"Being a historian means being constantly criticized and even rejected for the rest of your life"

According to Greg Kennedy, it all begins with the “Ordeal” of the dissertation or thesis defense.  From this point forward we are constantly attacked, criticized, revised, and evaluated (by peers, administrators, and students).  Our work must suffer the degradation of peer review.  Our books must suffer under the weight of negative reviews  (and the occasional attack from Glenn Beck).  Our conference papers are cut to shreds by the arrogant and pompous senior scholar.  Our grant proposals are turned down.  And our reputations as historians are built upon how well we (or should I say our work) survives the attack.  Kennedy compares it to a lifelong boot camp.  He wonders whether all of this criticism makes us better historians.

Here is a taste of his post entitled “The Ordeal: Evaluation and the Production of Historians.”

My own experience has led me to believe that the time has come to review “the Ordeal” of historians. This semester, one of my own students went through a Master’s thesis defence and I am also evaluating somebody else’s thesis for an upcoming defence. Both experiences have been challenging and I find myself questioning WHY we test our students in this way. Does it make us better historians? Is this experience fundamental to the requirements of our profession? Throughout my career, at conferences and public talks, I have seen people aggressively attack speakers and try to discredit or dismiss their work. Everyone else in the room shifted uncomfortably but rarely did someone intervene, even though everyone knew that the line into unconstructive criticism had been crossed. Often, people will say things like “that is just the way that person is, it was not personal”. I have similarly seen people take advantage of the protection of the anonymous peer review process to launch devastating attacks. Some of the statements certain reviewers make are more personal insult than constructive criticism. Perhaps their intentions were good, but from their tone and word choice it is hard to believe that their aim was not to discourage, discredit or harm. In talking to various editors and members of grant committees, I realize that the competition is fierce, the review process is long and it is difficult to find reviewers.

Excuses notwithstanding, our acceptance of these excesses allows them to flourish. Some people may even agree with such tactics. Watch Question Period or read a newspaper and you will find no shortage of insults and attacks launched by supposedly professional political leaders at each other. Our legal system is unashamedly adversarial, and witnesses and defendants are regularly attacked as a way of “getting to the truth.” Are these appropriate models for the profession of history?

Read the entire piece here.

HT: AHA Today

3 thoughts on “"Being a historian means being constantly criticized and even rejected for the rest of your life"

  1. From the notes from the above link:

    Susan Wendell speaks of this in a note (25/07/92) she wrote me on reading a draft of this paper:

    “In addition to the consequences you point out, I think that the performance-under-fire aspect of presenting and hearing papers gives our students a false picture of philosophy. After all, a philosophic position is not proven false just because Jane Q. Philosopher can not instantly think of a good rebuttal to a criticism from the audience, nor is Jane thus proven to be a bad philosopher. Unfortunately, uncharitable opinions of precisely these sorts often are fostered in such circumstances. Even what looks to be a devastating criticism is sometimes seen to be smoke-and-mirrors after a few hours of hard thought. Many students, however, come to value the quick and clever point too highly. I have seen too many smart alecks, who have no significant ability to listen, produced by a philosophical education.”

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  2. Our legal system is unashamedly adversarial, and witnesses and defendants are regularly attacked as a way of “getting to the truth.” Are these appropriate models for the profession of history?

    Amen. We watch too much Law & Order, read too little Plato, where the inquiry is co-operative.

    Indeed, a semi-famous essay, “Philsophy as Bloodsport.”

    http://www.sfu.ca/~swartz/blood_sport.htm

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