On the distinction between disagreeing and practicing asshole discord

Criticism and disagreement are essential to keep scholarly endeavours alive. We need it to develop or revise our ideas and arguments. Yet, all forms of attack are not equal in aiding in that respect. When I look back at the times when I have been served the most unhelpful criticism, they always seem to have been developed precisely to hit me hard while not engaging with the idea or position I have aimed to articulate. It has been given as truly condescending treatments felt as intended to belittle rather than to engage.

While this still happens now and again, I remember in particular one such time when I was a PhD student. It was while attending an internal workshop where I was scheduled to receive comments from a commentator who was a full professor. The long and the short of his comment was that he ‘totally disagreed with everything in this paper.’ No help there on how to develop the argument, if you for the sake of argument momentarily accepted its basic premise. No suggestion to develop or revise the premise, provided it was broken. The problem with such critique is not primarily that it takes a conflicting position, since that is a necessary part of any disagreement. The problem is that it is articulated in a way that totally blocks any further conversation and learning. What else can you reply than stating ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ or the less polite remark that you are ‘impressed to encounter such a senior colleague that wears his ignorance with such pride.’ (At the time, I do not think I had the presence to reply at all.)

Asshole critique then, could thus be defined as the non-stick, non-engaging, comments aimed to denigrate and produce discord rather than disagreement. The only difference from the silent treatment is that it aims to maim. Isaac Newton has apparently stated that “tact is the art of making your point without making an enemy.” The opposite, I guess would be practicing asshole discord, which would be the art of denigrating without making a point. Disagreement is far too important to be soiled by such practices.

Reflections on TASP and the passing of academic judgement

I have long been fascinated by how much academic practice centres on the passing of judgement on students and peers. We review articles, and our articles get reviewed. We send in grant applications, and review those of others. We comment on each other’s work in seminars, and we make evaluative comments (sometimes in a low voice) about conference presentations.

Given how important this is for academic life, it is striking how unsystematic we talk about these things. There are scattered resources on topics like article reviewing available on the net, but I have found little systematic literature to help in developing one skill making and communicating academic judgements. I love Michelle Lamont’s *How Professors Think*, where she among other things displays the intricacies of passing judgment on grant applications. It is a rewarding read. Yet, one could wonder why there is not more talk and resources about the skills of passing judgment.

A while ago I came across three fascinating expert judgements regarding applicants for a professorship at a Swedish university (not Linkoping!). The reason these were fascinating was the markedly different styles in how they communicated their judgement of each applicant. One of the experts made extensive use of tables for presenting the achievements of the top candidates. In these we learnt the number of monographs and articles published by each candidate as well as the number of citations according to ISI and Google scholar.

Another expert was more condensed in his communication, but indicates in his introduction that the assessment has taken many sources into account (such as a ranking of journals for assessing the publications on the various candidates).

It was, however, the statement of the third expert that really caught my eye. She used a set of abbreviations for summarising her judgement of each candidate. These abbreviations were presented at the beginning of her statement and included: “TASP (there are some problems)” and “HOML (high on my list).” In all, five such abbreviations were defined.

One take on this would be that it is terrible with such a varied and unstandardized way to make and communicate such an important academic judgement as this one. Another one would be that it is precisely because it is of such importance that we as academics have to have quite some room in how we make these judgements. Maybe, then, the lack of more advice is all for the better in the end.

On my desk and on my mind

So this is the first precarious blog post. I’ve been meaning to keep this blog for stuff that are too long for tweets, too short for papers, or, indeed, too unsorted to go anywhere else but still having some kind of value.

My plan is for the posts to centre on research as well as observations and reflections about academic practices more broadly. There are, I think, a lot to be said about what we do as the academics. That includes not only our research as such, but also how we go about doing our research and all the other stuff that comes with an academic job such as, for instance, passing judgement on the work of one another in blind journal reviews or finding and trying ways to improve the quality of our own reading and writing.

At our seminars of the ValueS research program we usually begin the seminars by having a round where everyone briefly shares “what’s on my mind” and “what’s on my desk.” I’m thinking about the blog in the same way. So today, for instance, I’ve just sent off an introduction to a themed section on “Values and Valuations in Market Practice” to appear in the Journal of Cultural Economy that Hans Kjellberg I have finalised during the last few days. It is hence something that has been on both my mind and desk. I know, for sure, that soon there will be other stuff on both mind and desk. I aim to share such stuff here around once a month. Hence, to be continued…