Painstaking and Curiously Magisterial, in Parts

Dear academics: I am sorry for ruining all of the words.

Here is how it happened: I was doing two things. Consciously, I was marking student work. I try to be fair, kind, and critical, but – as anyone who has done this knows – it is really hard to simultaneously register the good and the bad, and even harder to communicate this to someone in written words.

At the same time, I was mulling over a particularly bruising referee experience, where even the positive feedback had come to take on monstrous implications in my head.

And that’s when I suddenly realized: most academic praise is read as criticism.

I took to Twitter to test my theory, and you didn’t disappoint me. I asked for examples of ‘words that academics use (always context specific) as euphemisms for criticisms’ and the answer was ‘pretty much everything’.

Now I think it’s important to say something before I open Pandora’s thesaurus.

Feedback is a psychological honeytrap. When giving feedback, you can never tell how the recipient will interpret what you have said, and what they will read into it. And, let’s be honest guys, what we read into feedback often says more about us than about the feedback.

But – hold your breath for the clunky deployment of the most powerful weapon of all source criticism – this apparent weakness is actually a strength. Whether or not it is true that other academics really criticize us in the ways I explore below, what matters is that we feel this to be true.

Many of the people who made suggestions on Twitter are historians, so what follows may say more about history writing than academia in general, but what I find striking is how often the same ideas came up from different people.

This is a negative sketch of how we see our own work.

And god forbid that it be ‘interesting’, a word so frequently mentioned that it is impossible to believe it is anything but an insult.[1]

Is this partly a case of being damned by faint praise? As Jo Laycock pointed out ‘competent’ is a time-honoured way to call something fairly rubbish. Stamp and Coin Place helpfully added that:

Ironically, in coin grading, “Good” actually means “this coin is terrible.”

Thank you, coin grading, you have taught us all a valuable life lesson.

But I think the problem here is deeper than faint praise.

To be ‘interesting’ lies on the outer edges of the forbidden zone in academic work: bravery. Over and over again, people referred to the critical implications of calling work ‘unique,’[2] ‘courageous,’[3] ‘brave,’[4] ‘heroic,’[5] ‘novel,’[6] or, most frequently, ‘ambitious.’[7] Many academics feel implicitly criticized for their originality and daring.

This is, we might safely speculate, a direct consequence of anonymous peer review, which has always run the risk of reducing what is publishable to lowest common denominators. Just think what makes it onto Ted McCormick’s list:

Provocative, thorough, hefty, worthy, surprising, unconventional, inventive

Or Julian Wright’s

forthright, individual, distinctive and original

Charlotte Riley’s (even if she admits that these are things *she* likes)

‘brave’, ‘refreshing’, ‘unusual’

Peter Aronoff’s

“Novel”, “surprising”, “unusual”, “unorthodox”, many many others with un-

Sometimes the criticism of ambition connects it directly to failure to deliver.

The ‘dirtiest of all dirty words,’ Helen Smith pointed out, is ‘”promising”‘. For similar reasons, ‘preliminary’ was mentioned by Jeana Jorgensen. Let it not go unmentioned that this kind of criticism raises another structural problem in academia: senior colleagues judge junior colleagues by their own standards. Who has not heard of cases where feedback on a manuscript might be summarised as ‘Please spend thirty more years researching in this area’?


Academics also have the most wonderful way of devaluing the aesthetic elements of their work. Alex Parsons was the only person to mention ‘creativity’ itself as a veiled insult, but lots of people noticed that compliments about writing and readability are often framed to suggest that these things are not really desirable.

To be ‘readable’,[8] ‘clear,’[9] or ‘lively and engaging’ is widely understood as a Bad Thing. Hannah Rose Wood summed it up nicely, when she talked of ‘well-written’ being used ‘as if to indicate that style is somehow pitted against substance in academic writing.’

Through the looking glass, the opposites of bravery and style are exhaustiveness and erudition.

Who knew that ‘magisterial’ is a euphemism for ‘too long’? Thanks to Jennifer Oliver and Kirsty Rolfe, you will never read a book review the same way again.

To be ‘thorough,’[10] ‘painstaking,’[11] and ‘solid’[12] is clearly not desirable. As Ruth Livesey pointed out:

‘Rich with detail’ = where is argument?

William Booth, Laura Sangha and Matt Kelly all mentioned the particular power of the word ‘exhaustive’, which seems to veer too close to ‘exhausting’. ‘Painstaking’ enjoys a similar relationship to ‘pain’.

And it won’t surprise you by now to discover that academics have veiled insults that cut both ways on the question of scholarship. Stuart Jones suggested:

shows capacity for independent thinking’ = ‘knows none of the relevant literature

To which David K Smith added:

“fills a gap in the literature” = nothing new, interesting, or surprising here

For those of you looking to build your non-pliment vocabulary, I should mention some examples of ways to turn any good thing instantly bad.

As Catherine Ellis pointed out, ‘curiously’ has this power. Just try it: ‘curiously erudite’, ‘curiously readable’, ‘curiously well-researched’. Similarly, you need only add ‘in parts’ to the end of a compliment to totally kill the buzz. ‘Convincing, in parts.’ ‘Compelling, in parts.’ ‘Thorough, in parts.’

So you are, no doubt, less naïve than me, and you probably already knew all of these things.

But if you didn’t, I hope this has genuinely been useful. Knowing that academics use words this way is a tool that belongs in your workshop.

It means that you can recognize when ‘compliments’ are included alongside criticisms simply to twist the knife (“lively and engaging, but lacking in historiographical engagement”). It means that you, too, can write “nice” reviews that are also critical.

Unfortunately, it also means you can never receive a compliment again.

You’re welcome!



[1] Among others, this was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Fox, Rogue Academic, Darry Leeworthy, Kevin T Baker, Jennifer Rushworth and Katia Bowers, Chet de Fonso. Jane Winters also mentioned “intriguing”.

[2] Lyndsay Miller and John Adams mentioned this.

[3] Gravid Beast mentioned this.

[4] Charlotte Riley, A Person, and Ciara Breathnach all raised this.

[5] James Fisher.

[6] James Pugh and Peter Aronoff.

[7] See comments by Catherine Baker, Ciara Laverty, Calum W White, Patrick, and SRD, among others.

[8] Seb Falk.

[9] Chris Routledge.

[10] Chris Manias.

[11] Hannah Barker.

[12] Hannah Rose Woods.


2 thoughts on “Painstaking and Curiously Magisterial, in Parts

  1. There is actually some research on peer review with some interesting findings about disciplinary differences (“interesting” is only negative in some disciplines but a positive thing in others, for example). I recommend the work of Michele Lamont. Her book “How Professors Think” but also (especially on what counts as “originality’ which is often an explicit criterion for grants and for publication)

    I wrote about both of them here:

    Liked by 1 person

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