Friday, March 18, 2011

Academic virtues

In this week's Times Higher Frank Furedi makes the case for the importance of 'academic judgement', which he thinks is close to what Aristotle meant by phronesis.  Here is the article.   In part, I think his claim rests on there being no sensible way of making academic judgements (by which he means things like exam marks, reports on journal submissions or book typescripts) susceptible to simple and clear rules of evaluation.

While you're there, read the reply from William Evans, who compares academic judgement with that employed by (i) sports referees, (ii) judges, (iii) newspaper editors.  He's interested in areas where there is some later right of appeal but accepts that even there eventually the chain of appeal-able judgements must come to a stop.  Should academic judgement be more open to this?  Sure, it would be horribly inconvenient for examiners, editors, and the like.  And in some ways I do think it makes little sense.  If a journal rejects a paper I submit and gives me the reports to read, sometimes I do think that the reader hasn't understood a point or that their objection is unfounded.  But should I be able to point that out to the editor and ask for another opinion?  Is this analogous to an appeal if a footballer is sent off harshly by a referee?  (Seems not very much like that.)  And just gathering more opinions on my article isn't going to help; mostly, this will just point out other ways in which the article might be pruned/expanded/improved etc.  Should I be able to continue until a majority of readers think the article is publishable, whatever the other quibbles?  Do we need a 'higher' opinion, then?  Whose would that be?

And while we're wondering about academic virtues of judgement, should we not also wonder what the character virtues are that we would similarly think we cultivate in ourselves and our fellow academics?  (It seems to me that this is not a simple question, nor is it a silly question; Aristotle seems to have got it right that matters of excellence in practical reasoning are not entirely separable from excellences of character...)

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