Accepting Criticism In Academia

When I was in my Rural Development class yesterday, one of my favourite professors brought up a very interesting topic. He talked about criticism in academia, and how being skeptical is eminent, no matter how authentic the book/paper may be and whether it was written by a person with a very high level of scholarship. And that really got me thinking.

As advanced graduate/PhD students, we often have a tendency to take whatever we read at face value. If our professor informs us about something, or if we read an article on a topic that we are not too familiar with, there’s no doubt that most of us will end up blinding believing it to be true. And I do realize that there is a plethora of knowledge out there; in fact there is so much knowledge out there that one simply doesn’t know what to do with it, or how exactly to comprehend it. But that does not necessitate that that information is true or accurate per se. I mean it’s very easy to read something and assume that what the author is saying is true. But it can indeed be challenging to read something, doubt its validity, and then go out of our way to do our own research, whether primary or secondary, to gain some sort of assurance about the subject matter.

However, this is not to imply that an academic study of literature is necessarily “good” or “bad,” regardless if it is accurate or not. Indeed most of us get lured into the whole “warm bath” approach to pedagogy, which invites us to luxuriate in the great works of authors and intellectuals that we greatly respect and admire; and perhaps even want to emulate. We read their works, appreciate them, and get inspired. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the question I ask is: Who, then, establishes the terms of “correct” aesthetic judgment? Is it not we – the students – who are still in that learning process, as readers and writers, and most importantly of all, as academics?

As I mentioned earlier, there is so much information out there; on websites/online publications, blogs, journals, peer-reviewed articles, books, etc. But, it is not necessary that we read something and go, “Aha! That is all I need to know, because what I am reading makes sense, even though I have no clue what these concepts really mean.” Isn’t that being a little careless, and perhaps even precarious? What if you read something, automatically assume it is correct, apply it to real life (or utilize it in one of your fieldworks), only to realize that there are far too many risks associated with it, and that it wasn’t what you’d expected after all. Then what? Would it be too late to go back and review everything, and then perhaps realize that that research method wasn’t applicable to your research in the first place? Perhaps. But one also has to keep in mind that as graduate students, we are faced with very high expectations from academics that’ve been in this field for a very, very long time. While they understand some of the challenges we face (as I am sure they, themselves, have gone through some of them as well) – or will be facing as we go in deeper and deeper into our programs– one thing they want to ensure is that we have the ability to doubt.

My professor gave us the example of microfinancing, which was supposed to mean economic empowerment for the poorest of the poor (and when I say that, I mean people who literally lived on less than a dollar a day). And while it deemed to be a good thing, and has been a very successful social enterprise method for quite a long time, where it helped create a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible had permanent access to a proper range of high quality financial services, including not just credit, but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers. And those who promoted microfinance generally believed that such access would indefinitely help poor people out of poverty.

However, what most people fail to realize is that while microfinance has deemed very successful in helping poor people gain access to basic necessities, as well as gain the ability to attain luxuries that they weren’t able to afford before, there is also a very dark side to it as well. A dark side that is often ignored, because people are not skeptical enough and have a tendency to just accept whatever they hear/read at face value.

Hence, many people turn a blind eye to the dire issues surrounding this “humanitarian” method. They only look at the positives of microfinancing, while completely disregarding its countless harms. For one, there has been an increase in suicides, because many families are unable to pay back the loans they borrowed from these microfinancing banks. What’s even worse is that these families actually get threats, blatantly telling them that if they don’t pay back the loans on time then they will face dire consequences. And because these families are too poor and barely have any savings to pay back even a quarter of the loans, they end up ending their lives.

Another dire consequence of this “oh-so-wonderful” social enterprising method is the increase in domestic violence and the abuse of poor rural women. There are times when women do not get the loan, or have to wait a long time to get the loan; and oftentimes it is their husbands or male relatives who end up getting the loan, instead of the women. This makes them lose control over their loans, hence resulting in the old patterns of dependency on their husbands, which often impacts them very negatively.

So, my point is that while many scholars on the topic of microfinancing will say that it is the best method and that it is all positive, we should not just simply accept it as the full and absolute reality. I admit, I was fooled in the beginning, when my professor made us read an article – a very positive one, mind you – on the topic of microfinancing. And as I was reading it, I couldn’t believe that a system – based on attaining profit and social capital – could be this incredibly “good.” I mean it almost sounded too good to be true! The article hardly mentioned any negatives (if, at all) of the method; and I almost believed it to be perfect. It was only later in class that the professor made us read another article – a newspaper clipping, so to speak – that I suddenly realized that while microfinancing has its advantages, it’s not perfect either. Not even close, actually. In fact, the newspaper article painted it in such a bad light that I am now starting to doubt whether their initial aim was to help the poor. I guess I’ll know if I research more into this topic, especially in the area that I am most interested in, i.e.: Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Anyway, coming back to my original point (I realize I sort of digressed a little bit with that microfinance example), it is fatally crucial that we be doubtful of each and every thing we read in academia. And this can surely be done either by asking questions, doing more of our own research, getting involved in open-ended dialogue about the subject matter, or just unashamedly stating our lack of understanding of the subject matter, because it’s either vague or poorly presented. And being this open does not, in any way, make us arrogant; because, as students, it is our job to be prudently critical of each and every piece of literature we read. Not only does it save us time, but it also gives us a better idea of what it is that we are actually learning, without the risk of ambiguities.

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One response to “Accepting Criticism In Academia

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