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If You Don't Have Something Nice To Say -- Say It Anyway

Jun 22, 2010

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Barrie Hardymon

I like nothing more than hearing that my ideas are good ones, my execution spot-on, and my vision exemplary.  In short, I'm human.  And yet, there is nothing so interesting and fulfilling as that moment when someone you respect gives you an honest critique, and you get that cosmic "click," that moment where you realize that you've been given a real opportunity to improve.  Being a sometime editor myself, that feeling works both ways — I've often encountered a piece of writing or an idea that is good, but not quite fully fledged, and realized that I, unexpectedly, have the key to unlocking it.

The newsroom is an area where constant constructive criticism is necessary, and often public.  It's essential to shake off the impassioned argument you had with an editor, and keep moving on to make the product better, truer, whole.  The academic world, however, has a reputation for being a little more concentrated in its praise and its criticism — and concentrate can often be bitter.   Still, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that criticism in the academy is not only healthy, it's vital.  Even if you have oppose a colleague to do it.

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 ofHamlet is brilliant, then enter the scholarly fray by opposing it.

Di Leo's piece, titled, "In Praise of Tough Criticism," argues that it is time to "grow thicker skin."

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 [a] 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.

The acrimony of academic argument is well documented — in 1973, the professor Wallace Stanley Sayre quipped: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low."  It's a funny line, but DiLeo's argument also reminds us that in reality, the stakes are very, very, high.

 

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