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When is criticism of your teaching, research and other work bullying? Although it’s important for properly sizing up situations and determining the best paths forward, the answer to that question isn’t as obvious as you might think.

On the one hand, unpleasant and ungrounded criticism is not uncommon in academe. Think of lengthy SHMIK (“see how much I know”) “questions” at presentations, or the infamous “Reviewer No. 2” who delays or even derails a publication with strange and hostile feedback.

On the other hand, undeniable forms of bullying, such as repeated yelling and cursing, are relatively rare compared to more typical escalations of incivility into gray areas of varying degrees of frequency and intensity.

So how do you tell the difference between disagreeable comments and outright bullying? Above and beyond a baseline evaluation of how often and how extreme questionable behavior is, here are four general pointers for thinking through when criticism might signal something more serious.

Other signs of bullying occur. Bullying and the related issue of narcissism should be common knowledge for anyone in higher education. Although departments and disciplines differ in awareness, easily accessible public resources like the New Workplace Institute blog make it easy for anyone to gain familiarity with what various research studies label as bullying.

In considering whether criticism might form such an abuse of power, look for other indications of bullying. For example, do you see disproportionate staff turnover, high student attrition rates and long time-to-degree spans? Do people cry at or after meetings?

Apart from the generally abysmal state of mental health in academe, do people describe physical manifestations like severe anxiety or neuralgia appearing alongside situations consistent with bullying, even if they don’t possess that vocabulary themselves? Does criticism suddenly surface at a crucial juncture and derail a project? Is the suspected victim’s research somehow threatening, or would their continued presence in a lab group create an intellectual property claim and thus financially impact others? Does the suspected bully have a history of broken relationships?

Although none is decisive, such occurrences add up and can help justify analysis of criticism as bullying, as well as fend off incorrect, dismissive excuses from colleagues and administrators (“Everyone knows that mental health is bad in academe,” “This work doesn’t meet our high standards” and the like). Also look out for professional and administrative negligence that results in no meaningful repercussions, since a permissive environment signals a culture of enabling that can foster bullying.

Something’s always wrong. When you receive one round of somehow “off” criticism from an inattentive or inconsistent interlocutor, a good-faith approach is usually sufficient: you take and incorporate what’s useful, then you move on, later justifying your decisions if necessary.

When you’re repeatedly, inevitably interacting with someone like a dissertation adviser or an authority monitoring job performance, however, an unpredictable sort of “shifting” criticism may emerge where you have absolutely no idea what they’ll say -- apart from something’s always wrong, ad infinitum. Since bullies aren’t person-focused and can impulsively throw the kitchen sink at a target, this unpredictable and shifting criticism can even reach farcical extremes: for example, questioning the basic worth of a project or consensus that they’d previously endorsed, attacking a change that they themselves had previously mandated, blatantly misquoting scholarship within their own specialty or even stepping way out into areas far beyond their expertise.

If you go on autopilot, act in good faith and treat discrete bits of shifting criticism like normal feedback, you can find yourself chasing after dubious, inconsequential and endlessly multiplying recommendations or making changes only to undo them. Instead, it’s best to step back from the purportedly intellectual content, recognize the interactions’ contours and consider shifting your perceptions from criticism to bullying, potentially allowing you to adopt more effective strategies.

Feedback is stereotypically general, nonconstructive and even unanswerable. Within the increased frequency and intensity that are hallmarks of bullying, criticism can bear certain characteristics that make eminent sense within the alternate situational logic of easy denigration. A bully won’t put in the work that good feedback requires, so they may use trendy phrases that float around academe -- not so much the neutral-to-positive terms like “flag” or “find purchase,” but rather the putdown of the week, like the recent buzzword “buzzword.” Also expect stream-of-consciousness quibbles -- innumerable requests for spot changes or mention of random stuff outside the project scope, for instance -- all conjoined into sweeping condemnations like, “This needs a lot of work.”

A bully is not really seeking improvement, so much of their criticism is ultimately nonconstructive, in keeping with the observation that good evaluation recognizes what works best, but poor evaluation just levies an objection. In a job performance situation, you may encounter bad or manipulated metrics, or no metrics at all.

In fact, since a bully is pulling brute power moves, their criticism can at times actually devolve into the unanswerable, especially if they criticize writing as writing. Although judgments like “not polished” or “too long” can be offered as good-faith feedback, they can also be “not enough” ex cathedra pronouncements disconnected from plausible improvements and thus setting up impossible revision tasks.

Bullies can also put forward a remote connotation to a word as a sign of sloppy thought or claim an inability to understand a clearly written passage, including the relation of simple clauses within a single sentence. Since they’re probably operating within an enabling environment and they’re making claims about personal reactions, going after writing is actually a perfect go-to slam. It takes little effort, sets them up as the intelligent aesthete tolerating an incompetent and is less disputable than nuts-and-bolts disciplinary content issues.

An in-group/out-group dynamic emerges. Perception of room for improvement is inherent in feedback. What else is criticism but an implicit statement that its issuer somehow knows better? But that gap between criticizer and criticizee is something else entirely with bullying.

Apart from a relentless negativity within the actual points raised, be attuned to those little moments that create an in-group/out-group dynamic: a criticizer’s self-characterization as a master researcher or teacher, an ill-founded insinuation that some other person has the perfect answer to set you straight, or the framing of you as the problem if you withdraw from their power (e.g., “It’s just criticism,” or “I’m sorry you were unhappy with my feedback, but your work has major flaws”). If other people are involved, they may automatically side with the instigator or write the situation off as an impenetrable interpersonal dispute, thus permitting the person abusing power to effectively prevail.

Response and Prevention Efforts

None of these four tips are surefire diagnostics, but they’re well worth thinking about when any little disconnected piece of criticism seems justifiable but the whole situation appears weird and off.

Addressing bullying, of course, is an entirely different matter. It’s always best to never get involved with a bully, but if you’re already entangled, seek out context-appropriate strategies, which can range from thoroughly documenting everything to figuring out a way to extricate yourself and end the relationship.

On the level of prevention and social change, solutions include not only consciousness raising and greater professionalism, but also advocating for the creation of antibullying policies and laws and the inclusion of antibullying measures as a condition of grant funding, in attempts to better sync up stakeholder goals.

In any case, awareness, response and prevention efforts should go hand in hand, as all of us who are invested in higher education work to create the healthy and vital academic culture that so many of us expected but haven’t consistently found. When it comes to bullying and its frequently grave effects on institutions and the people that populate them, saying “we can do better” is one criticism that’s certainly very much worth making.

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