Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Watching yet another PBS telecourse on writing after I woke up, I was impressed to hear one of the writing teachers suggest that not all writing has topic sentences—most complex writing forms a chain, rather than having a clear easily understandable topic that might be summarized in a single sentence. Some people hunger for that though, sort of a shortcut to the heart of the matter.

In the installment that followed, another teacher suggested that critical reading begins with not understanding something. I would suggest that this incites the chain that is thought. Thought is not a static orgasmic completion of a process, a satori resulting in a concise aphorism that only someone who has followed that process might understand. Only critiques based on shoddy evidence reach simple, recipe type conclusions.

Exhibit A: Blog Statistic: Length of Stay. Anyone familiar with the way tracking works would anticipate the disclaimer at the end: “This brief survey is limited by the accuracy of Site Meters measuring of length of stay.” However, this does not stop the writer from reaching the conclusion that the average length of stay on a blog is 96 seconds, and given the average reading speed of the public that this means that you have 320 words in which to make your point.

There is a corollary finding: blogs with comments have a longer average length of stay. Could this be because comments, when read, inflate the duration figure because they cause a reader to click through to a separate page, thereby increasing the accuracy of the measurement of length of stay? My blog’ average length of stay figure fluctuates between one minute and three minutes. Am I more interesting? I think not. I merely use extended entries often, which causes a click through that makes the figure more accurate. I also use a lot of pictures, which take longer to load on slower connections. It’s rather silly to draw conclusions from evidence that includes so many variables.

I despise quantitative research for this very reason. A person’s conclusions based on faulty evidence are disguised as somehow more authentic fact. You find what you’re looking for, actually. We want to believe that interactivity is important, and that viewers in the electronic environment have short attentions spans. We want to think that the topic sentence can save the world by creating more clearly understandable writing. All this strikes me as just plain foolish.

4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking”

  1. On behalf of thesis sentences, though, I’d prefer a student to learn how to write a well-ordered essay that argues a clear case before they modulate into the more complex essay you describe here. Jeff. Too many of my students’ papers are inadvertently complex. . . .

  2. I’m not opposed to topic sentences, just the inordinate amount of attention paid to them. I think that topic sentences are more easily abstracted from reading, rather than being the fountainhead of writing. To write a topic sentence is to look backward at a prexisting thought, it is not to engage in thought.
    Asking a student to compose topic sentences and then write an essay to “fill in the blanks” with evidence is foolish. How can they do anything except summarize what someone else has said? This is fine for book reports, not essays. The root meaning of essay is to test or measure, not just report.
    I think it flows in the opposite direction. Writing is unnecessarily complex to start with; it can be streamlined with the composition of summary topic sentences after it is composed. Essays must be edited to create order— order does not create good essays.

  3. Beats me. Where did you see it last? Maybe if you retrace your steps.
    All kidding aside, I haven’t deleted any comments other than comment-spam in a long while.

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