Academic Kindness

This has been one of those years of self-reflection, especially that of the academic self. I’ve been reading pedagogy and career-related books instead of actually doing any “real” research. I re-read Carnes Minds on Fire, and either started to read or read Filene The Joy of Teaching; Berg and Seeber The Slow Professor; Hall The Academic Self; Fink Creating Significant Learning Experiences; Gabriel Teaching Unprepared Students; Harass, Hiltz, Teles, and Turoff Learning Networks; and (ahem) Silvia How to Write a Lot. In the next few months I’m going to start the pile of game pedagogy books sitting on my floor.

Why? Well, I think that it’s a good time in my career to be really honest about what kind of academic I am, if I’m happy with what I’m doing and with myself, and where I want to be in my career. I’ve been asking myself some important questions like:

  1. What kind of professor do I want to be?
  2. What kind of innovative, immersive, student-centered pedagogy do I want to employ in my real-time and on-line classrooms? What kind of assignments or activities should I give my students? How should I actually teach this stuff? What kind of reading should I assign?
  3. What kind of researcher am I and what kind of researcher do I want to be? What is my primary research? Secondary? How does my research shape my pedagogy in real time?
  4. Why do I find it almost impossible to stay on schedule on a daily basis? What am I fighting and why?
  5. And most importantly, what kind of colleague am I and what kind of colleague do I want to be?

The first four groups of questions are typical for academics to ask themselves periodically. This is especially true when we’re on the job market and writing research statements, teaching statements, and cover letters. These are the things that are asked in interviews. These are the things we discuss at conferences. But the fifth question, “what kind of colleague am I and what kind of colleague do I want to be” never seems to get asked. This doesn’t get discussed in departmental meetings. This isn’t something career coaches address in their writing or seminars. What kind of colleague are you?

Many senior scholars, junior scholars, and  grad students complain about “venomous” colleagues, departments that are akin to “snake pits,” and express helpless horror at the deplorable behavior exhibited by fellow students, colleagues, and professional peers. I’ve seen academics steal projects, ideas, and classes, throw each other under the bus, and engage in damaging gossip. I’ve seen female academics be particularly cruel to each other, picking on everything from writing style to make-up style … or lack thereof. I’ve had male colleagues “man-splain” topics that I know inside-and-out because they read one book on the subject. I’ve been treated like an idiot by my peers because I attended “a public school” while they went to Ivy Leagues. And I’ve been treated like an outcast because I refuse to follow the “normal” academic path forged by the “brave souls” who made their way into the Ivory Tower. Grad students can be really nasty to each other as they compete for advisors, funding, and golden opportunities. And forget about the venom that is spewed forth at important professional conferences! Good grief, how does anyone get out of there alive?

I understand how competitive academia is. I also understand how difficult it is to get tenure-track jobs or grant money. I’m not stupid or ignorant of the realities associated with academic life. We’re often over-worked, juggling administrative and teaching duties with home life and personal research projects, and emotionally taxed by a system that can be humiliating, berating, and demoralizing. Many of us work alone in archives, libraries, or labs. And we all seem to be dealing with increasingly anxious students who are also trying to find their place in a huge, scary world while maintaining “their cool.”

And yet, we find the time and strength to be assholes to each other. Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have befriended some incredibly generous, kind, and supportive colleagues who currently make up my Tribe. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have academic peers within my discipline and outside of my discipline who have taken an interest in me and my work, and vice versa. We make up a supportive circle of friends who have each other’s back no matter what. And that’s a great comfort to me.

But, how wonderful would it be if all colleagues and peers were just nice to each other? That’s all. Nice. Respectful. Mensch. If not nice, than professional. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. What kind of colleague am I? Ahem I’m guilty of gossiping … I’ll admit it. But do I want to be involved in this kind of behavior? And how do I handle people who are? Academia is hard enough without folks being nasty and cruel. Berg and Seeber discuss academic kindness, collegiality, and community in their book The Slow Academic. They argue that the cultivation of collegiality and treating colleagues with respect and kindness is necessary for the health and well-being of academics, as well as necessary for the overall health of the university (Berg and Seeber 71-84). It goes without saying that a supportive community of colleagues, or at the least a group of people who respect each other and treat each other professionally, would make all of our lives better and academia more tolerable.

I’ve embraced “academic kindness” as my mantra. I want to be the kind of colleague who is supportive, generous, and nice regardless of how bizarre it makes me. I want to be the colleague who celebrates my peers’ successes without feeling threatened or competitive. I want to be the colleague who checks in on my peers and brings them coffee when they need a “pick-me-up.” I refuse to play this competitive, crazy game any more. It’s easier — and healthier for everyone — to be nice and focus on our own work and our students, than to constantly spew venom, or knock each other down, or be mean to each other.

Will you join me in spreading some Academic Kindness? #AcademicKindness




  2 comments for “Academic Kindness

  1. Kathy White
    5 Oct 2017 at 2:34 pm

    I’ve been encountering the subject of kindness in several media and it seems the consensus is kindness as the new courtesy. While I can appreciate that idea, I prefer your interpretation of kindness as a proactive thoughtfulness and caring.


  2. 15 Oct 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Academic kindness is a great goal! I try to be nice to my colleagues (unless they start being problematic first). I founded a circle of young academic women who support each other independent of being in the same workfield and thus direct competition. It is important to network and we will make each other stronger!


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