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One year of a kinder campus (essay)

A Kinder Campus Turns 1

July 6, 2012

I.

I didn’t have many birthday parties in childhood. But there was one that I do recall, when I was seven. As I look at the sole black-and-white picture of it occasionally, I notice the party hats (guaranteed to make even kids look a little silly), the crystal chandelier that was one of the few elegant items in our house, the cake with pink roses, and the friends, relatives and neighborhood bully in attendance. (My mom, ever diplomatic, prepared the guest list.)

By contrast, birthday parties online may seem ephemeral and asynchronous. But put on your virtual party hat anyway; you are certainly cordially invited to attend mine.

Since this column first appeared one year ago (July 1, 2011),  I have tried to offer a mix of topics related to kindness, civility and workplace morale on college campuses. For links to all of the 17 columns so far, click here.

Some highlights: I began with  reflections on mentors, followed by  “Out of Your Comfort Zone” (on trying new things), and “Cropping Out Incivility.” “The Very Rough Art of Listening,” “Honor Your Campus Library,” and “Stand Up for Yourself” were other early efforts. “When Words Can Fail,–“Beating Winter Doldrums” and  “Loss through the Lens of Autumn” were on some serious issues while “Thumbs Up for a Balanced Life” and “Netiquette, Shmetiquette” dealt with the attempted humor on our delicate dances with technology.

Of late, I became an experimenter with Xtranormal; though I am serious about issues of kindness, I am also serious about humor as a lifeline in tough times and a way to promote cognition and insight.

I welcome researchers in the areas of positive psychology, workplace morale, empathy education and many applied areas that might cluster under the orange banner of kindness to contact me even as I continue to search for you! (Why orange? It’s IHE’s accent color.)

As the column takes its first tentative steps to toddlerhood, there are new topics I would like to approach, such as campus norms around the world, campus violence, tolerance promotion and race relations – and whatever readers might suggest. If something great is happening at your campus(es), let me know. If you want to share a problem in confidence, I will respect that.

II.

As I entered the 2011-12 academic year, I was unaware that it would be the one in which my mother Louise Shine would die, followed five months later by the death of my mother-in-law, Rosalia Stewart. Both were kind women with steep challenges in their lives who lived into their 90s. And I did not know that it would be a school year ending with the deaths of highly regarded colleagues in their 50s, Dr. David Klooster and Dr. Christopher Roark,  both supervisors of mine at one time at John Carroll University.

While checking the newspaper for Dr. Roark’s obituary, I also discovered that Dr. Peggy Fisher Broder had died at 86. I had worked for her at Cleveland State University. The legacy of all five in this paragraph was one of kindness, from my perspective. The debut of this column one year ago dealt with two mentors, also deceased; this is not so much a coincidence as evidence that the counterpoint of life and death does help define what is important in human relations.

Funeral services are sometimes called a celebration of life. Stories of kindness, achievement and quirks abound, easing the pain of loss for a moment. My mother and mother-in-law both outlived their contemporaries, so their stories are held close by surviving relatives and neighbors. My colleagues had public lives still in full bloom, so the stories drift and fall like blossoms of a cherry tree, sad and beautiful.

Peggy Broder was a professional I observed in the CSU English Department as both a secretary and, later, as an adjunct faculty member. A dignified woman among mainly male colleagues, she was very busy with composition supervision and research responsibilities and always unruffled.  She taught me that kind can be cool, and cool can be kind. I remember her gift to me one Christmas of crisp blue stationery as steady as her eyes – I had never had such great stationery -- and her gentle comment another time as I wore a stoic mask but was actually exhausted. “The computer has gotten to you, Maria!” she said as I sat bleary eyed in the department lounge, having spent too many hours inputting placement test scores without the self-care insight to take a break. Dr. Broder taught me not to miss the obvious.

David Klooster, well-known at several institutions and most recently Hope College, welcomed me back into teaching writing to traditional-aged students at John Carroll after a hiatus during which I had taught nontraditional students and worked as a writer/editor. Uncertain about pacing 50-minute blocks, as I had more experience in long time slots, I benefited from Dr. Klooster’s practical advice: “Do what you do, but break it down,” he said. “You bring a writer’s approach to the teaching of writing.” Exchanging stories about Dr. Klooster after his death, a colleague said to me: “He was a kind man,” and we considered the definition. He was accepting of students yet unshakable if they tried to push teachers too far. “I once asked him about that,” she said, “and he told me that setting limits is part of kindness.”

Recommended:

  • Emmons, Robert. (2007). Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Exline, Julie J. (2012). “Humility and the Ability to Receive from Others.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31(1): 40-50.
  • Post, Stephen G. (2005). “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2): 66–77.
  • Rutherford, Eldred, & Mussen, Paul. (1968). “Generosity in Nursery School Boys.” Child Development 39(3): 755-766.

Also at John Carroll, Christopher Roark with his tireless energy was a beacon to many. At the funeral Mass following his sudden and untimely death in June, a packed church listened to stories about him shared by  priest and colleagues alike identifying Dr. Roark as “the teacher’s teacher.”  He was demanding yet supportive, creative while precise, confident but humble. He maintained the stance of an active, engaged learner even as he demonstrated leadership. I will never forget him as a colleague accepting me with my young son in tow while I was trying to balance career and family; he would take time to talk cheerfully about early childhood education options while helping me unjam an unruly photocopier during evening or weekend hours and then return to his research. He later served as department chair.

I am reminded that none of us knows our allotted time. Our actions and attitudes – as well as our teaching and research endeavors -- are etched into collective memory. Civility is not a frill, and a call to kindness is not an admonition to become “p.c. police” or Pollyanna. Without team work and intermingling of talents, nothing gets off the ground: from the campus buildings themselves to the loftiest ideas that we strive to  implement. As I extinguish my virtual birthday candle in my mind, I offer two wishes to readers:

  • that you might ponder the kind help you have received in your life; and
  • that you might reflect on the good things you have done.

Make each day that you have be a celebration.

“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”
--        William Penn

 

 

Bio

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 mariashinestewart@gmail.com.

 

 

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