University of Sussex
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Re-thinking criticality: undergraduate students, critical thinking and higher education

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posted on 2023-06-09, 01:19 authored by Emily DanversEmily Danvers
Critical thinking is closely aligned with the higher in higher education – as a core element of ‘graduateness’ and a cornerstone of the mission of higher education institutions. Yet while critical thinking is very much ‘part of the furniture’ in the teaching and learning landscape of higher education, I argue that behind this seemingly good, everyday intellectual value lies further complexity and this research re-thinks how critical thinking is a highly contextualised and embodied set of practices. My fieldwork involved qualitative research with first-year undergraduate students at a research-intensive UK university. I conducted 3 months of loosely structured observation of students in their weekly lectures and seminars for a compulsory module. I focused on two cohorts of students – named as a professional – or applied social science subject and a more traditional academic social science discipline. I also interviewed 15 of these students at the beginning of their first year at university and conducted focus groups with 4 of these students at the end of their first year. These research encounters explored how undergraduate students understand what critical thinking means, what it requires, what it makes possible and its role in their studies, lives and futures. These data were then analysed using a critical, feminist sociological theoretical framework, informed by post-structural and new materialist theorisations. It drew specifically on the theoretical insights offered by Karen Barad and Sara Ahmed and how the connections and clashes in their work offer generative potential for re-thinking critical thinking. I argue that a specifically feminist analysis of critical thinking allows both a deeper exploration of how critical thinking legitimates itself through different bodies, as well how it gets constituted through higher education’s structures of power and inequality. The thesis makes four analytical claims. Firstly, rather than critical thinking representing a cognitive act by reasoned, detached bodies, this thesis explores how it emerges both through the web of social, material and discursive knowledge practices that constitute critical knowledge and with different bodies that enact it. Instead of understanding pedagogical practices in higher education as fixed and stable, I highlight how the experience of critical thinking shifts in accordance with the social, embodied and relational contexts in which one is entangled at any particular moment. Secondly, I explore how critical thinking is an intensely affective experience. Students appeared to feel their way through complex affects of both desiring the transformative power of criticality whilst also wishing to resist it and apply it selectively as a consequence of its negativity. Such concerns over embodying the right kind of critical persona, demonstrate how becoming a critical thinker is not a simplistic act of thought and action but deeply affective processes of becoming critical. Thirdly, critical thinking is not undertaken by generic ‘critical beings’ but critical bodies located in the particularities of their social characteristics and differences and the multiple intersecting impacts of these upon their own experiences. Critical thinkers are not neutral subjects but gendered, classed and raced beings and becoming a critical thinker is inseparable from the ways bodies are unequally positioned in the academy. Finally, this thesis explores how neoliberal higher education produces an increasingly narrow economic vocabulary for talking about education’s value and values and a limited grammar for understanding the contextual and contingent nature of critical thinking.


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