Thinking about Criticism

I just read “In Praise of Tough Criticism” over on the Chronicle.  I almost didn’t make it more than two paragraphs in, because of course the author chose to characterize the non-confrontational, compassionate, intellectually mushy, teaching-oriented academic as a woman.  But people in the comments pointed that out – see #9 and #10 particularly – so I’m not going to rant about it, I swear.

Once I finished being annoyed, though, the article made me reflect about my own persona as a critic.  I recognized myself in both Smith and Jones, which you wouldn’t think would be so easy or possible from the way Di Leo writes.  Either one puts social affirmation ahead of critical truth, or the other way around.  What I find myself doing, though, is taking on different critical personae in different situations, depending on my goals, who else is involved, and the consequences of my actions for all participants.

Consider this.  As a teacher, I make a point of never shutting a student down in class discussion, no matter how off-base their ideas.  Like the fictional Jones, I find that there’s something worthwhile in everything a student has to say, even if it’s only an insight into what they’re thinking or an intellectual provocation for the rest of the class.  On the other hand, my students get extensive written critical feedback about their class projects, including specific and concrete pointers to problematic elements in their work, in a positively Smithian fashion.  The difference, to me, is critiquing ideas versus critiquing products.  I want my students to develop their own ideas within an intellectually serious framework.  However, if they’re going to do work that builds on those ideas, I expect it to be rigorous and persuasive.  They can disagree with me on their core ideas, but that doesn’t change my standards for how well they need to follow through.

At the same time, when it comes to both scholarly activity and teaching, I often find myself taking a third path.  Rather than emphasize idea formation (Jones) or summative evaluation (Smith), I ask questions like “How can you make this better?”  Instead of being a critic outside the author’s intellectual process, I put myself into that process with them.  My job as a critic becomes asking them the hard questions, and building together on the answers they give.  Unlike Jones, pointing out the hard problems is the point of the activity; unlike Smith, doing it collaboratively creates an affiliative community of its own, where good relationships and good work are mutually supportive, not in tension with each other.

I’m most able to achieve this kind of critical engagement when I’m both an expert and a peer.  I’m really excited, for example, to meet with a former student of mine tomorrow and talk about her dissertation.  I expect to give her a hard time, joyfully, and to have my own ideas challenged joyfully in return.

I also don’t think it’s unrelated to the field I’m in.  You could call this critical model intellectual play-testing.  (Emphasis on both play and testing!)

So, what about you?  When are you a Smith or a Jones?  And are you ever a Hammer?

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