A critique of academic criticism

Andy J. Ko
Jan 6 · 5 min read
My sloppy, grotesque sketch of how some experience academic critique

“Your work is horribly, irreparably flawed. Do not resubmit.”

“I don’t see how your work has any relevance in 20 years.”

“This is the worst class I’ve ever taken. The instructor should be ashamed.”

“You’re really aloof. Try smiling more.”

Academia can be a harsh place. The quotes above are just a small sample of 20 years of harsh criticism I’ve received, some face to face, some through anonymous reviews, and some through student evaluations. And it’s relentless: most of the grants I’ll submit will only result in a searing pile of negative feedback, most of the papers I write will only result in rushed peer reviews of ruthless judgement, and most of the classes I’ll teach, no matter how good, will always have a few disgruntled students who lob personal insults from behind a wall of anonymity.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with critique. It’s one of the many fuels of progress in scholarship. I need to know what’s wrong with my ideas, my behavior, and my teaching to improve all of them. The critiques above eventually caused me to reflect on my work, my teaching, and my behavior, and improve it. Junior academics need critique to polish their writing, methods, and their ideas. Senior academics need it to polish their mentorship, their administration academic processes, and their leadership. Carefully considered constructive feedback is essential to progress, both personal and societal.

But critique, and in particular, critiques that target an individual rather than their ideas, can have some serious negative consequences, even when the critique is true and needs to be addressed. Most academics I know are emotionally devastated by harsh critique, especially early in their careers. Some are brought to tears. Some are depressed for weeks. Some lose hope long enough that they stop trying to reach the level of excellence a critique demands. Some feel hopeless enough that they give up on academia altogether.

When this critique happens in public, it’s even more disheartening. Having a senior person ask a devastating question after a conference talk can be humiliating. Having someone write a public tear down on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog post can have the same effect. Even peer review can feel public, despite its anonymity, in that a gang of three to five people hide behind a curtain of anonymity and excoriate ideas that have emerged from your professional, if not personal passions.

These two dynamics — the need for critique to improve scholarship, and the emotional consequences of critique to the individuals producing that scholarship — require a delicate balance. If an academic community ignores the need for critique, it doesn’t improve, and the community’s value and impact suffers. But if an academic community ignores the emotions involved in receiving critique, the community itself — the very people that comprise it — erodes, leaving at best the most resilient, and at worst, only the harshest critics with the thickest skin. This is particularly problematic from a diversity perspective; if newcomers do not feel welcome, they will leave, and newcomers are the least likely to have resilience, but the most likely to have new ideas.

I’ve seen many different reactions to this tension. Sometimes harsh critiques lead to pleas for civility and against rudeness. These pleas are sometimes met with a demand to toughen up.

Personally, I think both reactions are reasonable. Even the most gently delivered critique can hurt, especially to new scholars. Accommodating critique requires an emotional distancing from one’s self and one’s ideas, and this takes time to develop. Rather than being harsh and demanding new scholars toughen up, academics should think about who they are talking to, make a judgement of how objective the scholar has become about their work, and deliver their critique in a manner that will make it heard rationally, not emotionally. When communicating to a new scholar, this might require significant forethought in delivery. You might have to know them personally and know the context of their life. In contrast, when communicating to a senior peer you know well, unvarnished bluntness might be the most professional and least condescending delivery. (And no, there’s never a reason to make critique personal. That’s unequivocally unnecessary.)

But the call by more experienced scholars for more junior scholars to toughen up is justified as well. It really is important to develop that emotional distance from your ideas. It’s important to think of the ideas you create as something you’ve given to the world to precisely so that it may be critiqued. It’s no longer yours, nor is it attached to you. It is an object to be discussed, dismantled, and reassembled by others. It may have come from you, and judgements of it may have impact on your self-efficacy and career, but you must learn to exploit those judgements to both improve your skills and your ideas. Calls for resilience aren’t asking you to let people beat you down; they’re a call for you to develop a scholarly identity that is inherently self-critical, skeptical, and eager for critique.

While the above are highly personal and interpersonal solutions to balancing the tensions between the objectivity and subjectivity of critique, there are also structural interventions to consider. The anonymity of peer review, for example, allows for unnecessarily harsh personal attacks. We argue that anonymity is key in order to free a reviewer to speak their mind unbiased by interpersonal concerns, and that is exactly what we get, some good, some bad. What if instead no review or paper was anonymous, and instead we challenged reviewers to fully account for the authors’ identity in phrasing their critiques? Do we really think that reviewers would withhold their judgements, just because they are known by the authors? Why would they, if their judgements are objective and rational? I suspect this form of double-identified authorship would lead to a lot more civility, but also higher expectations for rational critiques. Junior reviewers reviewing senior people would aim even higher in the rigor of their critiques. Senior reviewers would aim higher to maintain their reputation as scholars.

Another structural revision might be to post reviews publicly. In computing, we have a few digital libraries where we archive conference and journal papers, as well as other media such as data and video. Why not also archive peer reviews? Or, even more radical, allow for other new peer reviews to be posted publicly at any time after publication? By posting these publicly, while also identifying their authors, we would promote a more civil, more archived, and more accountable trail of criticism of work. Junior scholars would also see that civil, public, rigorous critique is important part of scholarship, rather than a secret, hidden, anonymous process that holds few accountable.

There are a lot of reasons the ideas above are probably too radical for most academic communities. One of them, ironically, is the lack of resilience amongst junior scholars. Public reviews of even accepted work sounds terrifying. But another is what I think is a highly masculine form of communication in academia, one that sees no value in emotions or emotional responses to critique. Until we have an academic culture that views the development of resilience as a process that needs supporting, and one that recognizes our full humanity as both logical and emotional beings, this tension will continue.

But as the tension continues, and perhaps rises, I’ll commit as a senior scholar to finding paths to change that make an academia an ever-more welcoming place for discovery. If we don’t, I predict there won’t be much of academia left to worry about.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Andy J. Ko

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Associate Professor @UW_iSchool, Chief Scientist+Co-Founder @answerdash. Parent, feminist, scientist, teacher, inventor, programmer, human.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.