Academic discourse: robust argument, or personal unkindness?

Last week a friend, who works in another university, wrote me an email telling me about the stress she is experiencing as a result of the behaviour of an academic colleague, who has been haranguing her (and others) at committee meetings. It is not an entirely rare experience in universities, alas.

In a previous job, I had a colleague who was very keen on presenting himself as a ‘take-me-as-you-find-me’ character who never failed to be forthright in his opinions and who liked to say that everyone deserved to hear the ‘honest truth’ from him. Let us call him John. John’s view of the world was not a rosy one. The world was a bad place, and people were bad, and times were hard. This man’s glass was not so much half empty as entirely drained of even the last drop of liquid. And nobody who came into contact with him was spared a full account of his boundless and energetic pessimism. Nor were they spared his views of their faults and weaknesses, which he believed he had a duty to point out.

John was also fond of saying that academic discussions needed to be ‘robust’, though I rather came to the conclusion that what he meant was that he needed to be gratuitously rude and discourteous when engaging in debate. His rationale was that academic arguments needed to be tested, and that this required the counter-argument to be expressed as sharply as possible to see if the original point could withstand the heat.

Anyway, one day John appeared in my office and began with: ‘Can I be frank?’

I replied, ‘Of course, Frank, absolutely. And by what surname would you like to be known?’

John (now Frank) stood there for a moment, uncharacteristically indecisive. He was perhaps weighing up whether I had been trying to be witty or just unpleasant. He left the room without saying anything else, so I think unpleasant won out. But he never burdened me again with his frank views.

There is, I think, a particular streak in some university circles that makes people feel there is something honourable or even noble in ‘speaking the truth’ in circumstances where ‘the truth’ is largely designed to hurt or offend. I am neither suggesting that this is widespread nor arguing that deception or dishonesty is better, but I do sometimes wonder at the apparent indifference we see in some people as to the effect they have on others. The view that intellectual integrity somehow justifies or even requires points to be made in an unkind way is not really anything better than an excuse for bullying.

I should emphasise that I am not saying that all academic discourse is personally mean; in fact, I am grateful for a spirit of community and solidarity which mostly characterizes the places where I have worked. But it is worth saying that there is nothing intellectually or personally weak in showing concern and kindness, even (and maybe especially) where we disagree; and maybe it would be good every now and again to remind ourselves of that, and to behave accordingly. No matter how intellectually powerful you think your argument may be, there is no need to express it in a personally rude manner. Ever.

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8 Comments on “Academic discourse: robust argument, or personal unkindness?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    This is rather clear for me: your Frank or John is simply a rude individual inside and, crucially, outside academia. The academic masque can often be used to perform different roles for different aims, not least career advancement, ultimately though no one can hide one’s ‘true’ rude or kind Self forever…

  2. Vincent Says:

    Loath as I am to disagree. I cannot help but think there is a pathology behind this type of attitude. Now don’t mistake me, there are lots of really nasty coves out there. But I tend to the notion that if someone has the sensitivity to create they are not so irredeemable. So before I went down the nuclear route I would first fire a salvo across the bow by telling the person that I find his methods bullying and that when he addresses me to kindly adjust.
    This, and with I suspect 80% of such cases, causes profound shock that anyone could see their stance in such a way.- You can see it, the shock, in the face.- The stance being the modus operandi of the profoundly shy. Girding themselves as it were.
    It’s hardly a shock either. That the university space tosses up lots of such. When the daily toil brings them from home to office thence to lecture. Where they have a unsurpassable barrier. You’d have to wonder exactly how many hours a year they are in the semi intimacy of committee situations. And while this is one of your milieu, you are hardly the usual within college.
    The warning salvo has the advantage of telling the real bully to back off. So, win-win.

    • This might work with some, but with others it might just be seen as a reason for even more ‘robust’ words…

      • Vincent Says:

        Then fire the broadside and sink the sod.

        • Wendymr Says:

          …if you can.

          Frequently, these bullies have been around long enough to work their way into quite secure positions, commanding a fair amount of power. They sit on important committees, have the ear of the Dean or HoD (or even are the HoD), or have a significant say in the allocation of teaching or other responsibilities. And the person on the receiving end of the ‘frank and robust words’ is a junior staff member, a contract researcher or even a PhD student hoping for a job in the department.

          And, of course, these ‘frank exchanges’ or ‘robust discussions’ are presented as normal and something the recipient should of course be able to cope with, and if they cannot then clearly they’re not cut out for this environment.

          A significant part of the problem is not just that there are many ‘Johns’ around; it’s that nobody put a stop to their behaviour when they were junior enough to have to accept that message. In my own experience, and that of others I spoke with who worked at other institutions, most long-serving colleagues’ attitude to this sort of behaviour tended to be ‘oh, that’s just the way John is – you have to get used to him’, rather than recognising the behaviour as bullying and intimidating, which is the way newer and junior staff members saw it. I have certainly sat through appalling behaviour at PhD student presentations – behaviour which left the student presenting, and newer/junior people present, completely horrified and intimidated, and which was seen by senior staff as nothing out of the ordinary.

          So, to be “frank”, I don’t just blame ‘John’ here; I blame John’s heads of department and senior colleagues over the years for failing to deal with his intimidatory behaviour long ago.

  3. no-name Says:

    I wonder what Ernie’s thoughts are on this…

  4. Al Says:

    There is such a thing as productive conflict!
    Al (the rude)

  5. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    An actual academic argument has absolutely no place for rudeness because any academics worth their salt will either

    a) be able to see which position is correct regardless of who is holding it


    b) if they are unable to do so will be able to consider and especially argue from any perspective they oppose.

    To quote Aristotle( I can’t believe I’m actually doing this)

    It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. — Aristotle

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