Does rudeness have a place in academia?

Academics are expected to engage in rigorous intellectual sparring but do some scholars overstep the mark?

November 7, 2013

“I have been an academic for lo these 20 years and the bitchiness of some supposedly high-minded people still never ceases to startle me.”

When Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, let out this electronic scream on Twitter recently, one of her followers responded: “Isn’t this Sayre’s Law at work?”

Wallace Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia University, is supposedly the true source of the adage that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. Henry Kissinger just wished he’d said it.

This week in our features section, we ask whether academia is indeed a particularly “rude” environment, considering the spectrum that runs from no-holds-barred critique to vicious personal abuse, via pitched warfare over personal interests.

Scholarly debate is supposed to be a full-contact sport, and much is made in our feature of the demolition jobs and score-settling to be found in academic reviews.

The effects of bruising interactions depend on context and the individual response of the person on the receiving end

In the case of peer review, the identity of the critic is often withheld, but as our examples illustrate, some are perfectly willing to take the consequences of publicly lambasting a rival – they may even revel in it.

Others avoid confrontation at all costs (it is not unknown for reviewers to pull out of delivering a promised piece on the grounds that “I can’t possibly review this book – it’s terrible”).

If fear of causing offence can undermine academic debate, though, what about rudeness?

In some instances it may be little more than a pantomime act – David Starkey makes a living from his reputation as the “rudest man on TV”.

But the effects of bruising interactions depend on context and the individual response of the person on the receiving end (there’s nothing to celebrate in the story recounted to me by a woman who was prodded by an aged don as she admired a rose in a Cambridge quad. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked. “Smelling the roses,” she replied. “Well don’t. We don’t like people smelling our roses,” he snapped).

Consider the case of Sir John Plumb, master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and one of the leading historians of his generation.

Among his distinctions was being described in obituaries both as “one of the great characters of British university life” and “the rudest man in Cambridge”.

In a tribute after his death in 2001, Neil McKendrick, then master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, lauded Plumb as a “hugely influential teacher, the most popular lecturer and the most prolific writer”, but he also noted that he “was not a paragon of all the old-fashioned virtues of charm, restraint and tolerance”.

Despite this, McKendrick continued, most of Plumb’s friends concluded that “the stimulation was worth the aggravation, the fun was worth the fury”.

Some others, however, experienced only the aggravation and the fury.

One former colleague felt sufficiently bruised to complain to a newspaper that its obituary of Plumb “gave insufficient impression” of what he described as a “compulsion to set everyone down (apart from, perhaps, royalty of his acquaintance)”.

“There have been many great men whom one is delighted not to have known,” he wrote. “For all his brilliance and dedication, Jack Plumb remains one I am sorry I did.”

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