On the Value of an “Aggressive” Academic Culture [Updated]

This morning’s procrastination included a few tweets and blogposts on the “women in economics” debate, and the twist the discussion is taking concerns me. Claudia Sahm writes about ” the toll that our profession’s aggressive, status-obsessed culture can take” and references specific dismissive criticism that is particularly content-free and therefore non-constructive. Matthew Kahn follows up with some ideas about improving mutual respect noting that “researchers are very tough on each other in public seminars (the “Chicago seminar” style).” This is followed up by prominent economists’ tweets about economics’ hyper-aggressiveness and rudeness.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of “status-obsession,” dismissiveness of women’s work and an “aggressive” seminar-style.

First, a properly run “Chicago-style” seminar requires senior economists who set the right tone. The most harshly criticized economists are senior colleagues and the point is that the resultant debate about the nature of economic knowledge is instructive and constructive for all. Yes, everyone is criticized, but students have been shown many techniques for responding to criticism by the time they are presenting. Crucial is the focus on advancing economic knowledge and an emphasis on argument rather than “status-obsession”.

The simple fact is that “Chicago-style” seminars when they are conducted by “status-obsessed” economists are likely to go catastrophically wrong. One cannot mix a kiss up-kick down culture with a “Chicago-style” seminar. They are like oil and water.

An important point to keep in mind is that a “status-obsessed” academic environment with a more gentle seminar style quickly degenerates into a love-fest for influential academics, whose skills frequently and noticeably degrade. In short, there’s a lot to be said for a tell-it-like-it-is culture, as long as the focus of that culture is on advancing knowledge and not on one-upsmanship.

One of the best descriptions I have heard of the “Chicago-style” seminar is that it’s a contact sport. Getting knocked to the ground is part of the game. You just pick yourself up and pay your opponent back in kind. And then you both head out to the pub afterwards to discuss the game, the sport, and solve the world’s problems.

Will some people be uncomfortable in such an environment? Of course. But some of us are uncomfortable in an environment where aggressively advocating a position is seen as rude or unscholarly. In any environment there will always be some people who are uncomfortable.

Do women tend to feel more uncomfortable than men in such an environment? Maybe. I have my doubts because I’m the kind of woman who’s often asking herself whether I’ve been too assertive, so I feel like I can finally relax when I’m around assertive people. I suspect that it’s patronizing to assume that women are more uncomfortable then men in such an environment — but I may be biased.

In short, “status-obsession” and the acceptability of denigrating behavior towards women and towards junior scholars without adequate patronage may well be a problem for the economics profession, but “Chicago-style” seminars are unlikely to be a major source of the profession’s problems.

Update: I should probably add that I have no direct familiarity at all with “Chicago” seminars, but only with those run by Prescott’s descendants. So maybe what I’m referring to is a “Minnesota-style” seminar. In any event, the rough and tumble of economic discourse seems to me essential to its progress.



15 thoughts on “On the Value of an “Aggressive” Academic Culture [Updated]”

    1. 🙂 Like I said, in most social environments I wonder whether I come of as a little too aggressive, so I appreciate being in an environment where you can tell it like it is. I don’t think this issue should be confused with gender discrimination.

    2. Jedgar, your misunderstanding shows the difficulty of reading without seeking a sub-text (even in this case when it’s not there).

      This is an argument for civility because we’re all emotional creatures. And attacks set off those emotions which then disturbs our search for truth with the fight or flight response. One can be perfectly direct in one’s criticism whilst at the same time being pleasant, charming if you’re really on your game (not that I’m making any claims for myself here) and broadly speaking encouraging.

      I learned the economic way of thinking when I was a kid because my dad was an economist. I subsequently went on to do economic training. But that’s all it was – training. The only real education I got was studying history where I came to understand the importance of trying to listen sympathetically to sources to understand what they’re getting at.

      Generally speaking economists have no idea of the value of this interpretive skill. But it means that a great deal of the time, when they’re thinking they’re disagreeing, a good deal of the disagreement is really misunderstanding and talking at cross purposes.

      In short, obviously, clarity and directness of expression are very valuable in a seminar if it’s supposed to be a vehicle for truth seeking and mutual edification. By the same token civility, indeed generosity in discussion are hugely valuable to keeping that search on the straight and narrow of inquiry rather than emotional overload of self-defence.

  1. One element that seems missing is the perception of interlocutors.

    That is, the relevant issue may not be: “Do women tend to feel more uncomfortable than men in such an environment?” But instead: a man “aggressively advocating a position” is often seen as strong and assertive, while a woman doing the same is seen as a “too aggressive”.


    1. My claim is not that nothing needs to change in economics. Even if women are at a disadvantage in an aggressive seminar environment, that is not a reason to consider eliminating such environments — unless it can be shown that they are less of a disadvantage in other seminar environments. My expectation is that the value of constructive criticism is sufficiently high that it is better to tackle the underlying problem of the reaction (notably of both men and women) to assertive women, than by eliminating one of the best mechanisms for giving scholars feedback that is available to the profession.

      1. I agree that there is value in an environment where questions can be directly and assertively (even ‘aggressively’) engaged. That said, it seems incumbent upon those who wish to preserve such environments to ensure that some participants are not placed in a double bind: penalized for failing to engage aggressively, but penalized as well for doing so.

    2. I also suspect that the more it becomes normal to hear women’s comments in an aggressive, but constructive environment (of which there are far fewer today than there should be), the more society will move away from have negative perceptions of aggressive women. In short, it seems to me that the best way to address the problem is to create as many venues as possible for women to be assertive and successful.

  2. Gregory, I agree that Chicago-style seminars are hard to run and place a heavy obligation on the organizers both to keep the discourse constructive and to make sure they work for almost everyone. As elsewhere in academia and life, however, overcoming implicit bias is easier said than done.
    The real tenor of my post was that, when “Chicago-style” seminars go wrong, the cause is likely to be much deeper underlying problems in the environment and not the seminar style. Eliminating an environment where the symptoms of an illness are easily viewed in hopes that what is not seen will go away untreated seems like a deeply flawed policy to me.
    On the other hand, in some schools where the deep-seated insecurities of senior faculty mean that it is impossible to run a Chicago-style seminar, then that fact should be recognized and such seminars eliminated.
    Thus, an alternate criticism of my post is that Dunning-Kruger effects imply that it is in the worst environments that the faculty will be least able to recognize their flaws and their inability to run Chicago-style seminars. Such individuals may rely on arguments like mine to keep a profoundly damaging environment.
    But this I think is dangerous ground. We should not allow the worst among us to limit the scope of our discourse. I am making a normative argument that we should recognize the value of Chicago-style seminars and attempt to preserve them. There is without question a difficult problem of implementation in the real-world. I think that approaching the real-world problem with the underlying view that Chicago-style seminars are good and constructive is likely to lead to better outcomes than not, but I could be wrong …

    1. Apologies that it took me so long to read this. I don’t think we disagree as to substance: models can be misleading as well as informative and need to be carefully interrogated.

      Perhaps it’s really just a difference in styles. I am more comfortable openly, directly challenging people and prefer an environment where that normalized. I understand that some people prefer a more subdued form of discourse, which is fine as long as criticism is actually being voiced. In my experience however, academic cultures where criticism is subdued typically tend to be more hierarchical and less effective at addressing poor quality arguments.

  3. Thanks Carolyn,

    I took myself to be making a point about social cognition and epistemology, not style, but I agree with you that style can be caught up in it, and I’m certainly not arguing for indirectness. Directness is of the essence. But it’s possible to be direct in a way that makes it clear you expect there’s some work to be done on both sides to allow you to each understand the other or to allow the right person to correct the wrong one.

    Of course sometimes you’re dealing with a nit-wit in which case it’s best to move on graciously or otherwise, but mostly that’s not the case. Mostly you’ve got smart people disagreeing, and it requires numerous skills – virtues even – to handle that productively. I rather like Philip Tetlock’s summary of the virtues of a superforecaster.

    “open-minded, careful, curious and – above all – self-critical”.

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