Girl With Book by Jose Ferraz de Almeida Júnior
When it comes to writing essays, many students regurgitate the opinions of whichever scholar they happen to be reading at the moment, without questioning whether or not they actually agree with it.
However, if you really want to excel academically, you need to be able to think rationally and develop your own opinions (and, of course, articulate them clearly). Such skills are essential for good essay-writing, and will allow you to impress admissions tutors in your personal statement – and, even more so, in university interviews. Examiners and admissions tutors will be able to tell immediately whether you’re spouting an opinion that’s actually someone else’s or if you’ve thought about it carefully enough to come up with your own take on an issue. But figuring out what your own opinion is can be challenging when you’re deeply immersed in the opinions of other people. In this article, we look at how you can approach whatever you’re studying with an objective mind, and how you can work out what you really think about something.
1. Read lots
Increase and diversify what you read.The first and most crucial point about forming your own opinions is that it’s vital to read widely – and consider what you read critically, looking for holes in arguments. If you only read one academic’s work about a particular issue, you only have one point of view – and you’ll end up regurgitating that view as if it was the only possible approach to the argument. In fact, it’s almost certainly only one of a range of opinions, and it might not even be the most compelling argument. How many other scholars agree with this opinion? Is this writer the only one who thinks this? Even in instances in which there is one widely accepted viewpoint, there will be others seeking to challenge this view with opinions that may be surprisingly persuasive. And no matter how widely accepted an opinion is, it’s still worth reading what the ‘challengers’ have to say, because if nothing else, it at least provides a fresh perspective and may point to weaknesses in the mainstream argument. Academia by its very nature seeks to challenge accepted opinions, and this is a mindset you need to start developing if you want to be academically successful yourself.
2. Understanding writers’ motivations
Some writers may be promoting a particular agenda.The key to thinking logically about what you read – and ultimately forming your own opinion – is to remember that writing is rarely impartial. People write with their own motivations and agendas, which have been shaped by their upbringing and experiences, and in turn shape the text and attempt to persuade the reader that the writer’s opinion is right. Seen in isolation, with no counter-arguments, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that this is the only possible viewpoint on a particular issue. This is, of course, not the case, and that’s why it’s important to read widely.
Writing of any kind – whether it’s academic scholarship or an original source – should always be assessed in the context of the writer themselves. Ask yourself what the writer’s motivation is in writing this piece. Whether it’s obvious or not, there may be an agenda. Has it been influenced by their political opinions, for example? What is their background – what has led them to believe this particular opinion? Did a writer giving their opinion about the UK care system come from a troubled background themselves? Is this a scholar seeking to discredit the work of a fellow academic because of some personal animosity? You wouldn’t have thought that these kinds of things would shape an academic’s opinion, but they do – they’re people too, and prone to the same weaknesses and biases as you or I. So, whenever you read something, ask yourself: “why does this writer want me to think this? And what is this argument really about?”
3. Be honest with yourself about your own biases
Consider where your own biases lie.Just as writers have their biases, so do you – even if you don’t realise it. Your own background and views shape how you view the world, and may influence your response to what you read. If you see yourself as a socialist, for example, you may take an automatic dislike to literature written from a conservative viewpoint – whether or not the evidence supports that conservative argument. What’s more, we often read into things what we expect or want to see; new opinions and challenges to our existing points of view are difficult for us to handle because they force us to change how we think about things, and that’s hard sometimes. A key to finding your true opinions is to overcome this bias. If you find yourself jumping to a particular conclusion or strongly agreeing or disagreeing with something you read, you should be questioning both the writer and yourself particularly rigorously. Going back to the evidence behind an opinion – assessing the bare facts – is a good way to force yourself to look objectively at it.
4. Assessing the evidence
Examine the evidence closely.The other important question to ask yourself when reading a scholarly work is: “what are they basing their opinion on?” All academic opinions should be based on adequate evidence, though there are plenty of scholars who aren’t above basing an entire grand theory on a few shreds of very tenuous evidence. This is why it’s important to approach academic works with a critical mind. What evidence is there, really, for this opinion? And is there any compelling evidence to the contrary? If it helps, jot down a big list of what the evidence is on a particular issue; for each thing you read on that topic, keep adding points to the list. You will end up with a list of actual evidence and you can use it to decide what you think is the most compelling argument based on the facts. You may even end up forming your own unique hypothesis by doing this. Thinking about what you read in this way will help you make up your own mind and stop you from becoming swayed by whatever opinion you happen to be reading at the time.
5. Pay attention to the language
When I was at university, my tutor told me that I must never use the word “surely” in an essay, because it made me sound as though I was trying – unsuccessfully – to convince myself of what I was writing: “This is surely evidence that…” This is just one of many examples of subtly persuasive language that can reveal how confident (or not) a writer is in their own opinion. Phrases such as “as far as I know” or “it seems likely that” should sound alarm bells in your head. Identifying such language can also tell you whether or not you are being ‘led down the garden path’; though academic writing should be as objective as possible, the writer will often use subtly persuasive language to try to convince you that their own opinion is right.
6. Don’t get lost in the details
Euphronios Krater (ca. 515 BC).When you’re reading academic literature – which is often painstakingly detailed – it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture. Clearly, sweeping generalisations are bad, and should naturally be questioned; there is a reason why academic works are so detailed. But there’s a danger in becoming too focused on the fine details, which should be viewed in the context of how they fit into this ‘bigger picture’. For example, let’s say you’re looking at an Ancient Greek vase. The details of its decoration can come to feel incredibly important when you’re reading about them – how this particular squiggle in this mythical scene represents a development from an earlier kind of squiggle and this must represent an important advance in the development of art at the time. However, these details can lead you to lose sight of a more important point, which is what the vase was used for: this was a krater, for example, and it was used to mix wine and water, as drinking undiluted wine was something that Ancient Greeks considered to be quite ‘barbarian’; it was therefore something that facilitated an action that the Greeks considered made them civilised (an important cultural distinction). Such vases were present at Ancient Greek ‘symposia’, intellectual drinking parties that were an important feature of aristocratic Greek society. That squiggle in the decoration may be an interesting development in artistic techniques, but such vases in general are important too. When forming your own opinions, taking the context into consideration is vital. If you don’t, your argument is incomplete and may miss the point.
7. Annotate your books
Annotating your books can help you focus your thinking – just make sure you do it in pencil.One method I’ve found quite useful in forming my own opinions about what I’m reading is keeping a pencil beside me ready to make comments and questions in the margins and underline key sentences. You don’t have to write long comments (there isn’t room for that); sometimes just a “No!” is enough! Obviously you should only do this with your own books – not library books. I find that just having the pencil at the ready forces me to interact more with what I’m reading, making me look more critically at the text and think about whether or not I agree with something. Underlining sentences that you feel to be important doesn’t just help you find them again – it helps you remember them, and it’s a way for you to engage with the text more as you would in an academic discussion. Imagine you’re having a discussion with the author – what would you say to them or ask them?
Writing things down forces you to articulate your thoughts clearly, so keeping a notebook beside you while you’re reading is good practice. Whenever something occurs to you about what you’re reading – an independent thought or question suddenly springing to mind – write it down. You may end up finding something that contradicts your thought, but this is all part of the process of reaching your own conclusions. As you prepare to write an essay, note down a quick bullet point summary of what each scholar’s opinion on the topic is, with a sub-bullet point or two detailing what evidence supports each opinion. Logically, which makes most sense? Which do you find yourself agreeing most with? Or does your opinion lie somewhere in between the viewpoints laid out in front of you? Another good way of writing to form your own opinions is to start a blog. This would allow you to share your responses to what you’ve been reading, and its more informal setting may make it easier for you to express your own views than the more formal context of an essay. An added bonus is that blogging about what you’ve read will really impress university admissions tutors!
9. Engage in debate
Academic discussion will help you consider both sides of an argument.Academia doesn’t – or shouldn’t – take place in isolation, with just you and some books. Scholarship is about debate, and although you’ll probably see debate going on between scholars in books and journals, it’s probably not going to be enough to stimulate you to explore what you think. This is why academic discussion is so important. Engaging in debate with fellow students and tutors will challenge your opinions and offer alternative viewpoints to your own; it may be that they are more persuaded by different bits of evidence to you, or that they’ve read something that you haven’t. The act of explaining and defending your own opinion also gives you a chance to articulate it and consolidate the reasons why you believe something. Don’t be stubborn, though – you won’t gain any brownie points for sticking to an opinion for which the evidence doesn’t add up, so if you are found to be wrong, accept it!
If this all sounds like way too much to think about when you’re already struggling to get to grips with scholarly literature, don’t worry! The more you practise this critical approach, the easier it will become. Make it a challenge to yourself to find something in an academic work to disagree with – and find evidence to back up your disagreement. This will help you become brilliant at debating, a skill that will prove invaluable in essays, the classroom and university interviews. This critical thinking will also stand you in good stead for life: from our friends to the news to television adverts, everyone is trying to convince you of something, so adopting a healthy degree of skepticism can only be a good thing!
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Image credits: banner; books; Little Red Book; dog; magnifying glass; krater; annotations; signs.