08 September 2011

Word Play– Semantics & the Mind Games We Play on Ourselves

Yesterday, I went shopping right after I dropped the kids off at school. I decided that on such a deliciously cool and misty autumn day, I wanted nothing more than to bake. Given the invitation of a sweater donning, cocoa sipping forecast that would surely end by morning, I typically tend to do so – though this would prove my first fall preview accompanied by my foray into baking for the newly diabetic. I wanted desperately to pick just the right ingredients, ever mindful of carb counts, calories, nutrient density, and of course the delectability factor, I entered the store armed with pen, pad, and my mental calculator – only to be immediately distracted by all the mom acquaintances I encountered.

To say that I am my own worst critic far surpasses cliché and borders on redundancy, particularly since embarking on my freelance journey sans teaching contract. That said, as I walked through the store and nodded to acquaintances whose names I cannot remember, but with whom I’ve shared the journey of parenthood and countless stories of our children’s in-school antics, I began to notice a commonality. Whether the mom, whose son and my own have shared classes since kinder, half dressed half pajamed rushing to her car with the harried, worried expression of a morning gone wrong, or the expertly coiffed yet equally hurried PTA mom cruising her cart through the aisles at top speed, none appeared anymore self reassured or self possessed than I feel on any given day. I began to watch more closely, people with whom I’ve shared shopping , bargain hunting, and most recently a never ending remodel of what appeared (to us) a perfectly functioning store. So many bodies, so few willing to make eye contact, share a smile, offer a joke or simple hello. Why, I wondered, knowing that the answer sits always at the forefront of my mind. “What,” the voice whispers, “do they think of me? What if it’s… bad?”

A odd thought struck me as I acknowledged this self critical, ever present voice. These words – critic, critiqué, criticism, even critical, carry such negative connotation yet as a teacher and, only recently having finished my MA, a student I believe they should in fact convey a sense of at least analytic objectivity, if not something positive. I decided to look up the definitions of each, and received quite a shock. Consider…
crit·ic n.
1. One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter.
2. One who specializes especially professionally in the evaluation and appreciation of literary or artistic works: a film critic; a dance critic.
3. One who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder.

Notice the first and third definition? Surprised me too.

cri·tique n.
1. A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with works of art or literature.
2. A critical discussion of a specified topic.
3. The art of criticism.
tr.v. cri·tiqued, cri·tiqu·ing, cri·tiques Usage Problem
To review or discuss critically.

Now this struck me as more appealing, and more along the lines of what I expected to find, until I read the following note on use

Usage Note: Critique has been used as a verb meaning "to review or discuss critically" since the 18th century, but lately this usage has gained much wider currency, in part because the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense. But this use of critique is still regarded by many as pretentious jargon, although resistance appears to be weakening…  it may be preferable to avoid this word.

Okay then, that takes me back to my state of confusion. When, I can’t help but wonder, did this happen? On to the next word…

crit·i·cism n.
1. The act of criticizing, especially adversely.
2. A critical comment or judgment.

There’s a point to this, I promise. I believe an inherent problem lies in these words, particularly critic and critical, holding such negative connotations. Take a look at the last word.

crit·i·cal adj.
1. Inclined to judge severely and find fault.
2. Characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment: a critical reading.
3. Of, relating to, or characteristic of critics or criticism: critical acclaim; a critical analysis of Melville's writings.
4. Forming or having the nature of a turning point; crucial or decisive: a critical point in the campaign.
5. a. Of or relating to a medical crisis: an illness at the critical stage.
     b. Being or relating to a grave physical condition especially of a patient.
6. Indispensable; essential: a critical element of the plan; a second income that is critical to the family's well-being.
7. Being in or verging on a state of crisis or emergency: a critical shortage of food.
8. Fraught with danger or risk; perilous.

Notice the first and last definitions given? Like many of us, I learned long ago to put information I wanted readers to pay attention to, and more importantly, remember at the beginning and end of my writing, so this struck me as quite odd, if not disconcerting. These words, the prevalence of negative self criticism in our society today so apparent in the store, feel related. At the same time, my sense of 'this shouldn't be' brought to mind an oft discussed educational goal and personal attribute we claim to value – the ability to think critically.

As a teachers we continuously face evaluation (read critique) of our ability to teach critical thinking skills. Educators actively discuss critical thinking with students on a nearly daily basis. (I’ve frequently wondered why students give me a gape mouthed look of dread at the term, but this post may explain that.) How is it that we simultaneously regard something as both a positive attribute and an act that is inherently negative in nature? How do these two conflicting perceptions of critical co-exist? Or better yet, perhaps we need to question the prevailing, if subconscious, notion that a critic judges one negatively, or that an evaluation is by nature unpleasant and looks for flaws.

We want our students to think critically, meaning to evaluate and analyze from all sides of a problem, to think outside the box and search for innovative solutions. We hope that our bosses or clients perceive the same attributes in our own work. I decided, on a hunch, to look back at a very old edition of the American Heritage Dictionary from the 70’s. The definitions for each of these words read quite differently, as in, perceptively more positive in nature. The usage note in the current edition makes more sense after comparing the two editions, especially the portion that mentions the decreasing resistance not just to these words  holding a negative connotation, but as negative in nature.

I suggest we need to change this, and as with all change, recognize the need to start closest to home – with myself. In a leap of utter discomfort, and for the absolute good of my future, I choose to be my Best critic from today forward. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Tomorrow promises to provide the perfect day to test this out, I'm subbing in a new school after all.

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