Alison Wray is a Research Professor of Language and communication at Cardiff University, and co-author of Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. Along with Mike Wallace, she has been teaching workshops on critical reading and writing for many years. We asked Alison what aspects of critical analysis students commonly struggle with, and how they can develop their skills.
Both of us had been teaching and supervising postgrads for many years and we had seen how challenging it can be to get to grips with the research literature. There is so much of it, that it's hard to know when you have read enough. It's also difficult to get the knack of saying something insightful about others' work, rather than finding you are just rewriting their abstract. Progressively we came up with tools to help students navigate the research literature in a manner that would directly further and enrich their own investigation. When we hear students say 'I have to get the literature review out of the way, so I can start on my research', we try to help them see that the literature review is part of their research and if approached in a constructive and focused way it can massively enrich their investigation.
Firstly, a feeling of empowerment that they can drive the literature review aspect of their work rather than the literature somehow driving them. Secondly, reassurance that there is a way to manage the research literature and know that you are doing the right things. Thirdly, important new insights into how to make their own work resilient when it is critically evaluated, because the same things that are used to evaluate others’ work can be used to make one’s own work stronger to criticism by others. The book is very structured and practical, and takes the reader through how to ask insightful questions about others’ research and recognise where the potential opportunities are for saying something constructively critical about an article, and indeed, many articles at once. We have had so much positive feedback about all three editions that we are pretty sure our approach works for many, if not most, people.
The feedback we’ve had from academics is that they find the book easy to work with and useful to their students. The examples we given in the book include commentaries on why we have done what we have, which should make it easier to get inside the method and extemporise with your own material. In the third edition we have revamped the ‘mental map’ section so it’s a bit less dense and brings out the most important elements. We address tricky aspects of understanding a research text such as: ‘what assumptions and values underlie the claims being made?’ and ‘what was the author’s purpose in writing this text?’ because these factors influence what is said (and not said) and how. We also give space to how authors manage generalization and certainty, since the more of each that the author expresses, the stronger the evidence needs to be to justify the claims. Towards the end of the book, we show how the literature review(s) fit into the body of a dissertation or thesis.
Our method is about the construction of an argument in a literature review – how to make evidence-based claims for why one or more published texts do or do not contribute to answering the student’s questions. The only way to really see the method in action is, therefore, with quite lengthy examples, and there is only limited space for that in a published book. The companion website materials provide longer worked examples, with commentaries. They extend the range of types of article we cover, and show how to engage critically in relation to a wider range of reasons for reading texts (e.g. to evaluate a method one wants to justify adopting in one’s own research). Our worked examples on the website are critical reviews of papers published in Sage journals, and Sage has put the papers on the site, so that you could, if you wanted, get students to work on them first and then compare their evaluations with our examples.