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Being Mean in Academe

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about meanness and how it manifests within the academy. My conclusion is that it might just result from our insecurities and perhaps our professional jealousies.

As professors we are taught to be critical. We learn to interrogate arguments and to criticize the work of those who have explored a body of research before us. This is what we are supposed to do.  Some of us learn how to offer critique in respectful ways, but others were taught just the opposite.

All too often anonymous reviewers try to skewer journal article and book authors. They hide behind the peer-reviewed process and foist their feelings of superiority on others. Most reviewers are helpful and kind in their comments, but every so often someone attempts to make you feel less than human. Thoughtful editors will typically tell authors to ignore these comments and concentrate on the constructive feedback.

Then there are those academics that get a thrill out of humiliating people in public at academic conferences. I’ve seen senior scholars, serving as paper discussants, shame junior scholars and graduate students in front of large audiences. Why? Perhaps the younger scholar had a better idea? Or perhaps the younger scholar was in the prime of his or her career and the senior scholar was envious? Or perhaps there was a flaw in the younger scholar’s argument, and rather than offering constructive criticism, the more senior scholar saw an opportunity to showcase a condescending tone?

I’ve also seen scholars demonstrate very bad behavior in front of academic audiences when it comes to their own academic perspectives. Rather than talking in a mature manner about intellectual disagreements, these individuals have to go for the jugular. How does that advance the field? What kind of message does it send to our graduate students?

And still there are those academics that, in their attempt to be critical of a larger body of literature, lambast those who have added extensively to this larger body. Of course, we need to be critical in order to advance the field. This is absolutely vital. But do we have to be mean? Do we have to get personal? Do we have to talk down to others who have gone before us or will go after us? As academics, shouldn’t we be modeling decorum for others, especially our students? Perhaps when we are tempted to take criticism to a personal level, we should write down our thoughts, put them in a drawer for a few weeks, and re-read them—maybe even have a colleague read them and give us feedback. Some time for reflection might stop us from hurling insults and instead help us to reach our best selves.

Within my academic specialty—history of education—criticism is expected and is often seen as a form of high engagement and almost flattery. However, that criticism tends to be about the work and the ideas. Of course there are exceptions. I was taught how to analyze the historical contributions that were written before mine and do so respectfully. I feel pretty comfortable offering critique that is helpful, yet not scathing. I also try to keep in mind how it would feel to receive the criticism and ask myself if my criticism is moving the field forward. I try my best, but I know I have failed on occasion. And when I have failed, I always regret it.

Within the academy, attacking others, be it anonymously or in an open forum, probably says more about us than it does about those we are attacking.

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