By Susan Carter

We have written many posts on reviewing literature—you will find more by using our blog’s search engine. The topic deserves our turning back to it from time to time because the task is challenging. The beginning of the process requires extensive searching in a world that is busy with a myriad of voices—that can be discombobulating, because some research articles assure early-stage doctoral students that they are on track, while others quite terrifyingly show them how naïve and unaware they are.

To add to the enormity of the task, each relevant article has its own literature. Initial reading is never a matter of crossing what must be read off a reading list but, rather, adding another five or so items to that list. But this post addresses the need to demonstrate critical analysis in writing about all this literature.

When it comes to beginning and refining the writing that covers literature, one of the more taxing things is how one demonstrates critical analysis. To broach the difficulty, I hosted a seminar for doctoral students, three quarters of whom had English as an additional language, with the aim that we would sit down together and identify exactly how authors demonstrate their critical analysis.

We were looking for specific language ploys so that students could review their own drafts equipped with linguistic techniques for improving criticality. First, we went through just one page from an online thesis, the first page of a stand-alone literature chapter. This is what we identified as strong:

The first sentence makes a social move, showing awareness of the examiner as reader, and what she would have to tick off: ‘In this chapter, I critically review relevant literature to show how my own study is located within awareness of the current body of knowledge.’  That is almost word for word from the criteria for a PhD sent out to examiners, so makes it easy for the examiner of the thesis to tick that criteria as evidently met.

In the first paragraph, the structure of the review was described not in relation to the literature reviewed, but in relation to the research topic and question. As we read sentences aloud, they really did position the author’s argument centrally with the literature framing it: ‘I critique how research on [topic] has largely employed X concept, reinforcing [an assumption that the author is challenging]. I describe my study’s aim, making use of [Theorist1, data; date; date; date; date] and [Theorist2, date; date], whose work enables me to…’.

Choice of what literature is included and how much space it is given is clearly appropriate for what it contributes to the thesis project and topic. One sentence is author-privileging, ‘drawing extensively on [Author X’s] concept of…’, while other sentences are generally information privileging: ‘I interrogate the discourses of power and gender (Author, date; Author, date; Author, date).’

In our example thesis chapter opening, citations often occured in sentences expressing the author’s view, sentences that could be read without the citation as a researcher talking about his own project. We found that main clauses in these sentences are about the author’s question, or they launched the author’s concerns, his dissatisfaction with the limitations of previous approaches, and enthusiasm for the potential of a mix of theories from across disciplines to open up understanding. I’ve reconstructed an example: ‘Voicing concerns about the binary assumptions behind much recent scholarship (for example, Author, date; Author, date; Author, date), I turn to discourses that suggest ways forward for my own interest in the potential of a fluid, flexible and multidimensional theoretical position.’ The citations show expert awareness of previous research but show the author’s subordination of previous work to his own.

Quotations are used that capture key points made by earlier literature (in disciplines that use direct quotation). We talked about how easy it is to use quotations if English is not your first language, and I explained how suspicious and cross examiners grow if a study by their friends or themselves is misrepresented by a quotation that has made an insignificant point within a much more decisive article. For example, I was taken aback when a student quoted me within a sentence I thought simplistic and didactic: ‘These situations demand that candidates “communicate their ideas accessibly”’ (Carter, date).

Enough description and explanation is given so the reader never feels it is necessary to read all the other texts in order to understand this one. This is true even of the heavy-duty theorists. A sense of the completion of the review as a stand-alone text is achieved ‘by factoring in [Theorist1]’s spatial analysis of power relations and applying [Theorist2]’s ‘key theory’ to [candidate’s idea], I demonstrate….’ The author makes it clear what the literature adds to their own study, explaining dense terms and giving enough detail (and no more) to make the cited literature clear to a reader who hasn’t read it.

After we had performed this close reading, the students peer reviewed a page of each of their own literature reviews. Possible follow up activities may include students returning with a page of literature review that they think works well to describe why. It is a new group, and I would like to slowly nudge them towards more peer review.

If you are a learning advisor or supervisor who teaches EAL students how to demonstrate critical analysis in English academic writing, why not click ‘comment’ and tell us about what you do.