A Canopy of Kindness

Have you ever had a magical moment on your campus -- when it almost vibrated with a higher frequency of kindness? Maria Shine Stewart revisits the moment that culminated in the birth of her column.

November 30, 2011

“A Kinder Campus,” in its early and venerable origins (way back in June of this year) was almost named “The Campus Canopy.” Some of us have family stories of what we were almost called, and may from time to time utilize a gentle filament of imagination to wonder if our own life might have been different with a different name.

“The Campus Canopy,” for whatever the glory or limitations of that alternate name, flashed into my mind early one morning as I headed to teach my 8 a.m. class at a community college, one of my main employers. The misty summer air spread heavily over the relatively wild acres of land near campus while I shooed away my night owl nature in favor of a caffeinated, somewhat frog-voiced early morning songbird. (I sing in the car on the way to class at times.) And where better to think than in a whizzing car moving from suburb to suburb to open land?

Across from that particular campus is a residential camp I worked at one summer as a guitar-wielding undergraduate nursing a broken heart and about to discover how two groups of 6- and 7-year-old girls who lived in the inner city would restore my faith in the power of community. We sang a lot there, too, and tried to turn the many tasks of camping, creative and routine, into both skill-building and celebration.

And while flitting in and out of memories as I drove toward campus, in my field of vision was something not usually in front of the building: a white canopy.

I mentioned it to students that morning as they moved to do a warm-up freewrite. What does such a canopy convey? Suggest? What does it help us imagine?

I knew the actual reason for the canopy -- across the street in another direction, a new hospital had been completed, and an upcoming celebration was planned. And I was struck, as I have been before,  by the inviting sense of hospitality such an image can convey.

At my other two campuses, private liberal arts schools, such canopies are erected on alumni weekends, when the air surges with a type of energy that is hard to describe. Those involved with alumni relations know the feeling – as do those coordinating job fairs or orientation programs for freshmen. There is a palpable excitement in tandem with the innumerable details and hard work as people flock to see a familiar place with new eyes, or a new place with new eyes, to recapture that sense of possibility felt in their youth -- even to anticipate the future.

Kindness, at its best, is a force a little like that. It surprises and recharges us. And not only is being on the receiving end gratifying;  the act of will and imagination of being kind makes it rewarding  for the sender as well.

I  know that being on the receiving end sometimes genuinely startles me. A campus glitch of some type – a lost book order, a ticket hastily refunded due to a true mistake in its issuance, being double-scheduled in a classroom — these might often be approached with guarded e-mails or an icy blame game or a sullen, reluctant response.

If a professional greets the glitch with a desire to fix and heal rather than the hot-button impulse to react, that is kindness in my book – as well as professionalism.

A friend not sure if academia is for her confides in me from time to time how she wonders if she fits in, and usually it is the memory of brusque treatment that makes her hesitant to sustain her career in academia.

I can’t fix the treatment or force her to stay, but through the example of a few people in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that to transform campus culture, one just has to start. Waiting for a committee or an administrator to direct the initiative might happen, or it might not. Kindness – if it’s not stretching the canopy image much too far – is about keeping the “u” and the “i” in “university.”

Without the vowels, and the breath it takes to articulate them, the word falls apart in a jumble of consonants -- much as our lives may be filled with burdensome tasks if we can’t perform at least some of them bolstered by community, kindness, support from somewhere.

Working in the writing center that summer day of brainstorming  after teaching, I nibbled on my campus canopy idea between students with their projects, and I asked two fellow writing consultants what advice they felt we needed in academia.

Anne replied, without hesitation, and I can hear her resonant voice.

“Oh please. Please not another advice column.  I don’t need tips on time management, telling me how I will get more done if I get up an hour earlier or make a list.”

 “Do you think we are over-advised as a culture?” I asked:

“Yes, absolutely,” she replied. “Too much advice. No more.”

And then she stopped. She folded Tom, another consultant, into the conversation. Apparently, she had thought of something.

“Tom, what do you think we need around here? A sense of community?” she asked, answering the question with her question.

“Yes,” he replied assuredly. “But some who might want community may not have the time to build it.”

Enter: kindness.

From this brief conversation, the kindness theme gained momentum and related ideas then clustered in close underneath the metaphoric canopy. Driving home, the phrase “A Kinder Campus” was conceived and took shape as most things do, with a little hesitation and a few steps and lurches forward and, luckily, bolstered by all who help shape, read, respond to, or think about this column.

Although “the campus canopy” idea itself was folded up and neatly put away, that lofty image still comes back to my mind from time to time.  Although it sounded a bit like “the campus canape” –  and when it comes to kindness, we want the whole meal, not just the appetizer --  it was a start.

In this season of celebrations, I wish readers much kindness, given and received.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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