Responding to Criticism of Your Scholarship

I hate to be criticized.

As an historian, it’s not fun to be told that your interpretation of historical evidence is wrong or lacking. The immediate reaction that I have is a desire to dig through my research files and prove the critic wrong. Honestly, though, once I’ve taken a few moments (or days), I usually see the validity of the criticism.

I offer as an example scholarly reviews of my first book, Old Hickory’s Nephew, which were generally positive, but most of the ones that I saw contained some criticism.

John Sacher took me to task for not examining Donelson’s life post-1856 in greater detail and for not making more clear how his life “exemplifie[d] the themes of southern honor and masculinity” [1]. Along similar themes, Anne Marshall pointed out that I could have done more explanation of “the cultural expectations of nineteenth-century southern manhood and the inner workings of social mobility” [2]. John Belohlavek was unconvinced by my assertion that Donelson had an “extraordinary” political career, considering Donelson’s ineptitude at many of his public positions [3]. Matthew Crocker noted that I overemphasized Donelson’s virtue and honor at the expense of highlighting his obsession with money and his anxiety about his relationship with Jackson [4].

As kind and constructive as these reviews were, it was still hard reading them. After secluding myself for long hours in archives and forcing myself to sit in front of a computer screen to finish the dissertation, then revise it into a publishable manuscript, I deserved accolades and awards, right? Doesn’t effort=an “A”?

Not so much. I wrote a serviceable biography of a forgotten politician that has been, and likely will continue to be, cited when someone is discussing Texas annexation or Jackson’s advisors. The above reviewers, all of whose scholarship I respect and some of whom are even friends, were exactly right in their criticisms. I should have done more with Donelson’s post-1856 years (and may yet), and I needed to read more of the literature on southern honor and masculinity to feel more comfortable in making assertions and connections. But I didn’t, and the fault lies at my feet.

I have used these examples to make several points to my historical methods students. First, no scholar achieves perfection. There is always something that one could (or even should) change about a completed paper, essay, or book manuscript. But at some point, one has to accept that the work is as complete as it can be, given the circumstances and time constraints, and move on. If one is lucky, then maybe an opportunity to revisit the topic will arise in the future. If not, then, as the kids today say, “It is what it is.”

Second, criticism isn’t always negative. Criticism means someone read your work, thought about it, and responded to it. Of course, it may point out shortcomings, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do so.

Lastly, negative criticism doesn’t always need a response. As I said at the beginning, my immediate response is to want to prove the critic wrong, but that approach eliminates any opportunity for growth and learning as a scholar. It also usually reflects poorly on you as a person. One need only read some of the letters to the editor in scholarly journals to see how disputes over minor interpretive points or word choices become academic pissing contests.

Sometimes, a response is needed, especially if a critic has been unfair. Most of the time, though, it’s best to let one’s scholarship, whether flawed or perfect, simply speak for itself. So, save the drama for your mama, and definitely don’t sue.

Notes:

[1]. Journal of American History 95 (June 2008): 208-9.

[2]. Journal of Mississippi History 71 (Spring 2009): 91-92.

[3]. Journal of Southern History 74 (Nov. 2008): 965-966.

[4]. The Historian 71 (Winter 2009): 839-840.

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