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Aug 16 / Steve Runge

Civility in Academic Debate

I have received several comments regarding my post yesterday that almost read like condolences. I understand the seriousness of the implications of my paper. This is precisely why I took the steps over the past few years to see if there was another way forward for generating engagement than publishing a deconstruction.

But there is another step that I took that I do not want to be overlooked: pre-peer review. Researching the issues surrounding the verbal aspect debate has been an exercise in anger management at times. The failure to engage counter arguments or to acknowledge widely accepted principles (e.g. the past/non-past distinction in most Indo-European langauges) is intensely frustrating to me. Why? These missteps did not need to happen; all were preventable based on the literature that is cited. All that was needed was a willingness to fully engage it. Frustrating.

Unfortunately, this frustration found its way into early drafts of my paper. I tried to keep it civil, but unnecessarily “emotive” language came through. So what do you do? You ask for help from people who are smarter than you.

In my case, John Barry did a developmental edit of the paper to make it more concise. Stephen Carlson, Rick Brannan, Mike Aubrey, Josh Westbury, Mike Heiser, Dirk Jongkind, Chris Fresch and several others critiqued the paper before submission. Each scholar ended up commenting on different aspects of the paper, making the final product much stronger than the initial draft. Most importantly, each one called me out when I used unnecessarily inflammatory language that would distract from the main argument.

Not every paper warrants this level of preliminary critique. From what I have know of peer review for journals, making such comments is beyond the scope of standard peer review. Mostly the veracity and coherence of the argument is weighed, not necessarily the language used.

I am very thankful that these folks were willing to invest the time and effort to critique my work. To be honest, it was painful reading when it came back (“Is it really necessary to…?”), but they noted things I most certainly had missed. It is quite easy to let anger and frustration get the better of you. In fact, it seems the Academy gravitates toward fostering cage-match panels as a means of attracting audiences.

But one overarching question remains to be answered. Why? Why all the posturing and belittling? Why the use of condescending language?

At what point did we set aside the pursuit of greater understanding for kingdom building? Why the fortresses encircled with trenches and barbed wire? I thought we had learned from WWI that even though there is a technical winner, everyone loses in the end. Perhaps the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction is the more accurate analogy, where people use fear as a deterrent.

I’d like to think that a formal discussion could be convened at some point where the issues raised could be considered by those without a dog in the fight. It would be great to have someone other than an interdisciplinary NT scholar–a bonafide PhD specialist in Systemic Functional Linguistics from outside our field like Mick O’Donnell, for instance–to come and weigh in on the matter. Cage matches have some measure of entertainment, but they most often end up being a distraction from the real issues. It sure worked for Commodus in Gladiator, at least for a little while.

I am not so naive as to think that scholarship is an intrinsically pure enterprise. I accept  posturing, marketing, showmanship and gamesmanship will play inevitable roles. But I am  NOT willing to concede that vitriol and ad hominem attacks should just be accepted as part of the process. Is this really what biblical scholarship is all about? Really? The comments I received yesterday made it sound like a foregone conclusion, and maybe it is.

Call me a naive idealist, but I am more interested in getting things right than in being right. I don’t like being wrong any more than the next guy. But if research is done properly and reviewed properly, one can usually end up with both. It will be interesting to see what happens.