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Kindness Is Possible

January 9, 2014

Word association game time.

First word: Academic.

Chances are, “kindness” wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. (Indeed, much has been said and written about the abundance of just the opposite in academe: pettiness, to put it nicely.) But a new blog aims to change that. The Academic Kindness Tumblr is a place for students and professors to post random and not-so-random acts of kindness they’ve witnessed during their studies or work, to remind themselves and others that colleges and universities may not be so inhospitable after all.

The Tumblr seeks “outtakes from peer reviews, emails, marginal comments on seminar papers, and other examples of kindness to publish as a testimony that not all academics are brutish self-centered narcissists who delight in tearing apart the work of others for sport,” according to a post from its moderator, Rabia Gregory, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “Many more do pay it forward with gifts of time, inspirational words, and random acts of kindness. By publicizing these acts of academic kindness I hope to document that generosity and compassion are normative in academia.”

Gregory said in an email interview: “If even a few readers are inspired to shift their own behavior and be a bit more generous, (lending microfilm or a cell culture, writing a constructive peer review or sending a thank-you note), that's fantastic.”

She got the idea for the page in November, after receiving a supportive email from a colleague and posting the following on Facebook: “Amazed all over again by the excessive kindness of some academics. If the deadline hadn't long since passed I'd propose a k'zoo session consisting of outtakes from generous messages and reviews. You know. To balance out the equally necessary venting of vicious bile.” (“K’zoo” refers to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which last year featured a humorous but cringe-inducing dramatic reading of peer review outtakes.)

She started the Tumblr with her own post about once trying to buy a morning coffee at an academic conference. “As I stepped up to the counter to place my order, I saw a small handwritten note announcing the cafe only took cash,” she wrote. “Dismayed, I counted the coins in my wallet, then apologized and stepped out of line. A moment later, the senior scholar in line behind me bought me a cappuccino. When I asked for her name so that I could meet her later and repay her, and she said, ‘You don’t need to pay me back. But promise to pay it forward.’ ”

The senior scholar’s action and words “typify the unseen culture of kindness in academia this blog aims to document,” Gregory says.

Other posts, including those from Gregory’s friends and colleagues as well as strangers, describe similarly kind acts. Many document senior scholars taking the time to help out younger professors and graduate students.

“While doing my comps, I found myself in need of an obscure, unpublished Ph.D. I was still figuring out ProQuest [electronic research library] and I was trying to figure out a way to order it from the university,” reads one post. “As I was doing this, I sent a brief email to a very senior scholar whose work deals with the material in this dissertation and asked if he could recommend the best way to find a copy of it.”

In response, the scholar “sent the entire dissertation to me by mail -- in two packages because it took him a while to photocopy the whole thing (I should also note that I live in a different country, so it would not have been cheap to send). A very kind and unexpected gesture!”

Another post describes a senior scholar calling a grad student at home to help him revise the article he'd submitted to a journal. The scholar, who was editing the piece, did so to speed up the publication process.

“It was early fall, and she knew my C.V. would be going out with applications,” the post says. “Had she sent me the piece and requested the revisions, it would have taken longer. This way, I was able to list the article as accepted and in press in time for the job market.”

That post’s author, Curtis Perry, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and interim associate dean for humanities and interdisciplinary programs in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the help was much appreciated back in 1993, another lean time for hiring (and before email was commonplace). Perry said he was inspired to share the story because “it was extraordinary and because it indicates a pragmatic awareness of the job market precariousness of grad students on the part of senior scholars who are often thought to be blinkered and oblivious to such things.”

Noelle Phillips, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, submitted the post about the photocopied dissertation. She said she wanted to share it because “graciousness and generosity should always be admired.”

Additionally, she said, "We as academics, and perhaps especially as grad students, spend too much time bitching about the hoops we have to jump through, the terrible job market, the nasty colleagues we may encounter, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. It feels like negativity is part of the academic culture, and I think we need to change that.”

Phillips said the “nastiness” often associated with academe is a misplaced byproduct of the nature of the work.

“A person who aspires to be an academic professional needs to show what they're made of, so to speak – we have to undergo rigorous peer review, rewrite over and over until it's good enough, and unearth arguments or sources that have hitherto been hidden or unexplored by others,” she said via email. “All of this means that academics are pushed by others – and push themselves – to their limits. It seems to me that the necessary challenge of rigorous scholarship has (wrongly) justified behavior that is just plain nasty rather than constructively critical. Sometimes this is by anonymous peer reviewers, sometimes by your own committee members.”

Perry, on the other hand, said he wouldn’t offer a general statement as to whether nastiness is common among academics. The academy “is large and has many, many kind of people in it,” he said.  Consequently, “there is presumably something anecdotal to confirm and to rebut every possible stereotype."

But many in academe do feel there’s something about it that either attracts nasty people or makes them so, or both. Inger Mewburn, director of research training at Australian National University, is moderator of the Thesis Whisperer, a popular advice blog for graduate students. One of her most popular blog posts, “Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness,” asked what she and many of her friends have wondered: “Do you get further in academe if you are a jerk?” The piece also advocated for more civility in academe, including in critiques.

Via email, Mewburn said academics displayed some “jerky behavior for show, but perhaps it's also because people genuinely don't know how to give critique in a generous way. It's also not easy to do, at least in my experience.” She also blamed academe’s “performance culture,” and said that while competition for status is nothing new, the job market has heightened the stakes.

Interestingly, she added, “the academic assholes piece attracted a lot of comments from people who were, frankly, just being assholes! I ended up with a couple of persistent (male) trolls, something that had never happened on the Whisperer before." She also said she’s working on a follow-up piece, based on how many people’s comments had -- erroneously, she said – conflated kindness with a lack of critical judgment. (She’s also added moderation policy to her blog, including a “don’t be a jerk” clause.)

Mewburn said she hadn’t heard of the Academic Kindness Tumblr, but that it was a “great idea,” especially for grad students. “Good models are important for communities and this is using the power of the Internet to 'teleport' worthwhile behavior into other communities who lack enough good role models of their own,” she said.

Gregory said she's been lucky to have great models for kindness in her career, which she now seeks to emulate with her colleagues and students.

“As just a small example from my own campus, I have served on committees where a chair orders a bouquet of flowers for the defending student, or bakes a cake and plans a surprise party, or handwritten thank-you notes arrive from both chair and student after the defense,” she said. “Those aren’t necessary gestures, nor are they really out of the ordinary, and they pass unremarked. Yet they help remind everyone involved that even the most stressful forms of academic evaluation don’t have to be unnecessarily cruel interrogations.”

Ultimately, Gregory said, being kind is about ensuring the future of the profession. "I hope more academics realize that if you care about your profession and want it to continue after you retire, you really do need to be willing to mentor, to offer constructive feedback, to help younger scholars develop networks, to write recommendation letters. Otherwise how will there ever be a new generation of scholars?"

 

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