How to use secondary criticism in your university essays

At A Level, you may have already studied some secondary critics: academic heavyweights who have been highly influential in their own fields.    Perhaps you had a cursory glance of Roland Barthes’  ‘The Death of the Author’  or stumbled upon Karl Marx’s famous ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’

Well, secondary criticism at university is a whole different ball game.  Within your essays and research papers, you will be encouraged to use secondary critics.  They’ll nuance your work and situate it in its appropriate context.  Not to mention, they’re a great springboard for ideas.  However, knowing how and when to use these critics isn’t always the easiest task, so I have compiled a few tips for you here.

Where do I even begin?

You will have no better resource than your university library, which I implore you to take full advantage of.  There will be thousands of books, journals, anthologies, documents and original manuscripts that you can draw your ideas from.

And don’t be afraid to look on the internet for other resources.  Jstor and Pub Med have a surplus of articles and papers that can be downloaded at the click of a mouse.  Also, sign up to your city library too.  You’ll be doing yourself a favour by opening yourself up to even more resources.  Just some advice.  If there’s a book you want then check it out ASAP, before somebody else nabs it.

Old or new? What do I do?

Always go for the most recent possible sources.  If there’s a first edition or a third edition, then  go for the third one.  Academia is a river.  Not a pond.  Older ideas and theories quickly become dated and are  washed away in favour of newer, improved versions.  I’m sure you’ve heard of Freud – the father of psychoanalysis.  Would it surprise you to learn that many of his ideas have been discredited now?

How many critics?

I’m going to give an unhelpful answer to this question.  There isn’t one right answer.  Strike a balance.  Too few and you’ll lose marks for being ignorant of the historical contexts.  Too many and your own critical voice will be drowned out, as you’re relying on other critics to prop  up your argument.

What’s more important is how you use these critics.  Don’t just namedrop.  Look for critics that support your argument, but also look for critics that you disagree with or argue against you, and then explain why they’re wrong.  Lecturers will love how you have thought of counter-arguments to potential criticisms of your work.  Chomsy so hated B.F Skinner’s theory of Behaviourism that he a wrote a review, tearing it  to shreds. 

And lastly, a footnote about referencing.  Whenever you refer to a secondary source, you have to reference it.  Your lecturers will tell you more in detail about this, but depending what referencing system you’re using, they can be a little difficult to get your head around at first.  But don’t worry, there are loads of great resources that you can use.

There’s no getting around it.  You’re going to need secondary critics in your papers.  They’ll add weight to your essays and demonstrate how you’ve shown awareness beyond your initial learning.  Your use of secondary critics could very well be the difference between a 2:1 and a first. 

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