making comparative judgments

Prof. Brian Tamanaha says that that he’s “losing [his] stomach for honest academic exchange,” meaning that he no longer wants to write critical reviews of peers’ work. He writes, “I feel like a coward, shirking my responsibility as an academic.” I can sympathize, having been deeply involved lately in making comparative judgments. I’m the chair of a job search committee that’s choosing among more than 225 applicants for–at most–three jobs. That inevitably means making comparative judgments about publications and presentations. I also do a fair amount of peer-reviewing. And I’m on the other side of the table all the time, with plenty of pending articles, grant proposals, and other applications of my own. A book manuscript of mine was recently rejected after a 15-month wait because of a negative peer-review.

It is our academic duty to make such critical judgments. My Institute cannot give jobs to all 225 applicants, so we must judge their merits, or at least their “fit” for our positions. Publishers cannot print even a small proportion of the manuscripts they are offered; they must try to pick the best ones. Even the search for truth requires critical judgments. If you argue that P and I believe that not-P, we cannot both be right. To establish whether P or not-P is the case, I should try to show why you are wrong. I need to do that in public so that you and others can follow and assess my arguments.

Still, making comparative judgments of merit is only one mode of academic interaction. We can also cooperate and learn from one another. Even if you argue P when P is not the case, I may be able to get a lot out of your argument, your evidence, your methodology, or your style. I share Professor Tamanaha’s feeling that making comparative critical judgments is one of the worst parts of academic life–a necessity, but not a pleasure.

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