• September 2, 2015

In Praise of Tough Criticism

In Praise of Tough Criticism 1

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

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Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

Professor Jones is well known for her generosity. She encourages nonconfrontational exchanges of ideas and is always upbeat and positive about her colleagues and their work. She is patient with her graduate students, encouraging them to be patient with one another as well. When a student makes a comment in class that is weak or off base, unlike some other faculty members in her department, Jones will not make a fuss. When the appropriate opportunity presents itself, she will try to work with the student to improve his or her thinking. Jones's critical credo is, "If you don't have something positive to say, then it is best not to say anything at all—at least not in public."

Her colleague Professor Smith is quite the opposite. He has built a successful career by telling people that they are wrong. The goal of criticism, he believes, is to persuade other people to see the world his way, and if they don't, then he will do everything he can to prove to them—and anyone else who will listen—that they are wrong. Criticism is a competition of ideas, a nasty business in which it is acceptable and sometimes necessary to be a brute. Strong ideas survive, weak ones perish; there is no room for wishy-washy opinions and people. Smith's assessments are harsh but well argued and persuasive. His critical credo is, "Public criticism is as valid as public praise."

Most of us probably know someone like Jones. Others have either heard of someone like Smith—or have been attacked by someone like Smith. The bulk of literary scholars and critics, I think, believe that our profession would be better off if it contained more people like Jones and fewer people like Smith—more compassion, less confrontation. The critic Jane Tompkins has bemoaned scholarly attacks as evidence of a "decline of civility," and Herbert S. Lindenberger, a professor emeritus of humanities at Stanford University, has lamented the "warlike atmosphere" of English studies.

Such comments are indicative of a broad dissatisfaction with harsh criticism, which is frowned upon both because of its potential for emotional disruption and for its alleged divisiveness. Therefore critics like Jones, who believe that solidarity is not possible in a climate where ideas are publicly dismantled, call for the adoption of a more civil form of criticism. But when it comes to criticism, is compassion really preferable to combativeness? Does an upbeat style actually encourage positive tendencies in the profession? Is compassion an intellectual virtue? The answer to those questions is no. If a compassionate, caring form of criticism entails removing the "critical" from "critical exchange," then I would rather see the field move toward a more combative, confrontational style—even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

The scholarly community is closed and tight-knit. Some go so far as to maintain that professors are of like mind. Louis Menand, for example, argues as much in his recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (W.W. Norton). "Professors tend to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected," he writes, even suggesting that the similarities go beyond mere like-mindedness: "The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it." In academe, behavioral norms are constructed and enforced. Young professionals are introduced to them in graduate school, master them as junior faculty members, and become protectors and advocates of them as senior scholars. Success is in large part dependent on the comprehension and observance of entrenched protocols.

Some of the rules are straightforward and noncontroversial: We are never prohibited from using the ideas of another scholar, for example, as long as we acknowledge their use. Elaborate mechanisms for citation—the handbook of the Modern Language Association, The Chicago Manual of Style—map out the protocols. Failure to properly cite another's ideas is generally not grounds for expulsion from the community, but failure to even attempt to acknowledge another's ideas is. Few scholars advance without using other people's ideas. One could not write an article or book about, say, Virginia Woolf without at least nodding at the critical trends in Woolf scholarship. In fact, the more adept a writer is at situating his or her work within the larger body of Woolf scholarship, the more favorably it will be viewed. Indeed, being cognizant of the work of others often trumps original and heterodox thinking.

One could not imagine, for example, the formally innovative novels and criticism of Raymond Federman, or the ideas of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, coming from thinkers who acknowledge every interpretation of Spinoza or Beckett before offering their own opinions. Dissenting voices like Federman's and Deleuze's have little time or interest in keeping up with the scholarship—and therefore produce work that has a problematic relationship to more-orthodox lines of scholarship.

Using the work of others is not without potential problems. For example, it is far less complicated to register a positive than a negative influence. Thanking those who help you establish your point is less fraught with difficulties than is noting the ideas of people whom you seek to set straight. Still, the latter is the essence of critical scholarship: Find a published if not respected position, and set one's own position against it. If everyone thinks that Professor Jackson's reading of Hamlet is brilliant, then enter the scholarly fray by opposing it. But criticism of this type is much more complicated than one would assume on first blush, particularly when the position that you feel intellectually obligated to criticize is that of a colleague whose work you believe it is your categorical duty to support. At such moments, the ethics of criticism collides with the politics of affiliation.

The ethics of criticism requires pointing out the faults in a colleague's thinking. That obligation, however, presents a problem to those who affiliate with the more compassionate, caring school of criticism—that is, those who are loath to point out their colleagues' shortcomings. To such critics, silence is preferable to saying something negative. Here's an actual example—the names have been changed—from my work as editor of the American Book Review: Professor Jones is appalled by a negative review of a colleague's work. Feeling a sense of filial obligation, she offers to review the book for ABR. After commissioning the review, however, I receive a letter from Jones asking to be relieved of the assignment: Having read the book, she concurs with the harsh review. She couldn't find anything positive to say about her colleague's book, so she decided to beg off reviewing it. The weakness of Jones's position is not that she strives to be compassionate or caring in her dealings with her colleagues, but that she believes that anything other than praise is a violation or betrayal of filiality—or even collegiality.

What to do? For compassionate, caring critics, there are a couple of ways around the reluctance to criticize others in public. The most common method is using faint praise, that is, criticizing someone indirectly by not praising them enthusiastically. In her book Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 2007), Gail Pool notes that "praise rather than nastiness has generally been the central problem in American reviewing." She advises editors "to look for writers who are above all critics." Her study draws attention to the ways in which American reviewers have gravitated away from harsh criticism because they are "wary of being viewed as jealous" or "enviously unfair." In pointing out that critics are "bending over backwards to praise books more than they deserve," Pool is describing behavior that not even Jones would condone: praising something that is actually believed to be unpraiseworthy. Pool seems to believe—and I definitely believe—that what readers really want in book reviews are honest and direct opinions.

The problem of faint praise (and overpraise) extends deeper into literary studies than the level of the book review. From letters of recommendation to peer reviews of performances and manuscripts, faint praise runs rampant. Scholars like Jones prefer faint praise because it allows them to engage fully in critical exchanges—albeit a rather watered-down version—without coming across as overly critical. But giving faint praise is far worse than saying nothing at all. Why? Because silence is not a critical judgment—but faint praise, in contrast to honest and direct criticism, is empty criticism, the most banal form imaginable.

Another way that compassionate, caring critics get around their credo is to shroud their negative comments in anonymity. While it is difficult today to publish a book review anonymously in print (whereas in the 19th century it was commonplace), it is possible to assess students and colleagues without revealing one's identity. Would Jones have offered a negative review of her colleague's book if her identity were concealed? What is interesting about that question is that if Jones did conceal her identity, then she would in effect be betraying her critical affiliation. Remember, Jones is a compassionate and caring critic. To conceal her identity when offering a negative review would reveal the hypocrisy at the core of her credo. If Jones offers negative assessments anonymously and positive ones under her own name, then it seems wrongheaded to hold her in higher esteem than her colleague Smith, who doles out praise and censure with equal zeal and transparency.

Like faint praise, anonymous criticism is empty criticism. Consider a recent example from The Chronicle Review. Carlin Romano's article "Heil Heidegger!" was savaged in numerous anonymous comments. "Romano writes like an undergrad convinced by the argument of the last book he has read," wrote one critic. "And, yes, he is a professor of philosophy, and yes, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but his understanding of philosophy is so paltry that it beggars belief." To that and other similar comments, Romano responded: "Those who savage me and my article from behind anonymous Internet tags emulate the cowardice, dishonesty, and taste for mobbing of the Nazi thinker they revere. It has often been that way with dupes who defend Heidegger—an abysmal thinker and writer, an immoral monster, and a disgrace to the historic enterprise of philosophy."

Whether or not one agrees with Romano's views of Heidegger, his take on anonymity is worth thinking about. Anonymity has more in common with cowardice than with courage—and is antithetical to critical dialogue. The common rationale for academic anonymity is quite clear: Honesty and truth require anonymity. To offer critical judgment anonymously, or, as Michel Foucault puts it in The Archaeology of Knowledge (Pantheon Books, 1972), as "a nameless voice," allows one to stand outside the order of discourse, dialogue, and language. Writes Foucault, "I don't want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one." In other words, anonymity is more calming and less risky—or even more cowardly—than named criticism.

The future of critical exchange stands at a crossroads. The increased reliance on faint praise, along with the rise of anonymity online, threatens to enervate the free flow of ideas in academe. While Smith's harsh critical style is not warm and snuggly, at least it promotes an exchange of opinions and the production of knowledge. It is time for literary scholars to question their critical affiliations, to question behavior that encourages conformity over nonconformity; faint praise over pointed criticism; anonymity over transparency. Telling a colleague "You're wrong" shows more compassion and collegiality than remaining silent—or hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy.

Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of arts and sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria. His next book, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education, is to be released in November by Paradigm Publishers.


1. a_voice - June 14, 2010 at 11:00 am

I am all for candid criticism, but it needs to take place in an environment of civility and respect. There should also be an element of humility in the critic. I have come across some who are always right, and whoever disagrees with their opinions is either stupid or evil.

2. landrumkelly - June 15, 2010 at 08:43 am

If one can avoid the ad hominem attack, the direct public exchange is better. No one enjoys being contradicted, but the worse pain is being ignored or humored out of some misguided "sensitivity" to the feelings of others. True sensitivity there must be, of course, but there are ways of phrasing a countervailing point of view that can take the sting away at the same time that it encourages the other person to respond in a similarly constructive fashion.

I would much rather be contradicted than shunted aside in a discussion.

Landrum Kelly
Livingstone College
Salisbury, North Carolina

3. nomentanus - June 15, 2010 at 02:10 pm

Just at the moment, intellectual narcissists very heaviy self-select themselves for academic jobs: which is a complication whatever the ground rules are, but a huge complication if there are none.

It might be argued that anonymity might somewhat reduce the rewards for narcissistically motivated criticism - but surely the real necessity is to begin to weed out intellectual narcissism, rather than treat it as an important job qualification (as sometimes does happen, in one way or another.)

With studies showing rates of clinical narcissism soaring amongst students, it's not an issue that can be ignored forever.

4. marka - June 16, 2010 at 08:30 pm

Bravo - a 'critic' is supposed to 'criticallly' evaluate and 'critisize.' I believe in tough love, and am appalled at all the 'civility' talk - which seems to be code for 'nice' and uncontroversial, for fear of upsetting anyone: in other words, don't rock the boat. I'm not adverse to civility - in its uncoded form. But it can be the velvet glove around the steel gauntlet.

Without tough love, we can often ruin rather than enrich. A fair amount of developing research suggests that the efforts @ promoting 'self-esteem' rather than self-respect have failed, and actuallly lessen competence leading ultimately to failure later in life. Self-esteem should be based on actually building competence, leading to earned confidence & respect. Self-esteem should not be based on withheld critcism and undue stroking of egos.

In my mind, this is related to the increasing amount of poor research & publication of more & more noise, and less & less worthwhile signal. See the recent Chronical article on the publication glut. We are failing ourselves & others by failing to maintain high quality standards -- we can maintain them by being forthright about earned praise & earned criticism. I remember when a significant number of students would fail a test, or a class, and have to repeat it to demonstrate that they had finally attained some level of competence in that subject. Now, they are simply sociallly promoted ... Oh well ...

5. jffoster - June 17, 2010 at 11:38 am

I realize this is primarily about the humanities and literary criticism in particular, but the kind of thinking the poster original writes about infects science classes too. I have had on numerous occasions to point out to students, particularly undergraduates, that we do not have to pay for the priviledge of showing that a theory is bad by proposing a better alternative. If we don't know our theories are weak, we'll not look for stronger ones. "If you can't say something nice, say nothing." may be a good way to run a family but it's not a good way to do science. Of course one ought to try to say unnice things about bad theories in nice ways.

With graduate students, the opposite problem sometimes surfaces. They often get the notion that they are obligated to find something wrong with a given article or theory.

6. 11258251 - June 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

There is a line to be drawn between authentic criticism that expresses a point of view about a colleague's work and eviserating it. The term civility is appropriate in my view because my view is criticism and civility are not mutually exclusive. Criticism of peers' writings dates back centuries. The point is to present the case in a factual and educated manner. That is the difference. In hard sciences and mathematics - those are different animals and different rules apply. In the arts and sciences, tell the truth, but the reviewer should outline the case in an appropriate and meaningful way.

7. tiltyourhead - June 17, 2010 at 03:19 pm

First of all, the idea that 'The ethics of criticism requires pointing out the faults in a colleague's thinking,' burdens criticism with faultfinding. If we think about our best critics, say Randall Jarrell, we get glimpse at what is possible. When I read Jarrell's review of Wallace Stevens books, I came away with not only with a better appreciation of Steven's poetry but also with a better understanding of it.

As for faultfinding, yes, it may be a necessary part of a critic's work, but too often faultfinding means that acritic, instead of trying to understand the artist's aims, imposes arbitrary standards on a work of art.

We also should always remember that finding fault is very easy, and that, in Goethe's words, 'art is difficult.' Just because I can find fault with some of the speeches in Hamlet, doesn't take away from the play as whole, or help a reader understand it. And it certainly doesn't mean that I can write something better.

What I find lacking in most reviews and critical books is a passion for art. To judge a critic by whether they are tough or compassionate misses the whole point. If the writing is good, if the criticism is perceptive and honest, and if the reviewer helps a reader understand the aims of the artist, then it's good criticism, whether it tough or not.

William Page

8. mcclennen - June 17, 2010 at 03:33 pm

Jeffrey Di Leo's insights here are bold and controversial and much overdue. Anonymity and faint praise do not help the caliber of intellecutal exchange in the humanities and it is time that we serioulsy address ways to correct the current state of reviews and other forms of critical assessment.

I am glad that he decided to sign his article and not submit it anonymously!

Sophia A. McClennen

9. ksledge - June 18, 2010 at 07:54 am

I completely agree. However, I think that people need to remember to be professional when they review others (or advise students). Criticism should be matter-of-fact and specific (i.e., "this is a horrible article" is not effective.) Where possible, the critic should point out anything that is strong/effective/good with the work, because knowing what you did well is part of knowing how to improve, too (you wouldn't want an author to change the only thing that WAS good about the piece, or for a student not to repeat what s/he did well.)

I immediately noticed another part of this article that I think is worth mentioning. Dr. Jones is a woman and Dr. Smith is a man. Even if it was an accident, I'm skeptical it was a coincidence (I doubt Jeffrey Di Leo flipped a coin to decide.) Sometimes professors aren't critical because they fear professional consequences. The line between "assertive enough" and "overly aggressive/hostile" is much thinner for women, so some err on the side of being too nice. We should remember to give feedback to our critics as well, to let them know when feedback has been helpful versus too soft (or possibly too harsh...though that's often our first and probably wrong reaction). That way people can adjust accordingly to the professional standard of their field.

10. cleverclogs - June 18, 2010 at 07:54 am

I can't help but notice that everything we know about Jones has to do with her teaching and everything we know about Smith has to do with his scholarly persona. Although I don't want to make too much of what are obviously meant to be simply illustrative creations, I do think these characterizations unwittingly point to and reinforce a false dichotomy within the profession - strong/virile/harsh/good thinking vs. weak/maternal/pushover/bad thinking - so that basically the article is comparing the apples of the teacherly persona to the oranges of the scholarly persona.

And I have to wonder: what kind of teacher is Smith? Maybe Jones doesn't push her students hard enough or lets too much weak thinking go by without comment, but Smith sounds as if he'd be downright abusive. If I have to err in the classroom, I'd prefer to err on the Jones side.

And in fact, I think tiltiyourhead (#7) is absolutely correct in his assessment of what makes for good criticism. Harshness for its own sake is often not instructive. Getting people to agree with you and brute-forcing your opinion down other people's throats is actually pretty easy - you just need to push the right buttons. Showing people something useful about a work they haven't yet encountered, that's hard, and frankly, sounds more like teaching than anything else.

11. lexalexander - June 18, 2010 at 08:47 am

Having been living online under my own name for 20 years, and after 25 years of journalism, I cannot agree more that anonymous criticism is inherently weak(er) criticism.

That said, I would have to be in complete denial that even in academia, sometimes people legitimately fear unpleasant consequences for criticizing the work of a superior. Shouldn't be that way, but that's the real world.

About the best compromise I have been able to find, and I grant in advance that it's unsatisfactory, is for those criticizing anonymously to explain in as much detail as possible why they are doing so. At least that way third parties aren't denied the benefit of the critic's thinking if it's valid.

12. mheffleychron - June 18, 2010 at 08:57 am

Article and comments covered this terrain pretty well and thoroughly. My work as an investigative journalist and music critic, as academic author and reviewer of colleagues' work (both manuscripts, anonymously, and published books, with byline), and as teacher of students--not to mention as a parent--have provided me decades of opportunities to hone the fine art of honest criticism balanced with praise and credit where it is due, and with humane delivery of the critiques when not.
From where I sit, this "fine art" is indeed an issue of character, maturity, and healthy humane-ness at its core. We've all considered truisms such as "the bigotry of soft expectations," and "your best friends will tell you the truth." I know I've come a long way in terms of both receiving and delivering criticism, and it's been every bit as much a matter of personal as of intellectual and professional-crafty growth.

I noticed the choice of a woman for the "soft" and a man for the "hard" examples right off too. We could unpack that in a whole article itself. It reminded me of a piece by linguist Deborah Tannen about the agonistic historical roots and ongoing m.o. of the academy--sort of "Socrates on steroids" (my term), an approach to truth-seeking and telling that is more like a cutting contest between jazz musicians than a collegial collaboration of intellectual resources. Mature wisdom can emerge into wiser, gentler men and women if they survive and transcend the process, but it's on them (us) to do so, not something the system and its ethoi particularly value or cultivate.

The sunny daydream: an academic system that somehow does so--classes in it? ways to "teach" or at least foster by osmosis with its ambient aesthetics and ethics mature wisdom and psychological-emotional health and virtue as much as intellectual prowess, rather than abovementioned narcissism and other stuntings of same? How about Bachelor's degrees in one's 20s, followed by 10 years working in a field, then Master's in 30s/40s, followed by another 10 years...then Ph.D.s sought and hardwon only in one's 40s or 50s, thus marking, presumably, real life arcs through novitiate, journeyman, and master levels...(dream on, right?...)

13. academic2000 - June 18, 2010 at 09:00 am

Anonymous criticism of scholarly works can too often become ridicule rather that constructive commentary. The goal of the review of a piece of writing is to improve the piece of writing, not to attack the writer.

14. tejackso - June 18, 2010 at 09:08 am

I suspect people are wary of offering plainly negative criticism in part because it's difficult not to be self-righteous as we give it. By self-righteous I mean taking emotional pleasure in negating some one else.

In my experience most Prof Smiths of the world seldom only show *that" someone else is somehow only wrong: they nearly always show, if only by emotional loading in what they say/write, that the other is wrong, and also: stupid, evil, fascist, selfish, blind, a child-molester or whatever. This emotional element gives them a separate pleasure from the pleasure of simply making the best reasonable case. Taking pride in being a critical-intellectual straightshooter, they either don't care if their emotional pleasure, disguised as reasoned criticism, injures or insults others; and/or they take pleasure in being the tough cookie who is not weakly subject to such injury. Or just as likely, they're plain blind to the real source of their (un)critical pleasure. Prof Smiths are the extreme cases, but most of us are this way to one extent of another. It's really hard not to be this way in general, but apparently especially hard for phd types. It takes a lot of self-critical thinking to offer negative criticism that is only reasonable and not also self-righteous. PRof Smiths evidently aren't willing or able to go this extra intellecutal mile before they criticize.

The Prof Jones of the word give serious consideration to the injury or insult they might give to others by offering, really, any negative criticism. In general this is good, but of course it can go too far. To be in the thick of our kind of hyper-intellectual environment and be only willing to offer faint praise is to be in an important way like the Prof Smiths: it may mean we're not willing to go through the extra, often unpleasant work of self-critical thinking that can always enable reasoned criticism, negative or positive, to be achieved.

tony e. jackson

15. texas2step - June 18, 2010 at 10:56 am

Absent from the discussion is the importance of culture and gender. While men from European backgrounds seem comfortable with confrontation, argument and direct criticism, most women are less so. Moreover, in Asian and Latin American cultures, such confrontational styles are seen as deeply offensive and are viewed as pernicious characteristics of The Loud American. Humility, grace, manners and poise are of great value in the life of the mind.

16. hmlowry - June 18, 2010 at 11:33 am

I am not "of the humanities," but, this discussion makes me recall something a professor of mine once said. "The reason the thrust and parry are so vicious in academe is because the stakes are so small." If you must look good by making someone else look bad you didn't have much to work with on your own account in the first place.

17. jack_cade - June 18, 2010 at 11:54 am

Love #16.

18. jtradzilowski - June 18, 2010 at 04:15 pm

Very helpful article (is that too much praise?!).

The key to good criticism is quality. Harsh criticism that consists of name calling and straw-man arguments *is* indeed a problem. One can be compassionate and humane and still point out flaws in a clear and truthful way. The ability to receive constructive criticism is other side of the equation and many academics don't have the emotional maturity to do so. Alas, the ideological divides in many fields are so severe and the groupthink so omnipresent that any criticism is viewed as heresy.

19. eytanfichman - June 18, 2010 at 06:55 pm

Some 'tough' reviewers skip commenting on what is good about the work. Some 'kind' reviewers skip what is problematic. Neither omission is useful to the student. In architecture schools the traditional critical culture around public reviews of student work tends to be very tough. Too many faculty equate exercising empathy with coddling. Honest, rigorous review can and should incorporate empathy and balance. Public reviews that leave students crying (not uncommon in architecture school) represent the inverse of emotional intelligence.

20. frankgado - June 19, 2010 at 12:22 am

HM Lowry: the professor you quote was guilty of plagiarism. That remark has often been attributed to Henry Kissinger--although I remember it being attributed in 1959 to Robert Frost.

HS Ledge: I find it peculiar that the only vicious (and demonstrably inaccurate) attacks I received during my entire career were from women. One particularly galled me. It was a review of my book on Ingmar Bergman by a female assistant professor at Ohio University. She sniffed that I obviously did not know Swedish, as I had mistranslated a Swedish word. In fact, despite being a teacher of Swedish, she had relied on an English translation of "Persons," not the original Swedish script I had used. (Given that she had written a book on the film, one would think she had used the original.) I asked her to acknowledge the error in the next issue of the journal. She refused.

21. geraldus - June 19, 2010 at 09:03 am

Since I enjoy anonymity here I will neither attack nor agree with the views of the article's author.

22. raghuvansh1 - June 19, 2010 at 10:49 am

What is job critic?He must revalue the art but most critics are prejudiced,they only search a fault in art. I Know many critic of India who write a favourable review for their pet writer only..Some are so darer without reading single line of book can write most favourable review. My experiences of last fifty years in book publishing assured to me, only common reader is real judge of any art, if like it he not only purchase your book he spread your book`s merit in the society with mouth publicity.Artist must write truth, genuine reader definitely appreciate your book it will take time but original art never be neglected

23. pereubu - June 19, 2010 at 03:43 pm

I think reasoned argument should be taught early and often. Being able to detect falacies in our own, as well as other's thinking should reduce incivility because ad hominem is not rational argument. It should however increase the acuity of debate at the same time. "Harsh" to me suggets cruel or nasty. "Sharp" pulls no punches but need not be nasty.
Aesthetics seems more problematic because it requires more subjectivity.I do feel that some current criticism is actually ad hominem in disguise."Mr. So and So has no insight into his own thought processes because of preconceptions held due to his class, race, gender,or whatever."
Some of the most important debates in our history, the Federalist Papers, were published anonymously. Ben Franklin actually published under numerous pseudonym/personnas of all occupations, genders and varying viewpoints. The internet sometimes reminds me of the pamphleteers of the eighteenth century. But anonymity is no excuse for nastiness and irrationality which degrade debate.

24. o_j_w - June 19, 2010 at 03:50 pm

"While it is difficult today to publish a book review anonymously in print (whereas in the 19th century it was commonplace)..."

Not quite so. The Times Literary Supplement kept reviews anonymous until 1974 - for the perceived benefit of allowing fully frank reviews without incuring personal confrontations. The move to signed reviews was not without controversy. The editor claimed that reviewers should take responsibility for their opinions. In an increasingly litigious climate, might one see this as cowardliness on the part of the publishers?

25. wakingtime - June 20, 2010 at 08:21 am

This article confuses passivity with compassion. Compassion can be wrathful: if a child is about to reach for a hot pan, a parent may yell or slap the child's hand. This is ultimately in the child's best interest. Likewise, scholars can offer sharp but beneficial criticism. It takes skill and a pure motivation, but it's possible. Failing to correct people when they make errors is lazy and cowardly, not compassionate. And negatively criticizing somebody in the spirit of humiliation is not helpful. There are alternatives to both approaches.

26. ulyssesmsu - June 20, 2010 at 01:20 pm

There are numerous issues here, and many have been mentioned already in previous comments. The university should be a place where free and open discussion of all issues can occur. Discourse, discussion, and debate should characterize the classroom, the academic conference, and the scholarly exchange. However, this assumes that all participants will have pure motives and honorable character, and we know that this often does not happen.

Some people are not able to offer negative criticism in a gentle and helpful way. Others are not able to receive negative criticism without becoming offended and angry. Still others will not engage in the arena of discourse because they are unwilling to defend their position. All of these mistaken behaviors pervert the open exchange and free discussion of ideas. As the Greeks taught us, democracy and progress are ultimately based on discourse, discussion, and debate, openly worked out in the arena of ideas.

27. cosmopolite - June 20, 2010 at 02:31 pm

The accepted way of dealing with flawed and shoddy work is to ignore it, to not cite it. And this we all very much do.

The value of scholarship is profoundly subjective. Our students cannot evaluate it, not does it face a market test. Our success depends on the good will of our disciplinary peers. If we point out the flaws in the work of our peers, they can retaliate by reducing their good will towards our output. That can lead to difficulties with referees, not making full professor until one's 50s, etc. There is a great deal of mutual backscratching in academic life.

Much of out valuation of the scholarly work of others is grounded in ideological and political commitments, in personal loyalties. Criticism is silently belittled as political disagreement, a settling of scores, as vindictive.

I have written papers carefully taking apart arguments made by major figures in my field. I been told over lunch that my doing so is not good for my career health, that we should advance our own ideas rather than critique the work of others.

There is a tacit assumption that we should all publish easily, in order to satisfy post-tenure reviews and the like. If the work is inept, don't cite it. Let Web of Science citation counts be an important part of the academic ranking system. To attack anyone's work is grandstanding, and suggests that the author of the attack has a maturity deficit.

People have no difficulty with a life of the mind run along the lines of Plato's dialogs, because being bested by Socrates had no impact on one's salary or promotion prospects. But we live in a world where the highly subjective opinions of others determine tenure, promotion, grant success, and where our work gets into print.

I have been a student, researcher, or professor for now 40 years. My general impression is that more often than not, criticism is constructive and fairly civil, especially when the subject matter is not ideologically polarised. But when criticism is directed at us, we often do not have the maturity, humility, and sense of humour to receive such criticism in the spirit in which it was made. And sadly, I suspect that the reason is that too much money is riding on the perceived value of our scholarly output.

28. cjdeldotto - June 20, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Here's a question: if I ask my dissertation chair (who's only a year away from retirement) and the other members of my committee (including world-renowned superstars in their fields) to write letters of recommendation for me in the fall as I "go on the market" and tell them that I refuse to waive my right to read those letters and, in fact, plan on doing so, how do you think they're going to respond?

We all know the answer to that question.

I appreciate the argument that, if grad students' relationships with their advisors have been healthy and honest, they should simply be able to trust them to do right by them, their work, and their professional potential. However, I shouldn't have to rely on blind trust when there's so much at stake -- gaining a toehold in the profession I know to be my vocation in life and commencing a career after years of hard work, dedication, and struggle. I'll sign my rights away to guarantee that my committee will agree to write on my behalf (and, to nod to the flipside of that coin, to guarantee that hiring committees won't read my refusal of confidentiality as a red flag), but that I have to do so absolutely disgusts me. The culture of secrecy, confidentiality, and anonymity in the academy is predicated on a system of entrenched privilege and entitlement (in part, generational, in part, owing to an over-inflated sense of self-worth) that, quite frequently, is the very object of critique. I would charge "What hypocrisy!," but what's the point? As long as entrance itself into the academic world demands conforming to a code many young (would-be) scholars and assistant professors find anathema to the spirit of open dialogue, direct honesty, and constructive engagement, that system of privilege and entitlement will never be under threat. It's a shame. The implicit "Trust me" at the heart of power relations in the academy (and the corporate world, in which the academy finds itself more and more) is badly in need of the rejoinder "Trust but verify," as Ronald Reagan wisely used to say.

Charles Joseph Del Dotto
Ph.D., English, 2010
Duke University

29. texastextbook - June 21, 2010 at 04:55 am

When is any idea new? The best anyone is ever doing is hoping that he's presenting an existing idea in what is, to his audience, a novel way.

30. bahmi - June 21, 2010 at 02:17 pm

In medical research, huge sums of money are often associated with research and writing. Criticism often brings violent, ad hominem attacks to he that criticizes. Dealing with established researchers that are well financed is very difficult. Success, whether real or contrived, makes researchers hubristic and untouchable. When you factor in journal writing, you often find that certain journals favor certain universities and researchers. Result? You can walk on water but you are not getting published. Get slapped in the face several times when you know you are correct and tell me how it feels. Financial corruption is very frequent today and the recent hubbub on statin usage and the phony H1N1 vaccine fiasco are case in point. When money is the prize, objectivity is often out the window. Wonderful how people can forsake truth for some shekels, isn't it?

31. saraid - June 21, 2010 at 02:30 pm

The issue isn't really a need for thicker skin; it's a need for academics to show themselves as having the best interests of their colleagues in mind when they do their criticism. This is easiest if you actually do have their best interests in mind.

If a critic expends as much effort in making sure their targets are not offended--not by being silent, but by actively engaging with them--as they do in criticizing them, you really wouldn't have this problem. The issue is that this effort is hard and something that we aren't taught to do.

32. aristos - June 21, 2010 at 05:46 pm

In "What Makes Art Art? Does Denis Dutton Know?" my contrarian review of Dutton's 'The Art Instinct" (April 2010), I concluded that the answer to the second question is No, he does not. That certainly qualifies as "tough criticism." Professor Dutton responded, in part, "Oh, yeah?" (he does have a sense of humor). My comments on his full response (which is published on the book's website) will appear in the May issue of Aristos (forthcoming within the week).

33. aristos - June 21, 2010 at 06:07 pm

(continued) Readers can decide for themselves which of us presents reasoned arguments.

Responding to Dutton has proved to be an onerous task, a topic I examined some years ago in "Scholarly Engagement: When It Is Pleasurable, and When It Is Not," in the peer-reviewed Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.


Louis Torres
Independent Scholar
Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)
Co-Author, 'What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000)


34. aristos - June 21, 2010 at 06:12 pm

(correction) It is the June issue of Aristos that is forthcoming, not May. -- L.T.

35. wkawakami - June 21, 2010 at 06:22 pm

Honest comments with civility will foster positive, open, and productive dialogue. Personal or "mean" criticisms prevent communication and focus on the issues. Public criticism can be honest, but does not have to be "harsh".

36. techbender - June 22, 2010 at 04:26 am

Criticism is a form of mental first-aid, and it takes a decisive & supple hand to give good, thorough, negative criticism. The ability to surgically remove 'cancerous' or malformed ideas amoungst otherwise healthy arguments and passions is one not easily mastered.

It's unfortunate that there seems to be no equivalent to a good dose of general anaesthetic!

37. optimysticynic - June 22, 2010 at 08:59 am

The remark about the small stakes of academia was in play long before 1959. I remember it being said by a relative of mine(quoting someone else.) The relative died in 1944.

38. janyregina - June 22, 2010 at 05:46 pm

The most harmful thing one can do to a person or a thought is to ignore them or it.

Civility in discourse is necessary. A colleague of mine attacked rather harshly he felt, said that he would go underground more with his thoughts. That scares me.

39. phildept - June 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Oh, come on, people. We've all had arrogant harsh critics with no integrity and arrogant harsh critics with integrity; We've had kind and nurturing teachers who saw the and encouraged the obfuscated grain in the heap of chaff we produced, and we have had sweet teachers, male and female, who could not recognize which of our ideas were valuable and which were dreck. We have had teachers who cut us off at the knees in public at our slightest faltering and teachers who told us we are onto something though mostly wrong.
(Tangentially, I give copies of letters I write both for promotion for colleagues and for students to them, and if I can't stand giving them a copy I refuse to write and I say why. They can waive official access and still read it. Their reactions are interesting, often evidence of delusion and often ignorance of their own strengths.)
Here's a harsh criticism: We don't have to choose between martinets and nurturers and we don't get to choose, and both those facts are to our benefit. Getting to be good at this profession requires the wisdom of thinking things through in the face of all the difficult variety. The teachers who cut us off at the knees toughen us and the teachers who agreed when they should not also toughen us (in a more complex way, and supposing we find out sooner or later). If we don't toughen up we disappear. Most of us disappear, including many who should not. This system has costs and real stakes in waste and unrecognized, untenured teachers/scholars who would have helped us more than many of those who make it. This is not to speak of the silly management fads and narrow agendas that must be in the water of the administration building (think outcomes assessment, prioritization, wisdom-through-neurology, training for global competitiveness in, and insert your fad here) which continue to help make wisdom real but also rare.
Socrates suggests with both irony and bite that those who follow him around are mostly attracted by the entertainment value of watching him humiliate the Bushes and Obamas and Schwartzeneggers and Deleuzes and Rortys and Gettiers of his time. With the chance to learn and think and persevere against heavy odds comes the likelihood that we will blow it. Suck it up.

40. tifarmer - June 24, 2010 at 11:42 am

I would have thought the confusion between logos and ethos had been resolved rather satisfactorily some centuries ago.

Must academia be encouraged to populate the world with scholars who emulate Antonin Scalia--brash, arrogant, unable to listen, swatting away dissent with a bullhorn? Perhaps this is where the Self-Esteem movement has landed us all: I am entirely confident in my opinion, no matter how ill-considered and illogical--and I have learned the skills with which I shall force everyone to listen to me.

Dr. Di Leo has conflated style and content--a familiar trap that needs no support from The Academy. But, worse, he has subtly introduced the suggestion that the most successful academician is the one with the highest testosterone level.

T.I. Farmer
Kerrville, TX

41. knarnie - June 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm

The touchy-feeling approach is intellectually dishonest. Sometimes a student is just plain wrong, and should be told as much. Of course, with students holding the trump card via student evaluations, one is tempted to soften the criticism--not to mention inflate the mark.

42. janyregina - June 28, 2010 at 01:57 pm

Ahh Grading, those students who demand a letter grade beyond what they earn,,,,ah the sad stories I have heard...... and the student who came to me at midterm saying that she had not known that in withdrawing from my class, she would lose her admission in the nursing program. In my touchy feeliness, I let her join the class (I must have felt good that day.) I made her totally responsible for the first half of the semester. To my surprise, she earned an A. (ALmost made me feel proud and redundant.)

I don't think touchy feely is dishonest inherently. As a graduate student, a professor reminded our class that all grades should fall on the ole Bell Curve even the overachieving grad students.

43. lndickens - June 28, 2010 at 04:29 pm

I have a few questions about this thread. First, what happens when critics assume that there is a "wrong" and "right" way of doing things (in more subjective, less factual areas)? The critic may not be any more "right" than the producer and furthermore may lack a full understanding of the original context or intention. I believe that criticism (read: opinion) about the relative merit, quality, or value of something needs to consider and acknowledge that there may be no truth--only inference and perspective. There's nothing wrong with opinion, but when it's presented as truth, it risks being domination in disguise: "Your way of thinking is wrong. Think like I do and you'll be/do better." And that controlling approach can underly criticism whether it's hard or soft, direct or indirect.

Second, how does criticism impact learning? Pointing out what's wrong with someone's product doesn't teach them how to improve their thinking, it only conveys the preferred or accepted thought process. My assumption is that this may tend to distance rather than teach people since it's based on fault finding rather than development and expert-ness rather than partnership.

Third, I wonder whether the opposite of harsh criticism isn't soft criticism or faint praise--it's inquiry. Criticism based on espousing one's views establishes one-way communication and does little to engage others. Posing curious and genuine questions opens up dialogue, which leads to increased learning since it asks people to explore their thinking, not just defend it.

In what ways do you disagree or agree with this?

44. maggie2b - June 30, 2010 at 09:45 am

All the "Professor Smiths" I have seen active in the academy are self-deified narcissists who mistake blow-hard aggression for intellectual rigor. They are basically intellectual absolutists who act as though brute intellectual vigor somehow substitutes for ethical and humane conduct. Every truly credible academic I have known has been at once rigorous, civil, compassionate, and generous.

45. dferrell - July 05, 2010 at 06:08 pm

Peer review is important -- some will not act as reviewers if it is not "blind". Scholnli oy work needs input although some "peers" are just tacky and not helpful. My university is primarily a teaching university although scholarly work is expected on top of a 12 credit per semester teaching load, committee work, rewriting a curriculum, transfering face to face courses to online - which have very different legal issues advising and all the other tasks we are expected to do.
My husband is a researcher, is in a field and setting that is geared toward grant writing and publishing. He teaches half a course per year and

46. stevefleck - July 07, 2010 at 01:43 pm

"Few scholars advance without using other people's ideas."

_No one_ advances without using other people's ideas. What is education about if not learning the proper use of ideas - inevitably, others' ideas - in order to better develop one's own viewpoints?

No matter how original one may be - and the academy often actively discourages originality, except at the margins, promoting conformity far too often - there are always debts to others.

Whether we stand on the shoulders of giants, pygmies or others, whether we agree or disagree with them, others' ideas are indispensable.

While venom and sarcasm may be inevitable and even useful sometimes, applied to manifestly bad-faith or stupid arguments for example, they do tend to lower the level of overall discourse. And the remark of JK Galbraith, or before him Harold Mencken I'm told, about the pettiness of the stakes feeding the viciousness of academics, is really off the mark, since the truth, insofar as we can know it, is always at stake, and is far more likely to suffer from the limitlessness of ad hominem approaches than from the restraints of fairmindedness, whether expressed in a tough or gentle manner.

Steve Fleck
Cal State Long Beach

47. 11119344 - July 12, 2010 at 08:37 am

While the need for "thicker skin" may play into the practices of reviewing and criticism (and being on the receiving end), the main problem centers on intellectual honesty combined with extending a fair benefit of the doubt. The lack of the latter two qualities has made academe a very cliquish and passive-aggressive place.

David Yamada
Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute
Suffolk University Law School
Minding the Workplace blog at http://newworkplace.wordpress.com

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