FIRST ONE DUE 1 October (see syllabus for other due dates)


First, find something to read and review that has something to do with the themes and issues of the course (NOT something assigned as class reading). This might be an article from a magazine or journal, a book (I’d like one of these reviews to concern a book). If they're short, you might choose a couple of closely related pieces that you could compare. It might be something published in non-print media – web-site, something viewed on TV, etc. – but these will require some care and thought to address with the same sort of critical rigor.

Read it, then write an essay that offers a critical analysis. “Critical analysis” can mean a range of things, but it is more than simply a summary or synopsis of the reading -- not just a 'book report'. You might address the plausibility or cogency of the arguments offered and claims made. You might find interesting things to talk about in the assumptions underlying the arguments and claims (these assumptions are sometimes hidden – consciously or not – and the argument quite compelling until you realize that the assumptions on which it’s based don’t work). You should try to assess what’s motivating the author, and whether their motivation should influence your reaction to the piece. If there is advocacy (and there usually is), consider who’s likely to benefit (the author? the people supporting the author?) and what this suggests in terms of plausibility. You might simply want to carry what you’ve read further, consider additional implications, further questions.  These are examples of appropriate critical approaches ('critical', by the way, doesn't necessarily mean 'negative'); you won't necessarily do all of these things in any one case!

And, of course, remember to question your own preconceptions and responses to the reading...

REMBER, that there will be SEVERAL of these essays: ONE of them should address a longer or book-length work.

Here are some things that you SHOULD ALWAYS do:

          - include a full reference or citation; I should be able to find whatever it is you’re reviewing from your citation; you can use any standard format -- look at how things are cited in some of the things you read.

          - summarize or synopsize the salient points or arguments of whatever you’re reviewing, or at least those parts that are addressed by your critical analysis. BUT keep it concise, brief; this summary should be less than half of your paper.

          - make the essay long enough to be substantial, but not too long; focus on an issue or two or three, and avoid rambling, vague generalizations, universal truths. No specific length requirements, but figure 4-5 normal typed pages a likely sufficiency.

          - avoid formulaic writing. Don’t feel compelled to waste time and paper on formally trite introductions and such. But DO organize your presentation; make sure logic flows clearly, use headings or sections if it helps, etc.

There’s a vast number of possible sources of readings. If there are topics or issues that interest you particularly, use one of the data-bases on the Library’s homepage to do a recent literature search with some appropriate keywords. Otherwise browse journals on the library's current journals shelves (there are a number of environmental journals; any policy or social science journal will have stuff; popular news mags will have plenty, although it may be necessary to piece together a couple of shorter bits; the NY Times feature articles or Sunday magazine articles), or the shelves in the neighborhood of any vaguely interesting books. Use the links on the web page for this course. Feel free to use more technical stuff if you want.

Many journals might offer appropriate material; examples include: Environment, Ambio, Worldwatch (or the worldwatch books and separate papers), National Geographic, etc.

WHATEVER YOU CHOOSE, part of your job as critic is to consider the source. What is the nature of the publication and what does that say about how you should assess the work? About what the writer is doing and why? About the audience and how they’re likely to read it?

CONCERNING WEB-PUBLICATIONS: Are web-only publications appropriate for critique? This is tricky ground, of course. The main problem is that, for many sites, there’s no way to assess what’s behind it (who’s doing this and why? Who’s responsible?). A general rule of thumb; if the site is ‘supported’ (referenced to or vouched for) by an identifiable entity (publisher, journal, organization), if it gives reference to sources, if it is substantial (equivalent to a journal article or a book), AND if it’s likely to be persistent (i.e., if I could find it, using your reference, after some time has elapsed), then it might be appropriate. If in doubt, ask.