Cultures of Criticism

Cultures of CriticismThe thinking behind this post began with some of the work done at The Thesis Whisperer– an insightful and immensely readable blog and resource for grad students. Dr. Inger Mewburn’s post about the “chameleon” reaction to criticism got me thinking: how do cultures of scholarship effect the culture of the classroom? Are the two cultures more intimately linked than one might first think? Might the culture of one inhibit the growth of the other? 

Recently a post by blogger Dr. Inger Mewburn at The Thesis Whisperer has gone near-viral amongst academics. It’s a great piece, as the title clearly suggests: “Academic assholes and the circle of niceness.” This piece, which encourages people to be nice to one another, has garnered a lot attention, receiving 168 comments, 84 “likes” from other bloggers, and what looks like 9,000-plus Facebook shares (am I reading this correctly?! Holy crap; I can only dream!).

Read it. It’s a good post.

But, while you’re there, be sure to read this one, too: “The stegosaurus strategy.” Here Mewburn argues that a culture of harsh criticism in education (she’s talking about graduate education, but it could be applied more broadly to any learning experience that is continuous and repeated) generally leads to negative learning outcomes. Harsh criticism, according to Mewburn, produces either “stegosauruses”—people who grow immune to criticism, may cease to learn from it, and often learn to throw that critical violence back at others—or “chameleons”—people who learn to internalize criticism, who conform to it and lose their own sense of criticality and creativity in the process.

Mewburn recognizes in her former grad-student self a chameleon, which intrigues me. Might that “successful” honours student, or that favoured classroom contributor in the second row in fact be a skilled chameleon? If so, what learning opportunities might that student be missing out on?

Mewburn became a chameleon, as she puts it, as a result of steady and caustic criticism. Fortunately for me, I don’t work in an environment like the one that Mewburn describes in her post. But I’ve seen the behaviour she bemoans at conferences, where questions, criticisms and concerns are often performed; that is to say, where criticism can become a prop in a performance that casts its star as a hero defending academic values under duress, staunchly putting down those unworthy, lesser academics who attack its foundations.

I can happily admit that I am very, very rarely exposed to this type of assholery (to borrow Mewburn’s language). Thank god! But the relative low-frequency of professional vitriol in my life does not mean that I work in a field or discipline that is less subject to the negative effects of criticism than Mewburn describes in her post.

Why? Because, as Mewburn writes, “academia is in a state of endless, polite warfare.” And this polite warfare—where particular methodologies are criticized explicitly and implicitly while others are held sacrosanct—is most evident in academic scholarship, not in the classroom.

Discursively, a culture of critique is strong and well in the Humanities, for the good and the bad. The current discourse of the Humanities—how we write in journals, how we pose ourselves at conferences—is steeped in criticism, polite battle and a constant elbowing for discursive prominence. I find this to be especially true in my field, where the rhetoric of “musts,” “imperatives,” and “incumbents” can achieve the force of liturgy: if repeated often enough, these imperatives become internalized, can shut down critical thinking, and invoke simple memorization. Certain ways of talking, or of articulating a position, can come to feel like the only way to talk.

Mewburn points out that a culture of harsh criticism “becomes progressively more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students.” I’d suggest that any dominant culture of criticism and scholarship—whether vitriolic or not—gets transmitted to the students. Our research practices—our methodologies and critical perspectives—enter the classroom with us. Sometimes I wonder: Does the mode in which we write and conduct our research makes some things virtually unsayable in the classroom?  Or, perhaps worse, when we teach from a particular critical perspective, do we set students up to repeat our own scholarly liturgies?

I find myself back at what for me is a perennial question: how might I teach critical thinking, and, more specifically, how might I teach critical thinking without short-circuiting the very questioning, play, and subversion that critical thinking involves? How does one teach Critical Race Studies, for example, without bypassing criticality  in an effort to teach students a sanctioned discourse?

Before reading about chameleons and stegosauruses, I thought about the teaching of critical thinking in terms of what happens in the classroom.  But after recognizing a bit of the chameleon in myself, I’m beginning to wonder if the answers I’m looking for might not be there at all.

Perhaps I need to take a closer look at my own scholarship.


3 thoughts on “Cultures of Criticism

  1. Thanks for a great reflection on how to maintain and promote critical thinking without becoming either a dogmatic jerk (the imperative mode) or a push over (the passive mode). I guess one of the ways to do this is through a kind of Socratic or “inquisitive mode.” Here we can acknowledge that whatever change we hope to accomplish in the world starts with honest self-reflection, which is just what your piece does in terms of raising these issue in a productive way!

  2. Pingback: 10 Improvements | Dry-Erase Writings

  3. Pingback: A Man Called Ove: How to tell if the book you’re reading is sentimental crap. Or if you are cruel and unfeeling. | Literary Vice

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