Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Priceless Advice and a Book Idea

I am working on a book idea in which I would collect the good advice I have sought, received, and put to work for me in graduate school. One particular goldden nugget has been useful for me today and most every other day that I work on revisions of my work.

When I was thinking about moving forward with a career as a philosopher, John Lachs said to me that "if you are willing to take criticism, you can go very far."

In a Gallup poll from March of 2001, Americans were asked about what they fear. The second most frequently cited terror was public speaking. Why are we so afraid of speaking? My theory is that we are afraid of criticism. Put another way, we don't want to be laughed at or to look stupid.

The thread here is that so often people do not put their ideas out there for fear that either they might be wrong, they might be laughed at, or they might otherwise be criticized. As an academic, it is vital to overcome that fear. How can we propose ideas, test theories, or advocate what is right if we are afraid of being wrong?

It may sound trite, but the shift that people need to make is away from feeling victimized by criticism to being helped. I'll admit that on a gut level, criticism rarely feels good. Some strange people seek it out because they come to enjoy being the outsider, the rebel. At the same time and in a similar way, scholars can learn to enjoy and seek out criticism. The reason is simple. We divorce criticism of our ideas from criticism of ourselves. In trying to solve problems and argue points of view, we propose a way of thinking, submit it for peer review, and then get challenging feedback from scholars who point out the greatest difficulties in our arguments. Although it sounds like an adversarial process (and yes, sometimes people can be jerks), almost always in my experience feedback has included an assessment of the value of the contribution. If I want my work to be better and as strong as it can be, I must want that feedback.

I write this to put one piece of a book idea out there, but also to remind myself of the value and honor it is to get excellent, challenging feedback on my work. It helps me to take a deep breath and think about this advice as I dive into a project once again. If you've got great advice about scholarship or taking or giving criticism, post a comment.

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