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  • Writer's pictureSteven Lee

Dealing with Critics

You have put-in close to 100 hours on your current project--a paper for a blog, a conference, Even though you've done all this before, many times, you still struggle to meet the deadline, ensuring everything has been checked, rechecked, and ready to go. All the sources in the text match the reference list, your methodology is sound, all elements conform to the style manual. Then, you send it out into the world. Your friends and colleagues will like your post, offer their congratulations and support because they are your friends and they are awesome. You may receive some comments across social media and perhaps a share or two. In some cases, your work might attract the attention of a journalist, who will cite your work in their next piece. After a few days, weeks, or even months, you begin to feel like you've made a genuine contribution to your field and to the world.

One day, you receive a message out of the blue. It's your very first critic. This person has an axe to grind, and your work is fresh meat for the chopping block. It's only fair, after all, since your discipline is largely quantitative in nature and strictly follows the scientific method. If your conclusions differ from those of the critic, one of you must necessarily be wrong...right?

In this cutting-edge, technological world, there is a new adage that says, "Never read the comments." My wife always tells me this, but I almost always fail to heed her advice--at least on this point. This is a big reason why I turn-off commenting on my blog; I would rather my readers to contact me directly with praise or pushback than for my post to turn into an irredeemable dumpster fire.

Now, not all critics have malicious intent. Many can be helpful in providing the feedback necessary to spur growth in your development as a professional or an academic. Other than by gut reaction, how can you tell the difference between a propitious pundit and a deviant detractor? You should consider several factors before rendering judgement on your harranguing hanger-on.


One of the most important factors to consider is the situation in which the critique arises. Did you openly request for comment, criticism, or constructive feedback, or was it volunteered? Is the feedback part and parcel of the process? Presenting at a professional or academic conference and submitting an article for publication necessarily include input from one's peers. Blog posts and other media may also attract critics even if that was not the original intention of creating the content. That leads us to the second factor.


It is not just what is said or how it is phrased that makes a difference. Who says it is just as important. Someone who knows nothing about the subject matter should not be given equal consideration to an expert. The internet is terrible about this; Everyone has an opinion, and about 99% of them are uninformed at best. Granted, there are subjects in which everyone has a stake. Nevertheless, to say that there are nuances between the opinion of an expert and a lay person is a gross understatement. Who weighs in on your endeavor matters a lot, so take that into account.


Just how bad is the critique? Is it scathing? On point? Hateful or hurtful? All of these matter because there are both productive and pointless motives for criticism. It can help or harm the developer, which is why good Samaritans will often soften or mask some of the bite to take the sting out of the realization that your efforts are wanting. Keep in mind that though a critique may seem mild at first, there may be more incoming even after the initial wave of errors have been addressed and resolved. This happens particularly often in peer-reviewed journal submissions. Admittedly, it happens less as you mature into a better scholar, but it's still an obstacle that must be overcome. So long as the degree of the critique matches the other factors, you can safely venture a guess that your naysayer is noble of purpose.

Personal Attacks

The biggest giveaway that your commentator is a callous carper is when (s)he quickly (and frequently) launches attacks not just at your work but at your person. When your abilities, choices, or demographics are called into question, you know your interlocutor is up to no good. There's no place for this in the academy or elsewhere, yet it occurs frequently between people of different vocations. For example, when you attend an academic conference, you probably won't hear faculty members--even those of rival institutions--demean each other. However, in the case of the more persnickety professor, you will read about his/her attacks on politicians and the ensuing demands for the institution to release said professor from his/her post.

Thickening the Skin

Having a tough hide is a bonus for any aspiring academic. When faced with angst-ridden argumentation, it is best to consider one's options before reacting. Will delving into dialogue advance your agenda or simply waste your time? There is definitely a cost-benefit analysis to calculate. While enlivening one's epidermis is generally good practice for climbing the ivory tower, there is a bright line between browbeating banter and acerbic aggression. Nobody is deserving of abuse. Aside from its long-term negative effects, verbal and emotional mistreatment sidesteps the purpose of a critique: to establish mutual understanding with the goal of collaborative enrichment.

An Example

Recently, I received an unexpected email from a fellow blogger. This person is a self-proclaimed expert but (to the best of my knowledge) has no credentials--no certifications, no degrees, no peer-reviewed publications, nothing that signals "expert" to the public. This person owns and operates a website that is filled with self-published content. While there's nothing wrong with this, it can cause confusion surrounding whether a piece of content is right or wrong. The context point I raised earlier is especially important here. Debates and dialogue occur within a specific context. There is no ether.

The first research methods course in my PhD program was taught by the program director. One of the first things she said during the first class is that you cannot walk into a room and start talking about a subject that interests you. She was speaking metaphorically for the scholarly literature within a given discipline. The appropriate way to become part of the conversation is first to listen and then, after confirming one's understanding of what's been said so far, then offering your expert viewpoint. This is something that is difficult for those outside academia to understand. Academics are hesitant to offer bold opinions--particularly outside their specialty--not because they are uneducated or lazy, but because they lack the context in which the discussion is already occurring.

For instance, suppose the question is raised whether it is preferable to buy life insurance--from a budgeting standpoint--earlier or later in life. As a classroom exercise, it's perfectly acceptable to discuss potential answers, factors, and justifications with students, and even expand the discussion to a department-wide round table. However, this is vastly different than opining the veracity or vitiation of a specialist's conclusion. Chances are, returning to the example, that scholars have already pontificated several points with polished precision. And while the journeyman (or woman) may insist that two conclusions seem contradictory, what "contradiction" means is defined within the context in which the scholarly dialogue occurs. Stating that one has "done the math" and pursued the "logical approach" to arrive at the answer is insufficient for two reasons. First, assumptions vary between hypotheticals and methodologies. Life insurance agents may define "early" and "late" differently than a risk management professor. There may be irreconcilable differences in definitions, standards, and values across industries. Second, and more importantly, participating in and understanding the academic environment, with all its rigor, in which the question arises are largely the same.

This does not mean that a lay person must rise to the heights of a given field in order to render sound opinions. However, educating oneself on what others have articulated, appreciating the struggles that scholars have endured to resolve competing claims, and realizing that phenomena subject to our investigations do not exist in a vacuum is a necessary prerequisite to effective and efficient engagement. Academics have given the majority of their lives in pursuit of expanding the body of knowledge, and while this lifelong commitment does not preserve them from error, it does require respect from those who follow a different path. Being critical should be instrumental to discovery and betterment, both of which are cardinally collegial callings.

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