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how to criticise with kindness

While we were constructing this resource we often thought about how theory is presented by colleagues in our discipline. All of us could recall academics at conferences or seminars who had responded curtly when challenged or who reverted to what we called ‘academic games’ - for example dealing unfairly with certain writers, criticising the person rather than the idea, arguing for definitive interpretation of texts which are open to interpretation.

If we are going to debate theories we need to do this kindly. We need to see the strengths in others’ viewpoints, recognise that our own theoretical interpretation might be distorted, accept that our theories may turn out to be mistaken, or at least superseded one day.

We found two interesting contributions in Maria Popova's BrainPickings site:

Daniel Dennet is cited as someone who engages in controversial debates but argues for four rules in composing a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Of course knowledge proceeds through robustly expressed debate but there are ways of doing this that help sustain academic discourse and ways that shut discourse down. How would you present your theoretical position in a way that was both kind and robust?