Critical Writing in Academia

Holly Willis

I want to rewrite the criteria for critical writing within an academic context, where our insistence at the graduate level that students “demonstrate mastery,” make an “original contribution” and “prove a hypothesis” runs counter to forms of criticality that refuse mastery, eschew originality and question the very parameters of proof.

Within academia, we demand critical distance, objectivity and clarity — characteristics of a disposition inherited from a scholarly worldview more than 200 years old — despite inhabiting a world we know to be deeply contingent and relational. Further, scholarship expects a singular, authorial contribution, despite our understanding of subjectivity as constituted in and by multiplicity. All of this is deeply anachronistic!

In imagining a different form of critical writing attuned to our current moment, I am inspired by Michel Foucault’s reverie in “The Masked Philosopher,” in which he writes, “I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it.” I believe this dream begins to frame a kind of critical writing in the context of art and design that we should aspire to with and for our students.

During the residency, I will write and rewrite and rewrite until I have wholly unwritten the thesis guidelines for the students in my program.

Most of my creative nonfiction is based on borrowed forms in which I appropriate a text and revise it. I’ve used the directions for how to shoot an arrow and descriptions of various kinds of fabric as the framework for two essays, for example. My desire to rewrite scholarly guidelines continues this practice. I imagine the outcomes of the rewriting to be multiple, with some more poetic, some more practical.