Scholars’ rude awakenings

Does bitchiness serve any useful scholarly purpose?

November 7, 2013
Source: Paul Bateman

It seems to me”, says Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University, “that academics are the rudest people on earth.”

Bloom’s first book, The Occult Experience and the New Criticism (1986), was greeted with a review claiming that it “mentions every orifice except the arsehole from whence [it] emerged”. Such “bitchiness”, he believes, comes from many reviewers thinking to themselves: “I wanted to write the book I’m reviewing” or “I’m the expert (but no one has noticed).”

And this, in Bloom’s cheerfully jaundiced view, is part of a wider sense of “resentment and defensiveness” resulting from the fact that most academics “don’t really produce anything that people want”. In extreme cases, this can lead to “hatred of the public and the world generally”. On one occasion, he recalls, his place of employment, at that time Middlesex Polytechnic, was visited by the mayor and mayoress of Haringey, “a small, olive-skinned Greek Cypriot couple, both in their chains of office. We gathered to meet them in the common room. As we stood in line with drinks and nibbles, one colleague turned to me and exclaimed rather too loudly: ‘Oh my God, they’ve invited the cast of EastEnders!’”

It is not difficult to turn up examples of academics being deliberately rude to each other, whether in print or in person, openly or anonymously. Another striking instance is recalled by Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford. Many years ago she was invited by a similarly young and junior feminist academic to give a lecture on a feminist topic at a university in what was then West Berlin.

“I was surprised but initially gratified when the senior members of the department – elderly male professors – turned up,” she recalls. “But after the introduction, when I rose to speak, they all simultaneously opened their newspapers and ostentatiously read them throughout the proceedings.

“I don’t know if this piece of rudeness was directed more towards my German colleague (for having the temerity to invite a guest speaker rather than leaving such things to them), towards me or towards the very idea of feminist scholarship. Probably all of the above. Whatever it was, they wasted over an hour of their own time on the gesture, and, in the process, probably gave the students the impression that I was more important and more radical than anyone had previously supposed.”

The moral of the story, in Cameron’s view, is that “rudeness in the academy backfires more often than not. The most effective put-downs are the courteous, mild-mannered ones.”

Can the same be said about really vicious reviews? A celebrated example is the attempted demolition of On Consciousness, a book by Ted Honderich, Grote professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic at University College London. The review by Colin McGinn, who recently resigned from a professorship at the University of Miami, was published in The Philosophical Review in 2007 and begins: “This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent…Honderich’s understanding of positions he criticises is often weak to nonexistent, though not lacking in chutzpah.”

The review is accompanied by a startling footnote that reads: “The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to ‘soften the tone’ of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the review has generated a good deal of commentary. Yet far from just taking McGinn’s word for it that Honderich’s work is “shoddy, inept, and disastrous”, many have looked at their earlier printed remarks about each other to speculate about whether an “agenda” or past grievances lie behind the review. “Scores of philosophers have emailed me about it saying that [the review] was so extraordinary and self-destructive that I should not have replied,” Honderich told the press in 2007. “That I should have been Olympian and superior about it.”

Bloom found his savage review “so horrible that it was actually funny” and, instead of being downhearted, it left him determined to fight back: “I still use the wording to tell people never to give up and never let the bastards grind you down.”

The case against rudeness is pretty obvious, but is there anything to be said in its favour? Intellectual progress clearly depends on ideas being subjected to intense scrutiny, and this will often involve stating or implying that other academics are ignorant of some important information, defective in reasoning, unwilling to question their own preconceptions or even plain stupid. Since there is always the possibility of causing offence, the boundaries between “directness”, “robust criticism” and “rudeness” are pretty subjective, and often depend on the cultural or disciplinary context.

Gunther Martens, research professor of German literature in the department of literary studies at Ghent University in Belgium, has researched “the history and rhetoric of polemical communication”. His experience of conferences indicates that “directness” is more prevalent in some places than in others.

Paul Bateman feature illustration (7 November 2013)

“Discussions in the Anglo-Saxon context have all kinds of face-saving measures,” he notes, “whereas continental debates pitch individual academics (and their reputations) against each other. At conferences, colleagues in English studies tend to ask questions, but they will always laud the speaker first. Americans are even more friendly…In the German context, a question is either a downright attempt to present one’s own view on the topic [or] a straightforward attack, meant to call into question the authority of the speaker. It is [considered] preferable to say that something is bad rather than to be implicit about it.”

Citing a colleague’s statement that “academic authority is the ability to offend someone”, Martens argues that this is premised on the notion that “a certain bluntness is necessary to arrive at the truth (which is the sole standard and may disregard other standards of sociability)”. German academics, he adds, tend to avoid blogging and tweeting because “their direct style would be misunderstood in the socially indeterminate space of the internet”.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, also sees a case for the kind of robust debate some regard as rude. “I dislike sloppiness and while the occasional error might be forgiven, an abject refusal to stick to the sources – and cite them correctly – will incur my wrath. In my fields of specialism, I expect an author to have read more or less everything of significance. Telling a story that has been told before, and offering nothing new, is in my view ‘a monument to misplaced academic endeavour’” – a phrase condemned as rude by some when Alderman used it in a review.

He also remembers an occasion when he started another review by saying that he “had tried valiantly to say something positive about the book. There was then a blank page, followed by my name. The journal editor thought the blank page might be construed as defamatory and sent it to a lawyer!”

There is a long-running tradition that academics and other intellectuals ought to speak truth to power. When this refers to political leaders, few feel the need to be mealy-mouthed: who ever worried about sparing the feelings of Gordon Brown or George W. Bush? Some are equally outspoken about university leaders, individually or collectively, while others take their gloves off to attack colleagues whose work is widely cited and admired, but which they believe to be trivial or pernicious.

Camille Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, comes from a noisy Italian immigrant background and has no time for the “walking-on-eggs-at-the-funeral-home” style she believes to be common among ambitious Ivy League academics. Being asked to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she once told an audience there, presented her with a dilemma. “I asked myself, should I try to act like a lady?…But then I thought, Naw. These people, both my friends and my enemies, who are here, aren’t coming to see me act like a lady. So I thought I’d just be myself – which is, you know, abrasive, strident and obnoxious. So then you can all go outside and say, ‘What a bitch!’”

Elsewhere, Paglia has savaged an acclaimed French theorist as “a twerpy, cape-swirling Dracula dragging his flocking stooges into the crypt” and dismissed two leading figures in women’s studies as “the Pollyanna of poppycock” and a “damp sob sister” producing “diarrhea prose”. Another scholar’s style is “as tangled up, matted and unappealing as a cat’s wet hairball”.

While there is surely an element of attention-seeking in such comments, Paglia clearly feels intense irritation at the direction certain disciplines have taken, and that a sharp swipe is the most effective method of combating the influence of some underpowered but overrated academic authorities.

Anonymity obviously facilitates certain kinds of rudeness. Martens observes that blind peer review “offers a lot of opportunity for vitriol, contempt and self-congratulatory remarks”.

Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, agrees. When working as an associate or co-editor on academic journals, she has to “quite literally censor” reviews before they are sent back to the authors.

“One of the pieces of advice I give to PhD students when we run workshops on peer review is to channel the fairy Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby from Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies; to think carefully about how it would feel to be the recipient of the review one is compiling…I have certainly been at the mercy of some pretty feral anonymous reviewers myself in the past…including at least two who cast aspersions on me as a person,” she says.

This leads on to the function of rudeness in putting people down and thereby excluding them. Divisions between academics and administrators, or between pre- and post-1992 universities, are often marked by snide or abusive jibes. Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, once witnessed a university professor turn a polytechnic lecturer away from a seminar with the words: “Members of the public are not welcome here.”

Paul Bateman feature illustration (7 November 2013)

Camille Paglia has dismissed two leading figures in women’s studies as ‘the Pollyanna of poppycock’ and a ‘damp sob sister’ producing ‘diarrhea prose’

The same also applies to barriers between the sexes. Vida, the Critical Management Studies Women’s Association, has set up a network “where female scholars offer and receive support by sharing their experiences and knowledge on a number of critical issues”. At a recent conference in Manchester, Brewis heard many women sharing “stories about caustic, indeed downright vicious, comments that they have had to deal with”.

Some of the disciplinary and gender issues come together in a famous 1994 essay by Norman Swartz, professor emeritus of philosophy at Simon Fraser University in Canada. It describes “the rudest, the most ill-mannered, performance I have ever seen by a philosopher”. Somebody he calls G*** B*** leapt to his feet at the end of a conference paper and “fumed: ‘You have got it all wrong. I am going to tell you what you should have said. Then, when I have said that, I will leave this room because I do not care how you will reply.’ Whereupon B*** did just as he announced.”

The fact that the presenter experienced this behaviour as “the most traumatic episode of his professional career” indicated to Swartz that “philosophy has a vicious streak” far less prevalent in other disciplines. No doubt Honderich would agree.

“Is the blood lust I am speaking of”, Swartz wondered, “the cause of the under-representation of women in our profession?…What so many persons currently practising philosophy…find exhilarating – the cut and thrust of verbal battle – antagonises, indeed offends, many students. Colloquia are viewed by these students – especially women – as the academic counterparts of courtroom battles.”

The essay, reproduced on the internet, has continued to attract comments over many years, not least because people have enjoyed trying to guess who G*** B*** might be. Yet the reaction also reveals a wide range of attitudes towards academic rudeness.

One anonymous poster regrets the fact that “refutation is so engrained” in philosophy.

He or she writes: “From the moment you are a grad student, and hear most of the faculty trashing the paper just given in colloquium…you become aware that this is simply how things are done. Our research community is mostly just a bunch of overpaid adolescents trying to tear each other down.”

But another poster argues, on the contrary, that “other fields could gain from being a little more aggressive…I think the ‘gotcha’ question forces people to really consider the sort of commitments and assumptions that might sneak in with their work.”

And Harriet Baber, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, finds “the blood-sport aspect” of philosophy positively “liberating”.

“As a girl, I was constantly squeezed and suppressed into being ‘nice’ and non-confrontational. I was under chronic stress holding back, trying to fudge, not to be too clear or direct.” But becoming a philosopher meant that everything she had been “pushed throughout my childhood to suppress, and which I failed to suppress adequately to be regarded as ‘normal’, was positively encouraged”.

She joyfully likens philosophers to Jack Russell terriers, which she understands to have come about through 19th-century parson John Russell’s selective breeding, over several generations, of the “most aggressive dog and bitch” from a “bunch of mutts”.

Whether the terrier model of yappy, snappy behaviour is one that all academics should adopt will certainly remain a bone of contention.

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Reader's comments (1)

My experience of England - being from somewhere else - is that English academics will be oh-so-nice to your face and bend over backward so as not to offend anyone, often by saying very little that has meaning to actually be offended by. But they will make vicious, obscure, petty and often irrelevant and self-aggrandizing comments when it comes to blind review processes. Give me an openly 'rude' and straight talking American or German any day.