Five years ago, when the Viva for my PhD was approaching, I was worried about it and was told to look at it in a different way – that someone had bothered to read my work from beginning to end, they had engaged with it, and they wanted to debate it. In other words, it was a compliment, not something to worry about. In hindsight, that is a good way of looking at it – although it doesn’t stop the stress at the time.
But I am getting concerned how some academics and other writers not only run away in fright of someone reading and challenging and debating their work, but view it as an act of aggression. It seems that it is believed that it is a God-given right that they/we can write something, advertise on social media that they/we have written it and thus draw attention to it, and then not want people to do anything but provide unequivocal praise.
We should not be turning into an academic equivalent of the Memphis Mafia – saying “that’s right” to every utterance, and unable to question ideas, theories and, yes, supposed facts. If people publish something, and/or draw attention to their work, then they should expect it to be debated in a rigorous fashion. Are we really heading to a position where a conference panel ends not with questions from the audience but with compliments from the audience in case the questions are a tad awkward and draw attention to something we haven’t considered?
Academia and academic writing cannot and should not be a place inhabited by those who want to type away in an office with a closed door and the phone off the hook, who then go to the door and shove their latest article out into the public domain through the gap at the bottom, before running back to their chair ready to don blindfolds and earplugs so they can’t see any negative or challenging reactions to it.
Anyone happy and confident with their work and their research would not be fearing debate. And how boring it would be if this became the norm. I could never imagine Pauline Kael disagreeing with Andrew Sarris but keeping quiet about it in case she hurt his feelings. While that kind of academic jousting might not be for all, hiding away from dissenting voices must not be the way forward.
Sadly, as so much debate is now done on social media, hiding away is much easier. We can block anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is asking awkward questions and debating our ideas. But we need to remember that there is a world outside our offices, or bedrooms, or wherever we write and think. And perhaps if we as writers and, indeed, as human beings, ventured out there a bit more often and spoke to people other than those who we know will agree with us, we might learn something, and most definitely might be more rigorous in our own ideas.
And, of course, I write this at the same time as it is announced that next year will see the formation of a new academic journal for controversial ideas, where academics can publish anonymously if they are worried they might receive a backlash to their work. Jeff McMahan, one of the organisers of the journal, has been quoted as saying, “it would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.” How the hell did we come to THIS? Surely, part of the reason why the country is so divided is because people can hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts and spout as much drivel as they want without any fear of reprisals? Do we want an academic world that works in the same way? Haixin Dang and Joshua Habgood-Coate recently wrote in a piece about the formation of the journal:
When it is working well, academic inquiry is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and work together to open up new fields of inquiry. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is talking, what they have said before, and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out from the conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversation.
If we have ideas, theories, plans, or arguments, then it is our duty to own them and be confident enough in them to be able to argue our position – and there is nothing wrong with hearing what others have to say about those ideas and then changing our own minds. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.
I recently read an article that said the following:
There is (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.
Amen to that.
And yes, I realise that not all authors or academics (and it should be reiterated that this goes beyond academia) are the head-butting, argumentative type, but that does not mean that anyone should be hiding behind the sofa in case a negative response or difficult question is aimed towards them. Debate doesn’t have to be confrontational – but it is likely to become more confrontational when you start being defensive or simply run away from it!
I should, of course, say that comments are welcome 😉