What happened when I applied my academic-style critical thinking to…baked beans

By Erika Spray

Academics need to practice sophisticated critical analysis for their work, arguably more than needed in everyday life outside of academia. The process of learning to think this way is effortful. Confusion and frustration along the way is fairly normal. Once achieved, this ‘university think’ might unlock multiple degrees, but is not necessarily a good thing for our overall wellness. What happens to those who adopt this critical approach so successfully that they cannot ‘switch gear’ back to normal?

When critical analysis is so deeply ingrained in your interpretation of the world, even menial tasks can become unfeasibly complicated. What is more, this complication appears so interesting and significant that it demands attention and effort to reach a satisfactory resolution. Allow me to illustrate by taking myself as a case-study and outlining a simple trip to the supermarket.

I should declare up-front that I am probably not a normal case-study. Since finishing high school, I have completed four degrees and am in the final stages of two more. This represents far more years at university than your average sane person would ever contemplate. In between studying, I have taught in various higher education contexts, and all this has contributed much more exposure to university than normal (and arguably more than recommended). However, for the purposes of this study, I can be considered as representing an extreme example of the indoctrinated critical thinker.

On the supermarket visit in question, I wanted to buy some baked beans. Beans are great because they demand very little culinary imagination or talent.

But talking about imagination. My academic’s brain can imagine a graph representing preference for beans. I anticipate that those who might not read recipes or care too much about varied nutrition might regularly prefer beans; as might academics whose minds are entirely dedicated to loftier problems, like applying for funding or getting tenure. In the middle would be all the average people, who probably have more varied diets with fewer beans (or even fresh ones).

There is, however, in my opinion, an unnecessarily large array of baked beans options. Each product can of course be evaluated according to a number of dimensions, creating a potentially overwhelming volume of data. However, in aisle 6 it would be difficult to set up my laptop and run a statistical software package. Instead, I began to mentally assess the pros and cons of several beans options.

After excluding the fancy-beans (if I want sausages, I will buy sausages, I don’t need that additional variable in my beans), I consider the information splashed over the packaging of the closest cans. The information is not consistent across the products, which makes comparison difficult. Besides, my critical brain tells me, all the important information they don’t want to you see is hidden on the back in the nutrition panel. This is very detailed, so I pick sugar and salt to focus on and rotate a few cans to judge the variation within a random sample. The numbers do vary, but without any framework of norms or recommendations it is difficult to interpret what these differences mean.

I move on to bring price into the equation. Possibly the more expensive beans will be better quality, healthier and tastier than the others. But paying too much just means contributing to someone else’s quarterly sales targets, and academics don’t earn enough Erikato donate to that cause. However, too cheap is definitely bad, because nutrition does matter, and so does taste. Another indicator of quality might be the ingredients, such as percentage of beans, or how high up the list sugar sits. However, the ingredients are in very small fonts, and sometimes vertically up the side of each can, which does not facilitate direct comparison.

Concerned at my lack of progress, I re-assess. I recall reading that supermarkets put their highest-profit-margin produce at head-height. Should I exclude all head height merchandise, on this basis? What is the range of average head height, and therefore above and below which height-derived lines is it permissible for me to shop? Is it really ethical of the supermarkets to take a requirement as basic as food and then manipulate our human brains to derive maximum profit? It is at this point that I realise I am very hungry. There is a member of staff eying me warily, and I wonder if I was talking out loud.

I pick up the closest can and leave the aisle. It is time to go home and eat.


Erika headshotErika Spray

I am a doctoral candidate and sessional academic in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. My primary research interest is Educational Psychology. I am profiling the metacognitive and epistemic beliefs of postgraduate coursework students, and exploring potential variation between students of different cultures. I also teach Academic Literacies, and have conducted research into doctoral students’ experiences of Academic Literacies development.


One thought on “What happened when I applied my academic-style critical thinking to…baked beans

  1. Ania Lian says:

    OMG i read the whole thing 🙂 anyway it surely got you thinking 🙂

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