The Culture of ‘Defense’ in Academia

I have been thinking about the word ‘defence’ for a while. Some time ago, some senior colleagues called me ‘aggressive’. I owe a big thank you to them for this great reflection opportunity. If anything, I realise that looking back, I must have been passive-aggressive or defensive. Since then, I am much more alert to signs of ‘aggression’ and ‘defence’ in the context of academia, thinking about these concepts and their everyday occurrences.

Aggression: “feelings of anger or antipathy resulting in hostile or violent behaviour; readiness to attack or confront.”

Defense: “the action of defending from or resisting attack.” or “the case presented by or on behalf of the party accused of a crime or being sued in a civil lawsuit.”

Passive aggressive: “of or denoting a type of behaviour or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation.”

Both aggression and defence are, of course, complex emotional and cognitive processes. But, in academia, they are not only individual occurrences. They are deeply embedded in culture and tradition.

In many countries, what is called a ‘viva’ in the UK (viva voce — oral examination), is actually referred to as ‘defence’. There are ‘opponents’ and the people who have written a piece of thesis finds themselves in the position to ‘defend’ their work. It is so embedded, so embedded that we often don’t even think what defence actually means. For you to actually become ‘defensive’, you need to feel attacked, in other words, there needs to be someone with a certain level of aggression, based on the above definitions.

Critique is different than that, it can be responded to but it definitely should not come across aggressive. And feedback definitely should not, of course, in an ideal world.

I wonder what would happen if we made a cultural critique of ‘defence’ in academia. Would academics feel better? Would it help young academics to express themselves better without the fear of ‘aggression’ so that they would not need to ‘defend’ but ‘communicate with authenticity and honesty’? How would it change the publication dynamics and review processes? How can we change this culture around so that it feels more welcoming and less hostile?

I wonder…

Life long learner