Judge Not,.....

Judge Not,..... by J.R. Lucas


Dear Sir,

The promotions committee of the university is at present considering the application from Dr J.T. Bloggs for promotion to Senior Lecturer Status. The Committee greatly desires your assistance as an assessor, and would be grateful if you would kindly forward a report on Dr J.T. Bloggs' standing in the academic world, the breadth and originality of his contributions to the subject, his position in comparison with other workers in the field, and in comparison with workers in related fields, and his over-all suitability for promotion to Senior Lecturer Status. In view of the need to keep down costs, may I take this opportunity of thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely yours,

pp Registrar

I groan. If I respond responsibly, it is a morning's work to go to the library, see what Bloggs has published, look up some of his papers, note if they are all pot-boilers, think if there is any idea I should credit him with, or any one else in that field for that matter, and write a judicious report, type out the address, find out the postage to that bit of abroad, get the Lodge to stamp and post it.

Perhaps I am just lazy. I used to feel vulnerable to that charge, and also to wonder whether my strong distaste for this part of my duties was due to some fastidiousness of nature that could be explained, but not excused, by the cushy conditions in which I am lucky enough to live. But I am beginning to think otherwise, and to sense certain incompatibilities between the judgemental attitude we are required to adopt on these occasions and the mind-set we ought to make it our business in general to cultivate.

During Admissions I become schizophrenic. In the interviews we often ask candidates tricky questions to see how they fare, and to what extent they are teachable. But once we have begun, I do not want to stop. My tutorial self takes over, and I go on trying to get the candidate to see the point long after my colleagues have decided that he is no good, and are tapping their watches to indicate it is time for the next interview to start. Although in teaching one needs to be critical, and to make one's pupil realise the weakness of his argument, the underlying object of the exercise is not to weigh him, and discard him if he is found wanting, but to be on his side and enable him to be better than he otherwise would have been. It is a purpose that cannot be carried out at the same time as making a careful assessment of him, calculating to a nicety whether he is beta double minus or beta minus query minus, whether he is more, or less, meritorious than some other candidate. Sometimes, in Admissions and in examinations, we have to take up the latter stance, just as sometimes we may be called upon to serve on a jury, or elect to a post, and then have to sit in judgement on our fellow men. But in spite of these exceptions, the biblical injunction holds good as a counsel of intellectual prudence. The state of mind in which I pass judgement on someone is incompatible with that in which I can teach him, and if I value the latter, I shall restrict my judgemental exercises as much as my duties will allow.

The same is true of my dealings with my colleagues. Although there are academics who find it agreeable to assess all their colleagues' work, and can confidently grade it, that very exercise distorts their understanding of it. For if I am to compare Bloggs' paper with Smith's, I must apply criteria common to both, which therefore may not be entirely apposite to either; and if I have a wide range of comparisons to draw, the criteria generally applicable will be correspondingly more limited. Any linear ordering of heterogeneous items is bound to be Procrustean, and as I try to squeeze the contributions my colleagues make into a single order of merit, I shall concentrate on generally applicable criteria such as clarity of exposition, factual accuracy, closeness of argument, and discount others, such as insightfulness, originality, excitement, which are less tangible and less easy to assess. The more I assess, the more I shall assess by reference to the easily assessable, and the less I shall register the individual, idiosyncratic intangibles which each individual academic can offer as peculiarly his own. Instead of responding to what he says immediately, though critically, I shall be fitting it into a rigid scheme of assessment I have, often unconsciously, created for myself. And that will be a loss. Although I may be better---more systematic and fairer---as an elector, as an assessor, as an appraiser, I shall diminish my own ability to take on board what others have to offer, for the very reason that I am being impartial and dispassionate. Just as I need to be partial to, though critical of, my pupils if I am to be a good tutor, so I need to be partial to my colleagues, and often deeply involved in the ideas that interest them, if I am to respond to them fully. I need to get into arguments with my colleagues, embrace their ideas, be inspired, or at least intrigued, by their insights, winnowing out their errors only after having pursued some new intimation of the truth.

That cast of mind is valuable---and fragile. It is a good thing to have pupils, and to be fundamentally on their side, and we are rightly chary of continuous assessment, and when they must be judged, we have them examined by others. It is a good thing to have colleagues, and to be open with them, and we should be equally chary of judging them. Occasionally we have to recruit new members to our body, and then must judge the candidates as best we can, and very occasionally we may have to elect to a headship or a chair. But if we value colleagueship, we shall set our face against all policies which increase the number of occasions when we have a duty to sit in judgement on those with whom we share the academic life.

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