Friday, March 16, 2007

Losing My Stomach for Honest Academic Exchange

Brian Tamanaha

A few months ago I found myself in a fix over a book review I had committed to. When the Editor asked me to do the review, I readily agreed because I have known the author (in a collegial way) for many years, and I admire his work. I expected that the book, which I had not yet seen, would be excellent. Unfortunately, after reading the book, I had very serious reservations about the argument.

At that point, I had two options:

I could be honest and write a deeply critical review. But that would likely spell the end of our relationship.

I could write a bland descriptive review of the argument in the book which left out my critical concerns. But that would betray the readers of the review who expected an honest appraisal of the book.

I told the Editor that I could not bring myself to write the honest critical review, but would be willing to write the descriptive one. He did not want a descriptive review, and graciously let me off the hook.

More recently, I was asked by a different journal to review another book I had not yet read, although this time I did not know the author. I agreed because the subject is in my field. Much of the book was interesting and informative, but it was, in my opinion, flawed in important ways.

This time I went ahead and wrote the review, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Although I emphasized the strengths, no doubt the weaknesses I identify will loom large for anyone who reads the review (and certainly for the author). From the moment I sent the review to the Editor, I have experienced pangs of remorse for the critical things I wrote.

From now on, to avoid being in these situations, I have resolved to only write reviews for books that I truly like (which I have done with pleasure a number of times). I feel like a coward, shirking my responsibility as an academic.

I haven’t always been reluctant to offer pointed criticisms of academic work, and I still do so—as I recently did in a post about the “judicial politics” field—if I think that a useful point would come of it. But I am becoming increasingly gun shy about the whole “honest academic debate” enterprise.

One reason for my reluctance is that I know I have offended people in the past—people I like and admire—by giving my honest critical opinion on an academic matter, an opinion which I meant as a part of an intellectual exchange but which they took personally. Although I was careful to not articulate my objections in personal terms, we all take our own ideas seriously, and thus it is easy to be put off personally by criticisms of the ideas.

Another reason for my reluctance is that there is a lot of nastiness in the realm of the exchange of ideas today (witness blog comment threads), including in law reviews (particularly in connection with book reviews). We seem to be collectively losing the sense of what it means to disagree over ideas while not being personal and not taking it personally.

It’s not as much fun as it used to be to have a frank exchange of ideas, at least for me. More importantly, if we all start censoring our critical thoughts out of a desire not to offend others, or to avoid provoking a backlash, academic discourse will suffer. For this reason, I hope others do not share in my cowardice.


Great praise and admiration for you courage in admitting your cowardice. Now, buck up boy, and get back in the arena.

You are right to percieve that such cowardice is deeply problematical. To be blunt, you are failing to live up to your responsibilities as a scholar and an academic. You shouldnt enjoy the perks of the job if you run from the responsibilities.

You seem to have just the right sense of how discourse is best conducted, and a level of self-honesty that is rare. The world needs that. Now get back in there.

Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. Niceness is over-rated (as are many other things).

Freedom of speech loses some of its allure when we don't feel free to speak.

That being said, I will admit to holding my own tongue in situations where blunt honesty is uncalled for. Social situations (my sweetie has kindly kept me at bay from some of the big Republicans she has to deal with).

But in columns and blogs where the very subject and raison d'etre is the exchange of information and viewpoints on topics of concern, I think that honesty and openness ought be paramount (and deviations therefrom excoriated in no uncertain terms).


Look--I really don't have a lot of patience with your stance.

You get PAID a lot of $$$ (when compared to most Americans) to make scholarly judgements, even when these judgements might be uncomfortable, even when they cause you personal anguish.

Suck it up bud. If you can blog, you can right an honest book review.

BTW: I've been there, done that, gotten a few new shiny bodily orfaces for my trouble. But, that's my job as a scholar. I've got 2 reviews to crank out before the end of the term.

There are two kinds of intellectual corruption, one of which is noble in its way (and not only because it is inevitable) and the other not. In the first you have friends with whom you share thoughts and ideas; you feel affection for them as people because you appreciate their ideas, not just as ideas per se but because they are akin to your own and in defending them you defend yourself, if not in simple terms then in more complex ones. These are people therefore, whom you respect.

The other form, which is corrupt and nothing else, is to have friends that one likes for no specific reason other than they are friends: to see friendship as tautology, and to defend their ideas, and them (as they defend you) based on nothing but that. This is to be a coward and to treat your friends as cowards, all of you needing protection from each other and the world.
So choose the latter if you want, but don't try to pretend that respect has any part to play.

If you want to worry about the problems we're facing at the moment, read your own post again. Your argument for cowardice is a prime example of why academia that has become a ghetto of empty professionallism.

Quit your fucking job or do it right

Dear Mr. Ghirlandaio,

Do not be so harsh on Professor Tamanaha.

After all, in his admission of his intellectual cowardice, Professor Tamanaha does us a great service by reminding us the fundamental, unbridgeable difference between the genuine seekers of truth and today's academics. For an elaboration, see Nichomachean Ethics 1096a.

In a related instance, many physicians are peer reviewed periodically by their collegues as part of their job certification. The reviewers are anonymous due to the desire for honest reviews of medical cases. Such anonymous reviews may be acceptable, especially in pre-publication reviews.

If there is objectivity to legal scholarship, or at least in applying relevant cases to support one's assertions, then even a critical review should be accepted by the scholar.

won joon,
I admit that I am weak: learning has never become for me fully as it should its own reward. My parents were both academics and I've never escaped urge to teach.

fraud guy,
Numbers are not words; law is not science
We live by one and merely make use of the other. Try it the other way around and it doesn't work.

Mr. Tamanaha,

I'm sympathatic to your predicament - certainly moreso than most of the commenters above me.

Nonetheless, my ultimate advice may sound harsh: get better friends.

If your friends are unable to understand substantive criticism of their work and respond appropriately, are they really friends worth having? As academics who are interested in ideas, surely you've conversed and are aware of differences in doctrine?

Every time you're tempted to avoid an honest critique, remember why you entered academia in the first place: presumably a love of truth and learning. These are noble commitments. They will never occur unless wrongheaded ideas are challenged.

Prejudging your friends as unable to take criticism from you is unfair to them; does it arise out of a selfish desire to keep a friendship you don't think you've earned?

Give them a chance to be a better person, if they aren't already. Show them you trust their maturity by being an honest critic of their work.

Mr. Tamanaha,

Have you considered communicating with the author of the book that you consider flawed before you submit your review?

Much of the hurt that comes with a review is its public, and possibly surprising, nature.

Conversing with the author would clear up confusions you might have, allow the author to defend his or her ideas, give the author the sense that you care about them and their ideas, and lessen any surprise in reading the review.

Of course, unless you communicate by email, it might be hard to be completely honest, even in private.

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Academic Freedom proponents of academic freedom believe that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy. They argue that academic communities are repeatedly targeted for repression due to their ability to shape and control the flow of information. When scholars attempt to teach or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, they may find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death. For example, in North Africa, a professor of public health discovered that his country's infant mortality rate was higher than government figures ngs. Still, sportsbook, academic freedom has limits. In the United States, for example, according to the widely recognized "1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure", teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When they speak or write in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution. Academic tenure protects academic freedom by ensuring that teachers can be fired only for causes such as gross professional incompetence or behavior that evokes condemnation from the academic community itself.

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