Responding to Academic Criticism

I came across this article by James Downs today in the Oxford University Press Blog assessing Dr. J. David Hacker’s New York Times article from earlier this month that has been making the rounds on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and in classrooms, about his re-assessment of the death toll in the Civil War, increasing the estimate by some 200,000 people.

Downs’s criticism of Hacker is that by privileging the use of census records in compiling his revised mortality figures, he is “reproducing a 19th century problem,” because his new numbers don’t allow him to include the deaths of enslaved people as military deaths. Downs wants to argue, as he probably does in his upcoming work Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, that the deaths of enslaved people came as a result of both being shot at by Confederate and Union soldiers, and more importantly “from the outbreaks of pneumonia, yellow fever, and smallpox” that spread among the Union camps to which enslaved people fled, and so their deaths should be counted as military, not civilian. Thus, Downs argues that by not attempting to quantify the deaths of enslaved people, Hacker “ignores the fact that the Civil War, which was intended to liberate bondspeople from chattel slavery, led to widespread sickness, suffering, and death. It also implies that former slaves’ experience is not part of the nation’s history.”

Downs doesn’t provide a way to tabulate slave deaths during the Civil War due to epidemic disease and military conflict, besides saying that it can’t be done with census records. But wait! Dr. Hacker promptly responded to Downs’s blog post! This is the magic of the internet. Rather than having to attend a conference, or wait 3 months for his response in the next issue of a journal, we get to watch their debate play out in real time, in the comments section of the article!

And then Dr. Hacker completely let me down. Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with a lot of what he’s saying: his article addresses the fact that his sources don’t allow him to quantify death among the black population during the Civil War, but that he still finds it worth while to recalculate the numbers the census records do allow him to modify. Hacker’s tone in the response however, seems downright petty. This could have been a fantastic exchange between two scholars, that we get to watch in (basically) real time. His response is interspersed with the periodic “What?” and “Please.” that make him seem completely dismissive that Downs point has ANY merit to it at all, whatsoever.

Hacker states, “Downs doesn’t say it, but perhaps he is implying that slaves were valid targets under the rules of engagement?” in response to Downs’s criticism that by counting slave deaths as civilian deaths, we under-represent the direct impact the war, the actions of soldiers, and military occupation. Hacker responds indignantly by implying Downs believes soldier’s had the right to wantonly murder enslaved people. Nowhere in Downs’s blog post did that seem like it was remotely close to what he was saying. I don’t need to copy over the whole of Hacker’s response, but it always just seems like there is no need for that kind of language and tone in a response to an academic criticism. If Downs’s point is so totally lacking in merit, shouldn’t you be able to make him look foolish through the sheer brilliance of your own work, not through high-school appropriate dismissals? I thought I was going to see a “talk to the hand” thrown in there.

Downs, thankfully, didn’t take the bait, and responded by clearly re-iterating his bone of contention with Hacker’s initial article; given the dismissive nature of Hacker’s response, Downs looks all the better for it. And that’s the way these things always end up, if you ask me. This is what people hate about academia, and by engaging in it, we prove them right. Polite disagreement, anyone?

6 thoughts on “Responding to Academic Criticism

  1. I actually can understand it more when it happens in grad school/among grad students. Graduate students are trying to affirm their own grasp of the material, build themselves up by putting the work of other’s down. The way Hacker responded to that, I thought, was pretty uncalled for from an established scholar. But he’s certainly not alone, it happens all the time. This is why think academics just bicker among themselves in ivory towers.

  2. Do you think that the issue is the tone of Hacker’s response, or the “magic of the internet” that allowed him to respond so quickly and in such a public manner? While I haven’t really stuck more than my big toe into the pond of digital humanities, I am slightly concerned that the instantaneous nature of the internet might lead more scholars to post articles, reviews and critiques without the inspection of a journal editor to tell me that they might want to reconsider their tone.

  3. That could be part of it, Kelly. Apparently our fearless leader over here at the Journal sends out letters fairly frequently to people who want us to publish a nasty response to a critical review. But I think it’s more just a problem with academia in general, that people need an editor to tell them to be more thoughtful and polite.

  4. John,
    I posted an apology of James Down’s website and saw your response. I thought I might as well come over here and apologize as well. Although being accused–and I still submit unfairly accused–of implying “that former slaves’ experience is not part of the nation’s history” made me angry, a little time to cool time down would have done me a world of good. So perhaps I can be a good example for graduate students of what *not* to do. If angry, sleep on it before responding! Please accept my apologies for lowering the tone of the debate.

    A second lesson might be to avoid written sarcasm, which can be easily missed. You’ve seem to have missed mine. For the record, when I asked the rhetorical question of whether Downs is implying that slaves were valid targets under the rules of engagement, I was attempting (perhaps very poorly) to illustrate how silly it is to interpret what scholars don’t say as an implicit argument about what they really mean. You can tell it is intended sarcasm (granted, very poorly considered sarcasm) by what I say after the rhetorical question: “I very much doubt if he considers slaves valid military targets, however… I’ll extend to Downs a courtesy that he did not extend to me and assume that he was not implying anything nefarious in the blank spaces at the end of his post.” I wish I hadn’t said it, but you misinterpreted my meaning by not quoting the rest of the paragraph.

    I’d urge anyone who is interested to read the published article. They will see that my estimate of Civil War deaths is a combined estimate of black and white male military deaths. Not white only. And they will see that I was unable to estimate black and white civilian deaths. Not black only. I was open and upfront about this limitation and explicitly stated that black civilian deaths were likely very large. Alas, they are impossible to estimate for blacks and they are impossible to estimate for whites. If my sources and methods privilege one group over another, it’s military over civilian, not white over black.

  5. Professor Hacker,

    Thanks so much for your response (I’ll admit, when I posted this last night I didn’t imagine you’d be responding personally), and there’s no need to apologize to me. I think your comments here speak to what Kelly mentioned above: while there are world of exciting benefits inherent in the ability to engage in relatively immediate scholarly exchange online, there are certainly some drawbacks at well.

    That being said, I could have chosen any number of exchanges similar to the one between you and Professor Downs that do happen with the benefit of time to think things through. This was just the most recent example I’ve seen of that tendency within the discipline (and academia more broadly, I suppose).

    I’m looking forward to reading more about attempts to recalculate Civil War deaths, both military and civilian, as more scholars enter the fray.

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