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Jerks and Adversarial Culture in Academia

May 8, 2017

This Chronicle Review article is paywalled, and it’s a shame. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it brings up good points that could and should be discussed widely in relation to other disciplines.

Titled “You’re Wrong: The Case for Confrontation” and authored by Joseph Heath, a philosopher, much of the piece centers on how “adversarial culture” works in academia, especially in the discipline of philosophy. Heath also cites medicine (e.g. surgery) because of familiarity due to his spouse being a surgeon.

The subtitle’s invocation of the term “confrontation” is a bit of a misnomer, because that’s a topic not really covered directly in the essay.

Heath doesn’t cover history, but he does take a swipe at literature departments for being non-adversarial. He apparently doesn’t see literature departments as housing a worthy “system of cognition.” He doesn’t, to me, understand the notion of “Critical Theory” at base and as an overall endeavor. (Aside: Here I thought we humanists, which to me has always included philosophers, were “in this together” as underappreciated members of the critical academy. So much for that! …I jest. I won’t overgeneralize from the case of Joseph Heath.)

Here’s the crux of Heath’s argument: “Being supportive, or adhering to conventional norms of politeness, diminishes the quality of the academic work being done.”

At risk being unsupportive and impolite, I think this is bullshit—an excuse for being an ass and perpetrating boorish behavior. I also have a hunch that he’s wrong about literature departments. One can be nice, supportive, and polite, but also firm in disagreement. It takes effort, one Heath and others like him are unwilling to expend.

Otherwise, I do agree with this: “Just as it is possible to be a jerk without being adversarial, it is also possible to be adversarial without being a jerk.” The silent, backbiting, rumor-mongering jerk is just as bad as the boorish, adversarial one.

I also think that the author’s concern for fighting confirmation bias is a worthy cause. Historians fight this by noting absences in the process of evidence selection. The old saw about “selection and emphasis” is an important one in history for noting the perils of revisionism, relevance, and presentism. It’s important to note contrary examples in the process of making an argument, however emphatic. It helps bridge the few gaps between historical thinking and critical thinking. I saw “few” because I’m convinced that good historical thinking is, in most all cases, good critical thinking.

Good historical thinking, good critical thinking, and high-quality academic culture need not sacrifice collegiality and humanism. It is a both/and proposition. Indeed, if critical thinking is about listening to speakers, then the tone of academic speech can’t be appreciated enough. One is more likely to hear your devastating point, or “killer question,” when it is being delivered by a trusted colleague in a tone that invites reception. I’d even go as far as to say that the jerks generate adversarialism at the expense of enlightenment and progress in academia. Uncollegial adversarialism is, at base, counterproductive. Collegiality is a signal that real critical thinking is functioning nearby. – TL

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