Critical Theory: Help!

In our new ‘Ask a Student’ feature, first-year literature students are given the chance to discuss their concerns and questions with people in the final year of their programmes.

Here is our first question:

I find critical theory really hard and I’m worried that I don’t understand what I’m reading. Am I doing something wrong? What should I do?

The response comes from level 6 English Language and Literature Student, Nicole Chapman:

It’s reasonable to be daunted by such a new style of essay writing! Most of the development that you will see in your essays will happen gradually, from your first Turnitin experience (including the worry that your essay has somehow disappeared) to your final dissertation. Even now, in third year, there are still many students that struggle to integrate critical theory into their writing.


You don’t need to read all 400 pages of a critical source!

Firstly, it’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to have read every single page of a critical source  to understand and use it. Make sure you read what is relevant to your topic, but, accessing sources via the online library can help you find key words and your desired chapters more swiftly.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to understand every sentence of a complex source. The sources that are covered in Unpacking Texts are difficult to understand for everyone! Nevertheless, these theories will become more familiar to you as you apply them to more texts and find quotes for your essays.


Lecturers are there to help you – use them!

Don’t forget that every lecturer who teaches a specific module, including Unpacking Texts, specialises in that field. So, it really is worth emailing that lecturer to arrange a tutorial if you’ve struggled in their seminars or are worried about an upcoming essay. Meeting with a lecturer will give you some guidance on where to go next in terms of structure, ideas, critical sources and formatting.

A lot of students only start arranging tutorials once they are in their second or third year of studying in Portsmouth – I wish I had been one of the few that took advantage of the help on offer earlier on.


Address your worries now

It’s best to address any worries before they manifest into anxieties over writing certain essays; making use of the resources available is a great way to reassure yourself that you’re doing everything that you need to be. Start writing your essay plenty of time ahead of the deadline so that you can see a lecturer about your plan. Additionally, you can send your completed essay to Learning Development where they can focus on topics like referencing, formatting, analytical style, and, of course, your use of critical sources.

It may also help you to meet up with other students on the same module to discuss your ideas and worries; lecturers will often be happy to see a small group of students together in their office hours, too.


It’s more than reasonable to be nervous about such a new topic as critical theory. Remember, you don’t need to understand every detail of a source to grasp it overall. You may be struggling now but with the help of other students, your lecturers, and Learning Development, you will gain so much confidence using critical theory in your discussions and essays.

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