Where’s the Crit?

Crit, as in critical essay. Or, should I say, The Critical Essay (as if t’were royalty)? The answer is, they’re out there in abundance. On the one hand we have their inbred cousins the “Review,” and on the other, more rarely, we have the in-depth “Feature.” But both of these are like satellites to the proper planet of the critical essay.

In the U.S. we are taught vaguely to write them (often just above the level of Chinese 5th graders), we are made to read them (primarily in the humanities) throughout our collegiate career, and, some of us, the crazed and slightly nerdy, even begin to enjoy them. But once we bounce out of the university atmosphere we find that our old friend the critical essay is nowhere to be found, and, even worse, if we use the mere style of the critical essay we are looked upon as freaks and anachronisms.

Yet there is an abundance of critical essays in all subjects and covering sundry matters. Actually, abundance is too frugal a word, more like a metastasized tumor of Godzilla-like proportions (made of paper, of course). I know of this because for a brief time I was, like Dorthy creeping in on Oz behind the curtain, part of this world.

However, these heaps and heaps of critical material–sometimes trickling down to us lowly peasants through well-read reviewers and authors–is cloistered within the university system. Locked away under academic key and code and accessible only to the purveyors of such materials or to those who want to pay.

This system was pointed out in the most tragic way possible with the case of Aaron Swartz. As the New York Times reported:

“[I]n July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.”

Swartz, under the cloud of such draconian charges, took his own life. Since then JSTOR has opened up some of its vaults to the public: “JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.” In effect, acquiescing to what Swartz was attempting to do: provide free access to critical essays.

This case is an extreme example of the inaccessibility of critical essays. All one has to do for news articles, reviews, video, and interviews is type in a quick internet search, but for the most part this is not true for professional and peer-reviewed critical essays. Yet there is resistance to this long-entrenched system, not only from those outside the system like the late Aaron Swartz, but those within as well.

One crusader against closed-access is my friend Dr. Martin Paul Eve of the University of Lincoln in the U.K. Among his projects are Alluvium, and Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon; both are open access internet journals that provide critical essays free of charge to the greater public. Another initiative of which Eve is a leader is the Open Library of Humanities, whose mission is:

“The Open Library of Humanities aims to provide a platform for Open Access publishing that is: Reputable and respected through rigorous peer review. SustainableDigitally preserved and safely archived in perpetuity. Non-profit. Open in both monetary and permission terms. on-discriminatory (APCs are waiverable)Technically innovative in response to the needs of scholars and librarians. A solution to the serials crisis”

Projects such as these are not only beneficial to academics and non-university scholars (and universities themselves), but are also a boon to the general reading public. Since leaving academia-proper a year or so ago, open access journals have helped me to continue my interest and love for critical essays without having to dish out a large sum of money to do so. And I’m sure I’m not the only person out there that appreciates these free intellectual meals.

Another possible benefit that may arise with the wrenching open of academia’s critical libraries will be a return to more critical writing within mainstream media. As noted by Christopher Hitchens in this essay, our culture has been becoming less critical and more quip-ish (or Tweet-ish); more apt to ingest the quick slogan or media bite than to read a long and well reasoned essay. The effects of this have not only been detrimental to our critical faculties and reading abilities, but more importantly, to our political thinking and decisions. I mean, come on, “Yes We Can” isn’t really a political philosophy is it?

So maybe, if we’re lucky, “crit” will be coming back into our general society, dripping off the eaves of academia (sorry Martin, had to do it) and down into the lower echelons of society. And with it, perhaps, a return to philosophies and opinions defined by pages and paragraphs, not bumper stickers.

47 thoughts on “Where’s the Crit?

  1. I have been thinking along similar lines recently, but I came to quite a different conclusion. Where are the Critical Essays? Right here. True, not every blog post is a detailed reasoning of a particular subject, or an in depth answer to a thought provoking question of human nature. (An awful lot of them are rather silly) But soul of the essay is here, in the blogosphere, if you are willing to search for it. And best of all, they are ALL free.

  2. Good stuff. We definitely are transitioning out of the ‘pages and parapgrahs’ era, towards an e-book, blogging, technology driven society that devalues critical essays. But like Jaschmehl said, this is the place, generally speaking, for critical thought and essays to take place and gain steam; albeit on our own personal terms.

  3. I disagree that intellectual property should become public simple because someone wants to read it. Forgive, no amount of pretty words will cause me to believe that a hacker is a hero.

    1. I don’t think that it’s just to read the critical essays. Perhaps the reason people are interested in gaining access is to obtain a different level of thinking on topics of interest. There’s nothing wrong with that. If freedom of speech is really so “free”, then it should not be under lock and key in some reference library or academic storage area where no one else can gain access to it. It should be widely read. That is how ideas beget other ideas, enlighten and inspire people.

    1. Information and knowledge should be easily accessible to the public. It’s in the best interests of everybody to share new knowledge quickly and efficiently.

      Needless to say, whoever puts important ideas to words must be compensated. Subscriptions are not the answer; although, I’m not sure ad based revenue is the answer either as it may, potentially, influence the content.

      1. I have been saying why it should be free. These papers are the property of someone who worked to create them. Many people make a living through writing. Not just fiction but also technical writing. This information didn’t just fall into the heads of the writer; they worked for it. To say that they should share their intellectual property would be to say that you should leave the keys in your car in case someone needed to use it. One of the evils this day is that some people believe they are entitled to everything regardless of ownership. Freedom of speech does not mean we have the freedom to take from people. Everyone will have an opinion on issues that matter, this one is mine.

  4. What’s the point of critical essays being locked up only to be read by those who are willing to pay for the privilege ? The only reason I have a blog is because it gives me a voice in a world where I would be ignored otherwise. People who care enough to write about any subject should want to be heard. The internet makes more communication free , and thankgawd for it. The change is here . The subscriptions will soon all be outdated. Information must be free.

  5. It takes discipline to craft an essay. It means putting down the remote. That’s unbearable to a great deal of people these days. But, for those who enjoy a challenge, essay writing is very fulfilling.

    Aaron Schwartz is an unfortunate loss. Information shouldn’t be locked away. However, this blog post is evidence hope still exists.

  6. After my all too recent exodus from academia (and thus the loss of my beloved JSTOR access codes), I hate to be the one to jump up and defend JSTOR, but someone ought to!

    They’re a not-for-profit, and they have to employ people to help libraries learn about the service, employ people to scan millions of pages of academic research, and employ people to negotiate contracts with publishers and academic periodicals. Not to mention pay royalties to these periodicals. I’m sure JSTOR’s royalties (and wide distribution) help periodicals pay to publish print copies of their magazines and employ peer reviewers. Perhaps even pay academics for their published research? But probably not.

    As much as I’d like to blame big bad JSTOR (for their wonky interface as well as for their exorbitant fees), it’s only one wiggly gear in the broken machine of academia and intellectual property law. Professors need to get paid or they won’t research. Someone needs to publish that research or no one will be able to read it. And then someone needs to distribute those publications or no one will be able to effictively use the publications for future research.

    I’m not saying I know how to fix it, but making JSTOR free would make more problems than it would solve.

  7. Great exploration of the place of critical writing…. Academia or public domain. In the name of raising the standard of thinking in this country, let us consider opening things up a bit!

  8. It’s a common fantasy/belief/credo that “writing should be free”. Really? Why is that? Because…you want it? Now there’s a compelling argument.

    I’m another Caitlin, and I agree with Caitlin Garzi…this content doesn’t simply fall from the skies. However annoying it seems (when blogs are free, after all) that one might have to pay to gain access to certain types of writing/thinking, there still remains a group of people who do it *for a living.* Not because it’s fun or cute or wins them “likes” on their blog but because it is how they put food on the table, gas in the car and clothe themselves and their kids.

    I’ve been a journalist since 1978 and my industry is in shreds and tatters thanks to the Internet — too many skilled and talented veterans, people with tremendous experience and credentials, (should we wish to remain “writers”) are competing for pennies now. So if you only want to read stuff written by people whose main income derives from every other activity than writing or studying a particular subject so they might actually understand it in depth…go for “freedom.”

  9. I work for a group that publishes peer-reviewed academic journals. Currently you have to pay to read our materials on line. Very soon, though, articles are going to be offered to the world for free. Guess how it’s getting paid for! Right, the authors are paying for it.

    Welcome to the new model.

    Nothing in this world has been free since we dumped the hunter/gatherer lifestyle and opted for agriculture. It’s all paid for in some way or another.

  10. New technologies + new cultural paradigms = New Problems to Examine…

    I absolutely love that Wikipedia is Free – –
    I also donate as much as I can to their fund-raising drive every year

    Great post, great comments and certainly a subject I (and I hope many others) will be pondering on – –

  11. It is rightly said that criticism is only possible in academics and nowhere else it is allowed. Infact it is the theory which gives us freedom to think and criticize. But most individuals are not aware about it and not open to it. Criticism in public is looked upon as enmity. Criticism in public or in personal context leads to conflict, which is required for delivering a change in society.

  12. I remember reading journal articles in university. I had access to these databases because I was a student at that university. As soon as I graduated though, I lost that access and had to pay if I wanted to read those journal articles. A lot of them (not all but most) are under lock and key. I do find this a bit elitist. It should be available to the general public if they would like to read it. It might even make for a more well-read and informed population! But then again, maybe some people want to maintain that distinction between academia and non-academia, by not allowing such material to be readily accessible to the general public?

  13. I suspect your example of 5th grade Chinese students refers to rural Chinese students who are far below Shanghai’s 5th grade Chinese students, who are, by age 15—only a few years from 5th grade— according to the international PISA tests, the most accomplished students on the planet even beating students in Finland and Singapore.

    On the other hand, most rural 5th grade Chinese students probably don’t know what “critical” means let alone write a critical essay or any kind of essay since most of them drop out of elementary school to work in the fields to feed a nation of more than 1.3 billion people.

    However, a better comparison might be 5th grade rural students in India where the illiteracy rate is about 30%. In China, illiteracy is about 8 or 9%.

    About critical essays in English: I suspect that there are plenty of critical essays that are not locked away for exclusive, academic memberships. I run into them all the time on Blogs but most of them are poorly written and biased.

    As for critical essays written for academic, university type publications, most of them are written at such a high literacy level that most of the adult population would not understand what the author was attempting to say. Academics tend to write far above the American average literacy level of 5th grade.

    In 2003, according to NCES.ed.gov, 17% of whites read at the proficient level, 2% of blacks, 4% of Hispanics and 12% of Asian/Pacific Islanders and even proficient literacy levels might not be literate enough to understand most PhD level critical essays.

    Therefore, if someone writes a critical essay that most people would never understand, is it really a critical essay or just useless garbage only a few old, over-educated white men would understand?

  14. Bumper stickers and slogans are good for getting people to remember things. I don’t expect that politics will return to essay-style philosophies; how much of the populace would care to sit and read through something they have a large chance of vehemently disagreeing with?

    And why would a still-active politician write something like that, which could be so damaging to their career?

  15. I have a few I have done on my blog…but I agree with you. The internet has created a monster in the sense that we write and speak in 140 characters or less. People have forgotten that thinking means more than hearing a soundbyte or reading a 300 word blog post. Now don’t get me wrong, I myself participate in the condensed information highway simply because you kind of have to in order to interact. I have a personal quote of my own I think applies….”We need to create the desire to know within the minds of the populous. Because, when they know, they will no longer be able to remain idle, nor silent”. ~ Cheri … if you are interested look up “medicine Money” and “Evidence Room” on my site.
    Great article you have written. I hope it creates a pause in some…

  16. Why aren’t there more critical essays on WordPress? I think we’ve forgotten how to observe and criticize our world. I wrote about this on my blog a few weeks ago.
    We need a George Orwell for the 21st century.

  17. I’m sure there is a George Orwell for the 21st century writing and posting on the Internet. The challenge is finding him or her, because there are more than 500,000,000 Websites and/or Blogs—and that isn’t counting the people that only leave comment son these sites. It’s like finding a one inch plastic needle the same color as straw in a haystack the size of a ten story building.


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