ExEAS Teaching Unit
Critical Memo Assignment
Lisa Fischler
Department of Political Science
Moravian College
Adapted from: https://jshare.johnshopkins.edu/ktsai1/web/criticalmemo.html.

This assignment can be used at the end of any teaching unit to help students analytically connect the readings in the unit to broader topics (e.g. world politics).  The questions and topics for individual readings are intended to be incorporated into class sessions prior to the assignment of the critical memo.  These questions and topics are designed to get students to begin thinking more in-depth about the readings for which the critical memo will be assigned.  When the memo is assigned, have each student choose one of the readings from the teaching unit on which to focus in the memo.  This reading could be a chapter from a book or an article. The three sections are designed to be addressed separately by students in order to encourage 1) conciseness in thinking and writing, and 2) selection and weighting of arguments or support for arguments.  Section one is designed to help students think about the connections between readings in a semester-long course.  Section two is designed to help students think about the broader implications of the reading about which they choose to write. The final section is to push students to analyze and think critically about the reading they have chosen, but in selective and concise ways.

Preparatory Guidelines for Writing a Critical Memo
  1. The purpose of the critical memo is to enhance your critical thinking abilities using the assigned readings and to improve the depth and breadth of our in-class discussions.
  2. Simple summaries of the material are not sufficient.
  3. As preparation for writing the critical memo paper, think about the following questions and topics as we do each of the assigned readings.  We will be incorporating these questions and topics into our in-class discussions and activities, so come prepared.
Questions for individual readings:
  1. What is the intended purpose of the assigned chapter/article?  Is the author making an explicit argument about a topic?  Does the author purport to present an “objective” description of facts?  What are the most important points the author is trying to convey?  How well does the author succeed in conveying these points?
  2. If the author is making a clear argument, what is the author’s normative agenda in making the argument(s)?  More interestingly, to what extent do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  3. What kinds of evidence does the author use?  What kinds of sources?  If the author appears to be describing an apparently factual event, phenomenon, or theory, to what extent do you find the evidence presented convincing?  Does the use of the evidence seem to you to be fair and reasonable?  Were you persuaded by the author’s argument based on the evidence?  To what extent has the author presented the material objectively?  (Hint: What type of evidence might strengthen or weaken the author’s argument(s)?  Given the sources you have at your disposal in this course, what sorts of arguments might you have made that the author does not make?)
Topics for individual readings:
  1. As you think about the individual readings, compare the one you are reading to the others you have read this term.  How might the authors of the articles speak to each other or what might they discuss if they were seated at a seminar table, on the same roundtable panel, on a long flight together overseas?  Choose two authors.  What would be their topic of conversation and what would be their points of agreement, disagreement, and compromise?
  2. To what extent are these authors talking about the same issue or different aspects of the same issue?  That is, how do the themes in one reading relate to themes in earlier readings this term or themes and ideas in our class discussions?
  3. If you were invited to participate in their discussion, what would you say?  In other words, would you find yourself siding more with one author than the other?  Why?  Or would you make an alternative argument and/or interrupt with additional evidence?  What would that argument be or what would the additional evidence consist of?
  4. How has the reading(s) enhanced your understanding of historical and/or contemporary China?  In what ways did it amplify, differ from, or change the impression you got from my summaries or our in-class discussions?
Guidelines for writing the Critical Memo paper

Memos are meant not only to assist you in carefully considering the readings you have done for this course, but also in understanding what they suggest about Chinese politics in particular and world politics more broadly.  Memos should not be used to summarize the readings — I want to see evidence that you have thought analytically about the readings in some depth and considered their implications. 

Details: double-spaced, typed, 8 1/2”x 11” paper, 4-5 pages (DO NOT GO OVER 5 PAGES).

To write an excellent memo, you need to:
  • Section 1 (clearly marked): Discuss the main points or arguments of an assigned reading of your choice (consider each reading’s “hook” or “punchline”-what hits you about it), and how this reading of your choice relates to other readings you have done this semester.
  • Section 2 (clearly marked): Describe what the assigned reading’s argument(s) imply/implies about how we should analyze 1) contemporary Chinese politics and 2) world politics more broadly.
  • Section 3 (clearly marked): Provide your own critical analysis of these argument(s) — providing a well-reasoned (well supported with evidence) explanation of 1) why you agree or disagree with the author’s arguments and 2) what alternative arguments or evidence you would add to the assigned reading you have chosen to write on in order to improve the work. Points to consider:
    • What are some of the contradictions or ambiguities in the reading?
    • Does the author support all of his or her assumptions?
    • What are the sorts of biases that exist in the reading?
    • Are there ways that what is discussed in the text is congruent with your own experience?
    • Did you have any particular personal responses to the reading? What were they? Why?