Negative Reviews and Unintentional Slights: Some Further Tips on Not Being a Jerk in Academia (Skinner)

Some time ago, David Lincicum published a post on not being a jerk at conferences. It was an insightful post and I have returned to it several times since first reading it over the summer. One subtext throughout his piece is that–whether we like it or not–our egos are critically involved in what we do in academia. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because we can pour our passion(s) and the very best parts of ourselves into the things we teach, write, and present at conferences. Other times, it can be a disaster to have our egos so involved. Several recent events have had me thinking about this subject, so I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on how not to be a jerk in academia.

Event #1: First, let me backtrack for a moment: a little over two years ago I got a very pointed email from a well-known Jesus scholar, challenging me over a review of his book that I had written 6 years earlier. (That’s right. SIX YEARS EARLIER!) For whatever reason he had just gotten around to reading the review and wanted to take issue with something that I had written. Somewhat bewildered at receiving his email, I politely replied: “None of us is the fullest or best incarnation of ourselves at every moment. The Chris Skinner of today would likely be a little more reserved in his remarks.” Now keep in mind, I didn’t like his book and still don’t like the book, but I was trying to be collegial and gracious–two qualities I very much want to display in my interactions with other scholars. However, that wasn’t enough for him. He wrote back, demanding that I explain myself, that I defend my use of specific words, and parse out why I chose those words. Frankly, I was a bit incredulous and even sought counsel from a friend before responding a second time. I eventually decided to write back, explaining that even though I had a written a lengthy and substantive review six years earlier, I would try to answer his queries. After about six emails between the two of us, he finally seemed satiated, but I have to admit that I was a tad annoyed by the whole thing. That email exchange remains in my inbox to this day. It serves as a reminder to me of the type of scholar and colleague I do and don’t want to be.

Event #2: Flash forward: this past weekend I received a lengthy email from a senior scholar I have never met (or even heard of for that matter). In the email the scholar in question attempts to introduce me to his published works in an area about which I’ve written here and there. After a fairly detailed and seemingly cordial unveiling of his CV, the scholar brought up one of my recent publications, and I was able to divine that the purpose of his email was to question me as to why I had not included his work in the research or bibliography of my book. He felt that his contributions in that area were worthy of being included and that I had overlooked them (or him). Whenever I do a literature review for anything I intend to put in print, I do my very best to track down the most important and substantive contributions in English, German, and French. Sure, there are going to be oversights, and honestly, not only did I not know him or his work, I had never even seen his name. I have subsequently looked at his work and it is good, but I must say that the omission was not a slight in any way. It was honestly a case of pure ignorance on my part.

Event #3: Last week a review of a book I co-edited was published over at the Review of Biblical Literature. The review was written by the eminent NT scholar, Jimmy Dunn, and I was excited to read his review. Generally speaking, he is bullish on the book with the exception of three essays, one of which is mine. My chapter is the last one in the book and he is not as bullish on my contribution, which causes the review to go out with a bit of a whimper. I admit to feeling a bit of a sting when I read his comments, and of course I disagree with his take. But this is neither here nor there. I’m certain he was doing his best to provide an honest review. After reading his review, several friends wrote to me asking if I was going to contact him and challenge him on his comments. I didn’t even have to think. “No,” was my response.

These three events–two of which arose in the past seven days–have been swimming around in my head and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about them. However, I thought these would be useful reflections for those who find themselves in similar situations. So here goes….

(1) We are all personally invested in the things we write, often deeply so. We spend hours reading, translating, researching, and writing and we want our contributions to mean something. Many of us are high-strung individuals who love a good argument and want to bend others to our way of seeing things. However, it is imperative that we remain humble enough to hear the critiques of others. I tell my students that when I was younger, I had lots of answers and not enough questions. Now, one of my goals is to die with more questions than answers. This will keep me in the pursuit of humility (I’m sure I’m currently failing at that) and ever open to the ways in which I could be wrong.

(2) Sooner or later, everyone who puts their ideas out for public consumption is going to receive an unfavorable review from someone. So try not to take it personally. My first published book–a revision of my dissertation–was reviewed three times in print. Two were very positive and one was, let’s say “lukewarm.” In that lukewarm review, the reviewer clearly revealed by some of his comments that he had not thoroughly read (or at least had not understood) the second chapter in which I set forth my methodology. I knew the reviewer well enough to contact him and had even interviewed him for my previous blog, but I decided not to pursue it. Maybe he was pressed for time and didn’t read as carefully as he could have. Perhaps he didn’t understand my methodology and that misunderstanding came through in his negative comments. I decided that I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I have a friend in academia who swears that when you write a book, there is no such thing as bad publicity. It’s good to be loved and even good to be hated. Be worried when you are ignored!

(3) Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to contact someone who has given your work an unfavorable review. I personally know  several well-known senior scholars who have gotten angry, disrespectful, and nasty emails from junior scholars in reaction to an unfavorable review. Not everyone is going to like what you’ve written. Once you come to terms with that, you’ll be a lot happier in this profession. (However, if you get a review like this, I think everyone would agree that it’s okay to go all-out to have your voice, and your argument heard. See here for the appropriate response to the linked review.)

(4) We can all be sensitive about different things, and sometimes it’s amazing how small and insignificant those things can be. Earlier this year I was reading editorial comments on a chapter I had written. One word change from the editor–one stinking word change in my chapter–and I started getting paranoid. I thought, “this guy hates my work.” Moments like these beg for an infusion of perspective. A few years ago I co-edited a book to which John Meier contributed. The copy editor introduced a fairly noticeable error into his chapter and failed to remove it. When I saw that the error had made its way into the final published form of the book, I was devastated. I saw Prof. Meier a few weeks later and told him (with some fear and trepidation) about this gaffe. His response was classic. He said, “There’s still people starving in the world, right? Let’s not make a big deal over one footnote.” What a perspective!

(5) No matter what, be nice. For eight years I worked in a church. The protocol in answering the phone was pretty simple: thank the caller for phoning in, identify yourself by name, ask how you can help, and above all, BE NICE. I have found that this approach works in every other area of my life, even (and especially) with those I have strong disagreements with.

At the end of the day, those of us who get to do this for a living are exceptionally fortunate. We get to spend our days thinking, talking, studying, and writing about something we love. Try to remember that the next time someone seemingly leaves you out or considers your work compelling enough to read (then possibly disagree with)!

11 thoughts on “Negative Reviews and Unintentional Slights: Some Further Tips on Not Being a Jerk in Academia (Skinner)

  1. Thanks for this, Chris. I’ve always said that we should have a place where scholars (senior and junior) can swap stories of rejection and “strange encounters.” It made me feel so much better, after I did not get the first job I interviewed for, when two senior scholar friends of mine told me in two separate conversations that they too did not get an offer from that same school even though they had both interviewed there decades ago! “Perspective” was it? 🙂

  2. Thanks for this, a good addition to D. Lincicum’s earlier post. I clicked your link to J K Elliot’s JTS review of Chris Keith’s Aldulterae work – should not have done that. Wow, what a burn!

    1. Jon,

      I know. That review is brutal and COMPLETELY unwarranted. Chris won a Templeton Prize for that book. But even if he hadn’t, it’s not the way to do things. Luckily, the editors of JTS thought it was egregious enough to issue a retraction and to let Chris respond in print.

  3. Chris,
    thanks for this, it is a helpful thing to think about occasionally. And it is good not to be a jerk. And I don’t want to be a jerk here. ….
    But I wonder about your adoption of what one might call the Tom Wright approach to criticism – any critical review can be explained as the reviewer misunderstanding perfectly pellucid prose.
    You do it twice here: Jimmy Dunn “did not read very carefully” your chapter in the Festschrift; and the third reviewer of your dissertation monograph “had not thoroughly read (or at least had not understood) the second chapter”. This is one way to cope with critical reviews, but it shouldn’t be the only tool in the tool box, otherwise we won’t learn how to write in such a way as to help readers understand what we are writing. Pete.

    1. Thanks for this, Peter. You’re right. I don’t want to be that guy either. I know too many academics who approach things in this way and I appreciate you pointing it out. I think the post can be read in that way, and it’s not what I’m aiming for.

  4. Chris, thanks for this post and the helpful thoughts in it. I agree. I think that each of us in the field of academics (and in a subdiscipline that is oversaturated and thus full of people looking to make a name for themselves, including us) has to accept that taking criticism is part of the business if we hope to be even marginally successful. But we get to decide whether we’ll be the type of people who can take it and learn or can’t take it and become bitter. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to respond in print to a particularly unfair review that I received, and to have the journal apologize, but that entire situation was atypical. There are many, many reviews to which I’ve not responded at all and don’t need to respond. (Along those lines, I think you’re entirely right not to respond to Dunn’s comment.) In this vein, two other things might be helpful to keep in mind. First, the simple fact of the matter is that sometimes we’re just wrong, and reviewers can help us see that and thus where we can do better in the future. Second, you might get criticism because you’re wrong, but you might also get criticism because you’re right!

  5. “[Y]ou might get criticism because you’re wrong, but you might also get criticism because you’re right!” (Chris Keith). Very true. Cultivating humility / teachability, on the one hand, and trust in one’s own scholarship, on the other, are both virtues, in their own way.

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