Pride and peer review: taking criticism as an academic skill

We’re aiming to write about various academic skills on FiSch over the next few months. Aside from the narrow, subject-specific skills we all acquire in our fields – from paleography to coding to titration – there are many more general skills academics need to thrive in our work, and through which Christians have the larger goal of serving our Lord as well as those around us.

Bruno Medeiros has provided several helpful posts on the skill of listening, and the skill I want to talk about is related: taking criticism. This is something I am not very good at, so I won’t be offering specific recommendations! But I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the processes of criticism in academic contexts and how we as Christian academics can respond in ways which are godly and productive.

I’m still a graduate student, and so feedback and (usually constructive!) criticism are an important part of my current academic life. My experiences so far have often reminded me how poor I am at responding well to criticism, however. One example of this (which still stings) was the written feedback on my MPhil thesis: while it had several positive points, the assessor questioned my command of the language of the text I’d analysed and suggested I was using the translation as a crutch. I found this incredibly frustrating and it played on my mind for weeks. Perhaps you can relate to the resentment even a small piece of criticism can provoke.

I had to come to terms with the pride at the root of my frustration: I was overprotective of my work to the extent I found it difficult to admit any flaw in it. But my pride wasn’t productive – it wouldn’t help me move from my finished and definitely flawed Masters project to more ambitious, complicated doctoral work. What’s more, if I couldn’t take on board the criticism of this specific piece of work, then how would I work with a supervisor whose job is to critique and improve my thinking, much less benefit from the long process of transfer, confirmation, and defence of my DPhil?

The Bible obviously doesn’t have anything specific to say about academic evaluations, peer review, or supervisory relationships – but pride is a recurring theme in Scripture, and it’s very often pride which prevents us benefiting from the processes of criticism which make academic work better. Ecclesiastes instructs, ‘Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools’, and James that ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’. For me, this cuts right to the heart of the proud, resentful anger I can be tempted to feel when my work is criticised. Proverbs reminds us that ‘wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’. Things which are hard to hear often benefit us if we accept them, while an academic who never hears anything but flattery will inevitably become the most unbearable of colleagues!

There’s a lot more that could be said on this subject: how do we respond if criticism is unjustified or overly personal? How should we think about the systemic biases of university cultures, which often tip the balance of critical feedback more heavily in the direction of certain types of people?

I haven’t got the space here to discuss all these complexities. In these areas of academic life, as in all of life, however, our example must be Christ: who ‘emptied himself… and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. Jesus’s profound humility throws our academic pride into sharp relief. Let’s pray for the grace to reflect it a little more each time criticism comes our way.

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