I was doing a good bit of grading over the Thanksgiving break, and I was once again struck by a rhetorical habit in a lot of undergraduate papers, including some otherwise very strong, well-written ones. Namely, criticizing an author by saying that the author has “failed to consider” some important issue. Occasionally, this is a perfectly reasonable criticism, in which the student is observing that there is some concrete kind of information or knowledge on a particular topic which the text in question should evaluate, could evaluate, is already predisposed to evaluate, but for some reason does not. Sometimes there really are odd, notable absences, gaps, or lacunae.
Much of time, however, what the student really means is, “This text argues against the value of a particular kind of knowledge and I disagree”. I think students avoid saying so because this is a much bolder kind of claim. “Fails to consider” is a rhetorical device that resembles passive-voice constructions: it’s polite, it hedges some bets, and it doesn’t require the student to claim to know anything more than “there are other texts in this class which the text we read doesn’t consider”. I’d rather a student say, “I disagree with the author” than “he forgot to discuss an important issue” even if the student feels tentative about that disagreement. In fact, a well-reasoned description of an uneasy, tentative disagreement can be the basis for a great analytic essay. There are ways in which “failed to consider” is even more arrogant a judgement than “wrong”.