is placed in the opening in the fi nal draft, or revision. Th is is especially true in the

case of papers written within the sciences, including the social sciences. Often, this answer comes in the form of an Abstract . Th e abstract covers:

1. What the writer was trying to accomplish 2. Th e results (answer, or thesis)

3. How those results could be applied

In the writing product , the abstract is presented fi rst. In the writing process , the abstract is almost always written last, because the writer wouldn’t know the answer until after the question has been posed.

Writing that has an abstract usually occurs in APA style, and APA style is usually used within the social and hard sciences, especially those that concentrate on quan-titative data.

Writing in these disciplines routinely requires that the writer fi rst submit what is  called a Proposal , before even beginning the research, much less a draft of the


A convention is an established rule or set of rules that have built up over time. Sometimes these conventions make sense, and sometimes they’re just the result of habit. Wearing a tie, for example, used to be for the purpose of wiping one’s mouth after dinner. Now it is merely a convention.


writing, itself. Th e proposal always covers the initial area of inquiry—or, in other words, a question. Th e proposal covers:

1. Th e question to be posed, problem to be solved, or issue to be resolved 2. Th e method that will be used to answer that question or resolve that issue 3. Why answering that question or resolving that issue is important

Let’s say that a scientist is going to write an article, based upon an experiment in a laboratory. No scientist steps into the laboratory, glances at the experiment, and immediately turns to the computer to write an article on his or her fi ndings. Th e experiment is conducted around something in question, and the scientist must work with that question before coming to a conclusion. In writing up his or her fi ndings, the scientist may produce a fi nal article that places those conclusions on the fi rst page, but the process begins by identifying the question at hand.

5 review

“I don’t wait to be struck by lightning, and don’t need certain slants of light in order to write.”

—Toni Morrison


Th e information to take from this chapter is that academic writing is for the purpose of answering questions, solving problems, or resolving issues. No matter where the thesis is presented in the fi nal draft of the writing that you produce, the following will always apply:

• An answer is the logical end of the aca-demic writing process

• A question is the logical beginning of the academic writing process

Th at is because all academic thinking and writing begins with the idea that something is in ques-tion. If there were not something in question, well…there wouldn’t be a reason to write.


When listing, use bullets (or equivalent) if the order of the items on the list doesn’t matter, and numbers if the order of the items on the list does matter.


GRAMMAR REVIEW Th e Hyphen and Dash

Th e hyphen (-) is used to indicate that two or more words have been brought together to provide a description. Th us, one can be a “no-nonsense person.”

Th e hyphen is also always used in numbers, which, unless they are very large, are always spelled out (e.g.: “twenty-one”).

Th e hyphen is not needed if there is one adjective that is being used to describe the word. Th us, one can have a “strict person.”

A hyphen is also not needed if the descriptive word is already an adverb, often indicated by ending in -ly. Th us, one can have a “slovenly person.”

A Dash (–) is slightly longer than the hyphen. A dash should be used sparingly. Basically, it indicates an interruption of thought—a kind of sideline—within the writing. It can replace the colon, semi-colon, or the parenthesis, but be careful—it’s diffi cult to use correctly, and can become tiresome for the reader. Use it only if you understand the rules that govern what it replaces.

A dash is also used as a replacement for the word “to,” as in: “January to March” becoming January—March


Th e preferred way to emphasize a word is to use italics . Just be consistent. Bold and Underline are not used to emphasize words in academic writing.

Quotation Marks (’ or ”)

Double quotation marks serve the main purpose of telling the reader that you have taken someone else’s writing, and inserted it into your own. It means that these are not your words, but someone else’s, and you have copied them directly .

Th is is not the same as paraphrasing, which is an indirect quotation, and does not need quotation marks. Warning! Do not paraphrase someone else’s words unless you understand the rules that allow your reader to separate your words and ideas from other people’s words and ideas.

Single quotation marks tell the reader that there is a quotation inside of a quo-tation. In other words, you copied the words of someone who copied the words


of someone else. In either case, all punctuation goes inside of single or double quotation marks.

Lengthy Quotations

Quotations that go on for more than a certain number of lines are set off from the rest of the text. Th e number of lines depends on the formatting style you are using. Even though these words are someone else’s, there is no need for quotation marks. Th e left margin of the quotation is moved in fi ve spaces to indicate that it is a quotation. Check a style guide for exact rules.

First-Person and Passive Voice

Th ere is a great deal of grumpy fi ghting about this one, so make sure you know what your instructor expects in your writing. If you are instructed to use neither fi rst-person, nor passive voice, it’s going to be diffi cult, because one is used to avoid the other. An example would be:

“I attended the conference on grammar.” (fi rst-person) “Th e conference on grammar was attended.” (passive voice)

So, you might have to get somewhat creative, as in: “At the conference on grammar, speakers covered the use of fi rst-person and passive voice.”

Bullets or Numbers

Th is is not a typical stylistic choice in academic writing, but it’s not bad to know that when thinking about the visual presentation of a document, one should use bullets for a list when the order doesn’t matter, and numbers when the order of the items does matter.

A human requires: • food • water • shelter

When boiling water, one should: 1. fi ll the pan with water 2. put the pan on the stove 3. light the fi re under the pan





e informal ways in which most people go about solving problems or answering

questions, including such things as trial-and-error, speculation, drawing a picture, etc.

negative defi nition

A way of defi ning a word by naming things to which it is similar, but that it is not.

For example, a “pencil” is defi ned by the fact that it is not a pen or a marker


Something that is not stated, but that is implied, or suggested, or commonly

understood to be so. Th

e opposite is “explicit,” where something is stated without

ambiguity or equivocation


In this sense of the term, a practice that has become a tradition or custom,

sometimes just from extensive usage, and sometimes for a reason. Conventions

can be very formal (one signs a contract for a legal agreement) or informal

(the  person who foolishly goes to investigate the noise in the cemetery in the

scary movie is always the fi rst to die)


Chapter 2

Critical thinking






6 THE (provisional) CASE AGAINST THE PROMPT . . . 28


8 REVIEW . . . 34




1 what’s different about critical thinking?

“Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.”

—William Zinsser


cademic writing, in essence, is a clear record of a writer’s reasoning from a question to an answer. As Hans Guth explains:

Th e writer appeals to the reader’s will ingness to think a matter through on the merits of that logic. Th is systematic writing is the mode of most academic writing, from an econ-omist’s analysis of the causes of infl ation, to a philosopher’s examina-tion of logical proofs for the existence of God. (18)

Academic writing uses a style that tends to off er a question, in an implicit or explicit manner, and then to move, step-by-step, to a conclusion, through reasoned argumentation.

So, what role does critical thinking play in academic writing? People often have a hard time fi guring out what exactly is meant by the term “critical thinking.” Some-times it seems like analysis, someSome-times like logic, and someSome-times like just basic com-mon sense.

2 critical thinking and logic

“And as you come to practice this habit of thought more and more you will get better and better at it. To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to

experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. When

we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” —Carl Sagan


When you introduce the name of the person from whom you are quoting, within your own prose, it is called a “signal phrase.”



ritical thinking appears to be somehow both logical, but also to require a kind of creative leap on the part of the thinker, as when we speak of someone thinking “out-side the box.” Sometimes, critical thinking is referred to as “critical-creative thinking.” Creativity and logic often strike people as a strange combination—aren’t people art-ists or accountants? Of course, we know such binaries are reductive. People are both creative and logical.

Critical thinking does involve a kind of speculative capacity, much like other forms of informal logic. Th e way that we think through things that we encounter may require an intuitive or experimental willingness to imagine other possibilities. Such think-ing often yields unconventional answers to which people would not necessarily have arrived by more formal means.

For example, riddles are just such an exercise in intuitive leaps, because they appear, on the surface, to be logically unsolvable. Here’s a simple one that many schoolchil-dren know:

What can run, but never walks, has a mouth, but never talks, has a head, but never

weeps, has a bed, but never sleeps?

At fi rst, it doesn’t seem like it is possible to off er a logical answer to this riddle— which is, if you will notice, like many riddles, in the form of a question.

If one tries to tackle the question logically, all that seems to happen is a series of dead ends. Th ings that run are probably able to walk, so that doesn’t make sense. Th ere are lots of animals with mouths that don’t talk, but we know that’s not the answer. While a shark may be an animal that rests more than it actually sleeps, that doesn’t fulfi ll the other criteria. More than that, it’s not funny—or, at least, it doesn’t fulfi ll our expectations of the answer to a riddle.

For as long as we stay within the “box,” we can’t answer the riddle. To answer the riddle, we need to understand that it is the box itself that is keeping us from imagining other possible answers. We don’t need to think outside the box; we need to examine the box and see if it is really what we assume that it is.

Many interesting ideas and discoveries have been made by informal logic. We are not computers: a part of the way we think often involves imagining other possibilities, as Carl Sagan notes:

But the scientifi c cast of mind examines the world critically as if many alternative worlds might exist, as if other things might be here which


are not. Th en we are forced to ask why what we see is present and not something else. Why are the Sun and the Moon and the planets spheres? Why not pyramids, or cubes, or dodecahedra? Why not irregular, jum-bly shapes? Why so symmetrical, worlds? (17)

Once we allow the possibility that it is the “box” itself that is preventing an answer to the riddle, by constraining the possible answers we can come up with, the answer becomes obvious.

What can run, but never walks, has a mouth, but never talks, has a head, but never

weeps, has a bed, but never sleeps? Th e answer is: a river.

However, it is very important to note that informal logic can also be very ineff ective, because it leaves the thinker vulnerable to cognitive bias . More for-mal forms of logic off er a very stable position from which to evaluate the world, as well as beautifully clear and fi nal answers. Informal logic, while gen-erative, is both messier and more subject to error. One example of a cognitive bias would be something called anchoring . It is our ten-dency to focus on one attribute when making a decision, to the exclusion of others that may be just as important. An example would be if you were so intent on choosing a desk for your room based upon the number of drawers it contained, you did not fi nd out whether the desk would fi t through the doorway.

Or, another cognitive bias would be if one were to assume that wearing the color black is universal to persons who are in mourning. Th is is called cultural bias ; in some cultures, the color to wear, while in mourning, would be white.

Critical thinking is related to informal logic. Th e element that distinguishes critical thinking is that it is a mode of thinking that serves the purpose of helping the thinker to self-regulate against cognitive bias. Although there are many ways that people defi ne the phrase, for the purpose of this book, the following defi nition will apply:

• Critical Th inking : Remaining conscious of the limitations and potentialities of

one’s own thinking.

Or, as Richard Paul and Linda Elder defi ne critical thinking, it is: “that mode of thinking—about any subject, content, or problem—in which the thinker...takes charge of the structures inherent in thinking, and imposes intellectual standards upon them” (4).


Cognitive bias is a term from

cognitive science that refers to the ways in which our thinking can be routinely distorted, and lead us to erroneous conclusions and decisions.


It is very important to understand the specifi c function of critical thinking. If critical thinking is confused with logic, or with analysis, one can miss the role that critical thinking plays in academic writing.

When people talk about “thinking outside the box,” what they seem to mean is that one should try to imagine possibilities outside of the structure of the way that a given issue is typically understood. Th is requires an intellectual capacity that seems to be missing from formal logic, yet is also much less reliable. It helps to understand critical thinking as a way to remain alert to the nature of those things that inhibit clear thinking in informal logic, while retaining the possibilities it provides.

If “the Box” represents the limitations and possibilities inherent to the way in which we commonly think through problems, then:

Critical Th inking is not about thinking “Outside of the Box”


Critical Th inking is about thinking about “the Box,” itself.


3 critical thinking and academic writing

“I write to discover what I think”

—Joan Didion


f you think of the “academy” not as a single university, but as all the universities and places of learning, across the world, put together, you would start off with a collection of things and people: scholars; students; buildings; classrooms; etc.


However, the “academy” is also something else: it’s an ongoing conversation concerning all of the knowledge, in any discipline, that we have accumulated up to this point, in our history. Th at conversation happens in classrooms, in offi ces, in conferences, and in publication. However, the place it happens the most is in writing . A physicist writes. An economist writes. A psychologist writes. A biologist writes. An astromer writes. Th is writing continues, and the conversation continues. With few exceptions, the primary activity, within the academy, is writing.

Sometimes this knowledge produces things: cures for diseases, new computer pro-grams, more sophisticated technologies—but before those things are produced, they are written and shared with others in the fi eld. Whether the thing is made, or not, it is the idea that is treated as property. Th at’s why, at universities, people refer to “intellectual property”—and that property is claimed, and held, through academic publication.

Critical thinking serves a lot of purposes, but its main purpose is not directly involved with mak-ing arguments. It operates in the background of arguments, encouraging the thinker to pay atten-tion to the social, ideological, epistemological , and historical forces that operate, often invis-ibly, all around us. Th ese forces shape how we understand such things as other people, objects, issues, the world, institutions, language, and ourselves. In other words, they are the things that help to form the box that tends to structure our thinking.

In relationship to this conversation, critical think-ing and writthink-ing operate in a specifi c kind of rela-tionship. While it may sound strange, critical thinking functions not to answer a question, but to answer to the way you are asking a question. Critical thinking is about the very act of inquiry. It’s about being curious about everyday things, forming questions to which we do not yet have answers, and staying honest in trying to answer those questions. It is about taking nothing for granted. It’s about regu-lating our own thought processes, so that we proceed in a way that is sound and ethical. Critical thinking is, in essence, about cultivating a kind of active and careful curiosity.


Ideology is a shared worldview that gives order or structure or meaning based upon assump-tions that individuals get from participation in particular social groups, and that are usually held in common by persons within that group. An example of ideol-ogy, in the United States, would be certain common ideas about individuality that shape much of how people perceive themselves, others, society, and politics. Epistemology is a branch of knowledge that studies the nature, origin, and limitations of human knowledge, itself, and the various ways in which we come to that knowledge.


4 why is critical thinking important?

“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

—Arthur C. Clarke


hy is critical thinking important? It is important because how we ask a question plays a very important role in the answers at which we arrive.

Th ink of it this way:

Imagine a plant on a hillside. Th ere is a lot of knowledge that could be produced by studying this plant, and by asking diff erent questions.

We could examine its cellular structure. We could determine its place in the taxonomy of other plants. We could discover its poten-tial medicinal value. We could track the history of its migration. We could determine its life cycle. We could look up its Latin name. We could conduct research to see if it plays a role in any ancient myths. We could determine its role within the local ecology, etc. For each way in which we ask a diff erent question of that plant, we would get a diff erent answer.

Even if we put all of those questions and answers together, we still wouldn’t know everything about that plant. Th at is because the plant is what is called existent . In the end, it does not matter how many ways we measure it, or how many other kinds of things to which it is compared: the plant simply is what it is. It might be a diffi cult notion to wrap one’s head around, but being and knowledge are simply not the same things.

Th at does not mean that truth is relative, or that we can’t say something important, useful, and accurate about the plant. We can produce knowledge about it; we can be right, or wrong, in the knowledge that we produce.

Rather, it is that we have diff erent structures for determining what is true. Producing knowledge is often systematic. We compare things according to criteria that are already established. We process an object that we fi nd, in the world (e.g.: Milkweed), through a system that is designed to produce answers (e.g.: Botany-the study of


Existent refers to the simple

state of being of a thing, beyond the knowledge that we produce about that thing, or our experience of it.


plants), and get a variation of the same answer that we receive when we run a diff erent object (e.g.: Chrysanthemum) through that system. In doing so, we generate catego-ries and taxonomies, and we understand things better.

We can ask the same question of diff erent objects, or we can ask diff erent questions of the same object.

In other words, the questions that we ask, and how we ask them, and why we ask them, play an important part in determining the answers we receive. We like to orga-nize the world, and that requires repeating the same questions, in the same way, of similar objects.

Critical thinking is about paying attention to the way that we think when we ask these questions and get our answers, including what we’re taking for granted—such as the notion that Latin and plants are related, or how we would defi ne a myth. Most of all, it is a way to understand how our discursive

practices aff ect our view of the signifi cance of that

knowledge. All skilled academic thinkers and writ-ers pay close attention to critical thinking. People are not quality thinkers just because they fi nd answers; they are quality thinkers because they remain mindful of the way in which they are asking questions.

Th at’s why the history of ideas is not just a history of the steadily growing accumu-lation of answers to which we have arrived. It is also a history of the ever-changing ways that our questions have limited, or expanded, the range of the answers that it is possible for us to receive.

Th e tricky thing about critical thinking is accepting that it is not about answers, but rather the way that we get to them. Critical thinking is an ongoing, self-corrective habit-of-mind that helps academic writers to understand how thinking is structured, the elements that infl uence the way that we think, how those infl uences can bias our thinking, how to guard against those biases, and the strengths and limitations of the language we use to express those thoughts.

In relationship to writing, critical thinkers raise vital questions, formulate them in language that is precise and clear, identify any assumptions made in asking the ques-tion, adjust when encountering valid points that contradict expectations, and remain rigorously honest. Writers who engage in critical writing do that, on paper, for a reader. Th at’s what academic writing is supposed to do.


Th ere is a great deal of disagreement regarding the meaning of the phrase discursive

practice , but in this context it

means: “Th e various rules that determine the possibilities of the production of knowledge about objects, people, or ideas.”



Related subjects :