Harsh Criticism From An Unexpected Direction


Here’s my reply to the reader’s question about the effects of being harshly criticised by a colleague you respect.

I was a highly independent grad student. Some might say obstinate and unruly. This was due to a combination of my personality, my tender age and the science wars of the 1990s. I came to the university of Stockholm as a science major right about the time that Northern European archaeology fell into its belated infatuation with post-modernism and went badly anti-scientific for a while. At age eighteen, after fifty pages of Ian Hodder’s turgid Reading the Past, I decided I would have none of it. Science is based in empirical observation and expressed in clear, succinct language, or it is not science. And non-scientific approaches to the past is the province of historical novelists, who manage quite well without critical theory, thank you.

Of course, I fought constantly with the post-mods at my department, some of whom were quite senior people. This often made me miserable, and did nothing for my thesis funding. But still, I could grimly savour the knowledge that I was hitting them where it hurt, questioning loudly whether things they held dear really had any value whatsoever. And those fights aren’t relevant here: the question was about people I respect.

In my grad student years I went through four thesis supervisors, all of whom I still like and respect both professionally and socially. None of them ever had the opportunity to exert any strong influence on my work, which was clearly a source of some frustration to one or two of them. On the other hand I never made many demands on their time. But one of them hurt me real bad, mama.

This old guy has, shall we say, black days now and then. They seem to occur spontaneously and are not related to any substance abuse. But I wasn’t clearly aware of this tendency in the man at the time. My final thesis tutorial with him must have fallen on a day when his outlook happened to be particularly bleak. Sitting in his office, a stack of manuscript printout in his hand, he heaved a morose sigh and told me, “Martin, nobody in the world thinks that this is any good. I can’t supervise you any more.” No extenuating circumstances. No constructive suggestions about how my purportedly crappy work might be improved. I left the place in a daze.

Did it help me? Harsh and non-constructive criticism from a respected senior colleague on my own side of the science wars, someone who was in fact paid to coach and support me on my way to my doctorate? No, it was unequivocally damaging to me.

Did it set my career back? Well, I guess someone less robust and stubborn than myself would have packed it in right then and there. But no, it didn’t set me back. I just soldiered on. And apart from the odd outburst of disproportionate grumpiness, that I can now recognise, my then supervisor has been very kind to me since that day and supported me in many ways. Maybe one day, when I’m sitting with a stack of crappy thesis manuscript printout in my hand, I’ll be better equipped to deal with it for having gone through that ordeal.

And the thesis — did it suck? Well, Dear Reader, you be the judge, it’s on-line. It made me a PhD all right, it’s been favourably reviewed in respected international journals, and people seem to use it quite a lot judging from the citations I’ve come across.

On the other hand, I’ve later come to realise that a PhD in Scandinavian archaeology is pretty much a worthless commodity these days. So one might say that what set me back in my career wasn’t harsh criticism from a respected colleague, but the fact that he didn’t actually manage to scare me off the road to academic nowhere.

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9 thoughts on “Harsh Criticism From An Unexpected Direction

  1. Just piping up to say that you’re not alone in rolling your eyes at the post-mods. I’m a sociologist and I swear I spend half my time trying to calmly explain why postmodernism is a pretty philosophy (if you’re aesthetically so inclined), but hardly useful in any sort of analytical way. Most of the useful sociological insights of postmodernism (e.g., that human perceptions change over time) were already fully expounded by the modernists (e.g., Weber), who were still trying to make empirical studies of social interactions and cultural formation.

    In the spirit of the season, I say “Postmodernism is a humbug!”


  2. I was pursuing my Ph.D. in Art History (second-century Chinese tomb engravings and connections with patronage in the civil service, needless to say, it was a social-contextual bent to the art history program) One of my graduate seminars was with a student of Ian Hodder’s on “Theoretical Issues in Archaeology” We had to read every POV under the sun, from Hodder, to Marxists (what was fun there was comparing the nominally-scientific European Marxists to the truly-scientific and nominally-Marxist archaeological material from China), feminists, etc. The last class we had an assignment to write up a short spoof of one of the people we had read during the semester. I’m as proud of this spoof as of any real scholarship I did in that class. I present it in my next post for your perusal.

    Ex-Art Historian


  3. My homage to Preziosi.

    The Encoding of Gastronomic Utopias in America: The Construction of an (Arch)typical Kroc.

    Our investigation of the structures of significance within the context of a late 20th c. McDonalds begins by presenting a perspective of the physical environment wherein the geometric and topologic economies operate as grids of certainties: networks of predictability and predication for the staging of behavioral routines, and episodic frameworks for inter-nutritional contact and avoidance. In this sense we will see the restaurant as a matrix of ideological instruments for creating and sustaining an edible complex.
    We shall see that the inner space is delimited by the panoptic locus of the counter from which perspective the customer and employee, the eater and the eaten can participate in their dialectic of consumption. We will investigate the ubiquitous sign of the “golden arches” which serve to encompass Ray Kroc’s own regime of legibility within which fast food and its imagery (which is to say its ideologies) can be reckoned with, in the dual sense of that phrase — simultaneously coped with and thought with.
    Dominating the view of this locus of commercial volubility is the menu, a given but dynamically changing matrix of food choices. The menu is never neutral. The surfaces and boundaries of dietetic dogma, the visibilities and occlusions of taste serve to track, measure, control and predict behaviors over space and time. The realities it fabricates and maintains are invariably fictive — an ideologically-invested perspective on the proper gastronomic realities of individuals, groups and classes. In this sense, there is no menu which is not in some way a utopic fiction — or, more accurately, a matrix of varied and often conflicting fictions.
    Thus the menu actively participates in this simulcrum of cuisine by establishing and maintaining a particular form of subjectivity — a perspective from which given, eaten meals cohere and appear ordered, legitimate and nutritious.
    (c) Andrew Midkiff 1995


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