May 30, 2009

Two forces of the academic universe: scorching and buttering

Category: Academic — Biella @ 7:49 am

So I am struck by two opposing forces that characterize so much academic labor. Basically academics spend a lot–and I mean mounds–of time judging their peers. It happens informally (“blah is smart” “blah gave such a crappy talk at the MLA”) and formally (journal reviews, book reviews, letter of recommendation, tenure letters and it goes on and on).

While there is certainly a middle ground in judgment in the form of constructive criticism (that which is neither too critical or full of praise), much of this labor is uber-critical and geared toward tearing down and scorching the intellectual earth you walk on. You should read some of the journal reviews! They are a window into some pretty seething nastiness, or at least it comes across as such.

But thankfully scorn, which sometimes is pretty humorous, other times spot on, and other times, just pitiful, sits at the edge of full blown, often overblown, PRAISE. You can find it in journal reviews but it reaches its Whole Hog Glory in letters of recommendation. These letters are all about buttering up, buttering people up to present them as god’s gift to earth or something similar.

I rather enjoy reading and writing letters of recommendation because basically the content is the same (I know blah in this capacity, they are full of nothing but alien-like intelligence and total awesomeness, for these reasons, this is why they are perfect for your program) but the words and style, well, they are always different. And I frankly I just feel good reading them and writing them. Perhaps we have to praise so exuberantly to keep the two forces in cosmic balance.


  1. One person I know has two templates, and writes letters by choosing between them. One compares the candidate to Newton; the other, to Gauss.

    Comment by Barak A. Pearlmutter — May 30, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  2. hah, I love it. I might have to start picking my templates :-) ))

    Comment by Biella — May 30, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

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