Generosity and Kindness in Academia

“Generosity is not impossible in today’s precarious times. It can be embedded in the small acts we perform every day and in the behaviors we model across the profession.”

So write Douglas Dowland (Ohio Northern) and Annemarie Pérez (CSU-Dominguez Hills) in “How to Be a Generous Professor in Precarious Times” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Their subject is cruelty in academia—personal failures of kindness the effects of which are made worse by an economic context marked by the scarcity of secure academic employment—and what individuals can do to counter it.

What do generosity and kindness in academia look like? Dowland and Pérez offer some examples:

  • Agreeing to read a paper.
  • Having tea with a student in distress.
  • Steering a committee discussion in a different, more positive way.
  • Buying a coffee or lunch for a graduate student or an adjunct faculty member attending a conference.
  • Finding ways to include and pay adjuncts for service work.
  • Converting a contingent teaching position into a permanent one.
  • Pitching in to cover the cost of a student’s application to graduate school.
  • Creating and contributing to fund a program that gives emergency money to students in the midst of unexpected crises that otherwise might cause them to drop out.
  • Refusing to perpetuate the “normal” abuses of the past.
  • Refraining from punching down.

It would be great if we could get some more suggestions and examples along these lines.

Philosophy is a discipline in which “tearing down” people’s ideas is part of the program, and so it encourages such behavior and attracts people who like to engage in it. That may be in some ways good, but it comes with the risk of philosophy being particularly susceptible to excesses in that direction, towards hostile and cruel behavior and its toleration.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In my view, philosophy has become a better place over the past 10-20 years. For one thing, think of the question and answer sessions at typical philosophy talks now versus twenty years ago. More importantly, think of the ways in which our discipline has become more welcoming to a greater diversity of voices over that time—which of course is not to say that everything is just fine in that regard. (It might be objected that it is not a “kindness” to stop acting wrongly or to undo injustices; that’s a fair point, yet could be true alongside the recognition that a world with less immorality or injustice is also a kinder world.)

Four years ago, I ended a post with advice that sociologist Anne Galloway said she received when she entered academia:

“We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”

Those are words still worth keeping in mind.

Sarah Morris, “Umm Al Nar”

Related: some suggestions for how to be kind in the comments here and here.


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