5 Myths About Nice Academics

Being perceived as nice has perks, writes Melissa Nicolas, but it can create troubling misconceptions about who we are and how we should act.

October 13, 2016

For my entire academic career, I have been called nice. As in: “She’s a nice colleague,” “she’s a nice professor” (some Rate My Professor comments notwithstanding), “she’s a nice boss” -- even “she’s a nice dean.” I know there are worse things to be labeled because I’ve been called by some of those monikers, too, so this is not a lamentation.

And don’t get me wrong: just because people think I am nice doesn’t mean that they always like me. Far from it! I could easily fill a column with the many reasons niceness doesn’t necessarily equate with popularity. Nevertheless, while I am certainly not universally beloved, chances are if you ask colleagues or students about me, the first response you’ll get is that I’m nice.

I don’t think about being nice. I don’t wake up each morning with a plan to be nice. In fact, some days I feel like Medusa with my hair a hissing blaze as I stomp through the halls, clawing at the walls, throwing books and desks. Just ask my kids. But even my husband, who has seen me in full Medusa glory, describes me as one of the nicest people he knows. (Or maybe he has to say that because of the Medusa moments?) When I recently apologized to my neighbor for doing something unneighborly, she dismissed my apology by claiming that I was the “nicest person” and no apology was necessary.

Way back in graduate school, my cohort dubbed me the “nice one.” Countless student evaluations -- even the ones that have complaints about something I do or don’t do -- describe me as a nice teacher. And when I was an associate dean, the other deans would often send me the most angry parents or frustrated students because I was so nice that I had a calming influence on them.

In general, being perceived as nice has many perks: people often have a positive first impression of me, even if that changes over time; I can leverage my niceness to work well with people who hold a broad range of opinions; and I have many pleasant interactions around campus. Students often open up to me (sometimes more than I would like them to) and view my office as a safe space. In fact, because of students’ relative comfort with me as a person, I think we get a lot of good academic work done in our short time together. I’ve never been removed from a committee or assignment because I’ve been difficult to work with, and I don’t think people roll their eyes too much when they find out we have to work together.

Being nice is, well … nice. Personally, I think our country could do with a little more niceness these days. Our public and private rhetoric can be so mean and nasty. The current presidential campaign is the apotheosis of what happens when people stop caring about civility, when people stop being nice. If being nice means injecting a little kindness and compassion into the day, then I’m not going to apologize for it.

However, if you read many academic blogs, you might need to be reminded that there are indeed nice people in academe, many of them women. One of the difficulties with being nice is you end up falling off people’s radar. The squeaky wheel gets grease and all that nonsense. Nice people aren’t usually very squeaky.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t any nice guys. I know and work with them, too, but their perceived niceness often seems to be an unmitigated asset, something that increases their standing and raises their value as a colleague. But for academic women, being nice is complicated by some troubling misconceptions about who we are and how we should act. When we don’t live up to the expectations of what a “nice girl” should do and/or be, real tension arises.

These tensions are usually just the other side of the whole men-are-assertive-women-are-bitchy coin. The opposite of being bitchy, after all, is being nice: kind, friendly, compassionate, agreeable, smiling. The problem with this well-worn coin is that both sides are imprinted with generalizations and stereotypes about who women are and what our behaviors should be. It may be OK in 2016 to lean in, but we should do it while smiling.

Being the nice person I am, I’d like to clear up some of the misunderstandings that seem to surround nice people. The following assumptions about nice academic women are patently false.

  1. Because we are nice, we have no opinions, thoughts or ideas of our own. This one always surprises me. We have Ph.D.s. If we could not think for ourselves, we would never have been admitted into these hallowed halls. We are thinkers, doers and creators -- not sheep. While we may not go around sharing our thoughts on everything from the sorry state of the department’s coffee to the inanity of building an indoor climbing wall, it doesn’t mean we like the coffee or give a blanket endorsement to the climbing wall. Just ask us.
  2. Because we are nice, we will not disagree with you. This is related to No. 1. We assume we are hired for our expertise in our disciplinary field. If someone says something that runs counter to our understanding of our respective fields, we are going to speak up. If we have suggestions, ideas or arguments, we are going to share them. A while back, I was hired into a department because I was told they needed an expert in writing program administration (one of my scholarly areas). When I arrived and started performing the work of a disciplinary expert whose ideas did not always align with more veteran members of the department -- not disciplinary experts, by the way -- I quickly figured out that what the department really wanted was a yes-person (read: “nice” person) who wouldn’t rock the boat and would go along with the status quo. It turned out that everyone thought I was too nice to disagree with them. Things didn’t go smoothly when I sweetly told them my niceness didn’t equal simple acquiescence.
  3. Because we are nice, we are doormats. Nope. We may smile at you as we tell you no, but don’t mistake our niceness for naïveté or passivity. As an associate dean, one of my jobs was to hear re-entry appeals from students who had been placed on mandatory leaves of absence for poor academic performance. After a few weeks of participating on the committee that made very tough decisions, my dean said, “You know, I was worried about you on this committee because you are so nice. I thought you would just let everyone back in. After seeing you in action, I think you are probably one of the toughest people on the committee. I’m surprised.”
  4. Because we are nice, we do not hold high standards. Sigh. This one trips up students (and colleagues -- see No. 3) all the time. For some reason, students assume that because we don’t belittle or demean them, because we don’t write harsh comments, because we have open-door policies, because we smile a lot, because we bake cookies, we won’t make them work hard. No. No. And no. I hold very high standards for my undergraduate and graduate students as well as for the teachers whom I supervise. You cannot do slipshod work for me and get good grades or good references. A comment I hear from students after a semester is over is that I am “tricky” or “sneaky” because I make them work really hard but they don’t always notice they’re doing it. I don’t believe I have to have the reputation of being the meanest in order to get the best out of my students or those whom I supervise.
  5. Because we are nice, we never get angry, tired or frustrated. If you prick us, do we not bleed? We are human. We react to stimuli the way humans react to stimuli. If we are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and not respected, we will get angry and frustrated. Just because we may not lament our circumstances at every chance we get (see No. 1) does not mean we contain superhuman reserves of power and grace. Shit gets to us. Bad behavior gets to us. Injustice, incivility, disrespect, selfishness, people who don’t pull their own weight -- all these things affect us as much as the next person.

The bottom line is that nice people are the same underneath as everyone else. We need to be listened to, appreciated and respected. And even though we may smile a lot, we want our colleagues and students to know that we are serious about our work and what we do.


Melissa Nicolas is a (nice) associate professor of English and the (nice) director of the core writing program at the University of Nevada.


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