I ended last semester with 58 student research papers to read and grade in 10 days. 700 (digital) pages to digest, analyze and write comments for. After staying up until 6:00 AM on the last night that grades were due, I wondered to myself, “What’s my problem with multiple choice exams?”
In my twenty years of teaching I have never employed a multiple-choice template solely for a final examination. My midterm exams always include short answer responses, and generally I require research papers as a final project. Not surprisingly, I have a doctorate in English (Cinema Studies, however…).
I have always taught in Communication programs, which, unlike English departments, contain research that is split between humanities and social science work—a split that also reflects differences in assessment processes. Humanities programs tend towards the qualitative, while social sciences claim quantitative research methods. I don’t want to start a lengthy discussion about defining different critical thinking skills, the dilemmas of assessment, or the ‘truths’ achieved by various disciplines (since we have other fine examples  of this in IHE), but I do want to speak to the value of critical writing.
We seem to be living through a technological period in which some folks are concerned that the distractions of the web are rendering sustained critical writing obsolete. On Dec. 31, 2010 the New York Times carried a lengthy debate about “Why Criticism Matters”  that included pieces written by six other critics who responded to this statement. The editors began their comments this way:
We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.
Several of the NYT's guest writers were dismayed about blogging and the increase in opinion writing, as opposed to critical writing. Many mention Alfred Kazin’s 1960 piece on “The Function of Criticism Today ” as a testament to the importance and "force" of critics, and perhaps, as the beginning of the end—an end to the isolated writerly critic, alone with their thoughts and their pen, and the beginning of the media-based critic, surrounded by radio, television and now the immersive, fragmented glories of the internet.
Both Kazin and the NYT’s critics emphasize the importance of historical context and the specificity of history within the role of criticism. Several worry that history and a sense of time are diminished by the democratic leveling of the web. But literary critics, philosophers or food critics don’t seem to be drying up, any more than novels, wars or media outlets used for extreme political positions are disappearing. If anything, respected, peer-reviewed names are even more important when trying to identify knowledge through the waves of information provided by the web. Teaching students as well as children how to discern informed, peer-reviewed knowledge as opposed to opinion or commentary, is—like writing—not just the purview of English teachers, but the responsibility of parents and other academic disciplines.
I am not one of those parents who think that video games are the end of critical thinking for teenagers, any more than watching the “Brady Brunch” on television every day after school was for me. We get tired of watching small screens close to our face, and, if anything, since most of my work is now connected to a small screen, I crave contact with people and the outside world even earlier in the day. I don’t find that students’ critical thinking skills are declining as a result of the web, but I do believe that we need to include our mediated world in the classroom—e.g., Skype-ing with experts, playing clips of video to break up a three-hour period, orchestrating more applied, small group activities or organized interactions in class.
In the same way that I am learning to accept that my teenagers do not respond to phone calls from Mom, but will respond to my text messages, I accept that my classroom needs to be better planned and mediated, just as my students’ worlds seem to be. No, this is not the end of critical thinking, sustained reading in isolation or post-structural literary criticism. But it may be the end of the long-winded professor who speaks as if they were writing alone.
Students still want to respond to our ideas, form their own critical opinions and let you know about them.
Next semester their research papers are due two weeks before finals…