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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Anna
Anna
3 years ago

These are all great suggestions. (well not sure how much power faculty have to convert contingent teaching positions into permanent ones, but other than that I like them). Anyway, I would recommend, however, starting with things even more basic. Like responding to emails from your students and colleagues. Even if you don’t choose to read a paper, at least be polite enough to answer the request. If you are supervising graduate students consistently giving feedback in a timely manner. Do not make the grad student feel uncomfortable for asking basic questions. These are things that, in my experience, are often not done.Report

Alison
Alison
3 years ago

I largely agree with Anna, but disagree that tenured and tt-faculty do not have power with respect to turning contingent positions to permanent ones. Faculty can work in concert to engage in direct actions, withhold their labor, etc, if they really cared about this issue. I think the degree to which they don’t (or the degree to which they don’t even consider this) is an unfortunate indicator of how much they’re really concerned about their contingent colleaguesReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alison
3 years ago

I’m sorry, but this simply is untrue. I am intimately aware of how such decisions are made in an institution like ours — a large, public university — and our department has no say over such things. As for “withholding our labor,” the university is already looking for a reason to get rid of our department so as to save money and invest in programs with more majors.

So please don’t slander us, by saying that we’re not really concerned about our contingent colleagues. You don’t know us, and you apparently do not know how budgeting and hiring decisions are made at a university, or at least, at a university like ours, which is a very common sort of place.Report

Alison
Alison
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I understand that fighting for and with contingent faculty can be difficult and frustrating, but I think it’s an important component of the sort of kindness and generosity advocated here and in my experience it can have really lovely and powerful results. I guess I’d encourage you to maybe in the future interpret online comments with a little more kindness and generosityReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alison
3 years ago

I didn’t “interpret” anything. My remark is based straightforwardly on what you wrote in the last sentence of your initial comment. In light of that it is a little rich for you now to suggest that someone else needs to be more kind and generous.Report

Alison
Alison
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Maybe I’m not cut out for this comment section but your comments seem to me to stand out as being aggressive and unkindReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alison
3 years ago

And your remark about the feelings of those whom you don’t know about the well-being of their contingent faculty? That was generous and kind?Report

Benjamin L.S. Nelson
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Sometimes, collegial governance works in surprising ways. That is, sometimes, when creating a line, a Dean really might listen to departmental advice when the latter lays out their teaching needs. It has happened. Yes, granted, the norm is top-down — but institutions (even research universities) can sometimes be odd and full of invisible opportunities. [/pivot]Report

Adam Omelianchuk
3 years ago

Justin, as a former grad student of yours, I can say the lasting positive impressions I have of you were solidified when you bought me coffee (discussed my paper with me) and took our class out for pizza on the last day. It seems like these are superficial things, but they weren’t. They meant a lot, and I hope to replicate this sort of generosity with my students.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
3 years ago

I’m friends with some professors on Facebook, and recently one literally said “Giving a grade-crushing midterm today” in his status. Or there was recently a complaining session on his wall on how “ridiculous” and “entitled” it is for undergrads to email a professor to ask for an extension on a paper given that they had two other exams on the day of the due date. In the comments section were a chorus of other professors agreeing–“Yeah, tell them they brought this crisis on themselves,” or, “Yes, it’s MY responsibility to change my due dates when YOU manage your time ineffectively,” things along those lines.

First, this straw man’s what the undergrad is communicating. Most undergrads do not say “Hello Professor, since I have two exams on your paper due date, you are obligated to (or it is your responsibility to) change the date.” It is instead a request request–a plea for making their life a little bit easier as a 19 year old new to adulthood.

It seems to me one can give students time management lessons *and* be kind. Alleviating others’ (even self-inflicted) suffering and crises at no cost to oneself seems like a good thing to do, if it can be paired with a word of caution about their time management in the future. I’m skeptical that the undergrad must suffer through it, with a dismissive email from the professor addressing her request, in order for the time management caution to sink in. The professor’s incredulity at extension requests is particularly disturbing given professors’/academics’ notoriously casual relationship with deadlines.

But maybe I’m a grad student with too much proximity to being an undergrad myself.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

There are good reasons to oppose extensions at some schools, maybe. We don’t want inflation, and there may be fairness concerns. But what I mean to critique is this hostile attitudes towards extension requests, as if their request is a sign of immaturity or entitlement. Professors can at least pretend to care and empathize, even if they don’t give an extension in the end.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

Gosh, do I agree with this. In the distant past I used to conflate being a hard-ass with being rigorous. Thank goodness I outgrew it. But, I am simply amazed at how many of my colleagues — many significantly older than me — continue to conflate the two. Also at how many of them just seem plain mean, to the point that it almost appears that they hate their students. Which raises the question of why they would want to be teachers.

The population that our university draws from is not wealthy and consists of a large number of first generation college students. They are not in either the financial or educational position that my peers and I were in, graduating from high school in a wealthy suburb of Long Island. Our parents paid for our educations and we did not have to work while in school. I have students who are carrying 20-30 hour work schedules, in addition to school, not because they want to but because they have no choice. To say to such a person, who is asking for a little leeway, timewise, that they are “managing their time ineffectively” is just being a jerk, plain and simple. Get over yourself. That quiz you’re giving just isn’t that freaking important that it can’t wait a day or two.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. Just a bit of generosity can go a long way to making the academic years a bit more tolerable. College can be a strange and alien place for people without a personal guide. It’s probably best not to make it an unforgiving one.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

Here’s the counter-argument: my syllabus says: “this work is due in by date X”. Student A takes that seriously, meets the deadline, potentially does less well than they would have done if they took a bit longer. Student B misses the deadline, pleads, gets an extension. Isn’t that a bit unfair on student A?Report

Jim
Jim
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

God, I’ve missed the David Wallace comments!Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

No, I don’t think so.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

About your example: obviously, whether it is a bit unfair to A depends various things. It depends on whether what explains why A did less well is that A procrastinated, simply didn’t have enough time because of other important obligations, didn’t have enough time because of unimportant things (like video games, facebook), etc. It also depends on whether what explains why B missed the deadline is that B procrastinated, didn’t have enough time because of important obligations, didn’t have enough time because of unimportant, etc. The fact that it depends on these things supports one of Grad Student4’s main points: decisions about how to treat students should consider a broad range of factors. So the counterargument fails.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

About your counter-argument: the strategy of the argument won’t work, even if you stack the example against Grad Student4–by, say, making student A a perfectly diligent, hardworking (but not the brightest) student and making student B a non-diligent, lazy (and somewhat bright) student. This is because fairness is sensitive to factors such as student diligence, laziness, etc., which Grad Student’s comment suggests.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jen
3 years ago

But ex hypothesis you don’t know anything about how diligent (or whatever) student A is, because they took the deadline seriously and didn’t interact with you. And very probably you don’t have that much idea about B either, unless it’s quite a small class.

There are so many ways in which making individual exceptions to the rules based on your fast impression from a quick email or in-person conversation is going to induce unfairness compared to setting sensible humane rules in advance and using them consistently. (Obviously I recognize there are genuine emergencies and crises that require exceptions, so at some level we’re discussing points on a continuum.)Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Whether it is fair does not depend on what we *know* (or confidently believe) about the students. But our decisions about how to treat them do. So when we find out that a student says there’s trouble turning in the assignment, we can consider the various factors of which we are aware, and do our best to make an informed, fair decision. Nothing about your example, however, tells us that the decision to offer an extension is a bit unfair.

You write: “There are so many ways in which making individual exceptions to the rules based on your fast impression from a quick email or in-person conversation is going to induce unfairness…” Your claim is too strong; it *might* (but might not) induce unfairness. But whether it will is not something that we can know (ex hypothesis). So it is OK to exercise kindness and generosity.

I do agree that the best practice is to set sensible human rules and use them consistently. Notice, however, that this is consistent with Grad Student4’s comment.Report

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

There’s a way of being generous and kind about due dates that I learned from colleagues, and that (I think) removes concerns about fairness: Tell your students at the beginning of the term (and write into the syllabus, obviously) that each of them has a fund of N “late days” that they can spend as they wish on assignments, throughout the term.Report

Matt
3 years ago

A long time ago, I left the grad program at SUNY Albany after writing a fairly hasty MA Thesis and joined the Peace Corps. While I was in the Peace Corps, the department at Albany gave me terrific support and helped me along the way, even though my interests had changed and I wasn’t going back there. Jon Mandle and Ron McClamrock spent time corresponding with me on philosophical topics. Naomi Zack mailed me books, articles, coffee, and a scarf. Maybe most relevantly here, though, when I decided I was going to apply to more graduate study and law schools, I was hindered by the fact that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had very little money. The department at Albany got together and paid the (small, but to me still significant) fees to have my transcripts from Albany mailed out to all of the places I was applying. It wasn’t a huge amount of money – probably less than $150 over all – but it was a super nice thing to do, and something I’ll long remember.

(I note this not because I think it’s what every department or professor should do, but for the “examples” bit of the post.)Report

Another Example
Another Example
3 years ago

Another example:
At a recent event, I got talking to a university student from [some university]. One thing led to another and it came out that we both knew [Philosopher X]. She immediately started gushing about how much he helped her with her writing, made time to actually meet with her in person, encouraged her and her classmates, actually responded to their emails, etc. And beyond all that, she said something that I won’t forget — that through her time there, *he* was the one who made the Philosophy department feel like a welcoming and encouraging place. And in so doing, helped inspire her to apply to grad school. Since then I’ve met more than a few people who have said similar things about him – from students to senior faculty. Hopefully if he sees this, he’s not too embarrassed and can forgive me for writing it.

[Note: Edited at the request of the named philosopher]Report

Recent grad 2
Recent grad 2
Reply to  Another Example
3 years ago

I hope someone who knows him passes this on to himReport

Recent grad
Recent grad
3 years ago

I set the goal of sending three emails a week to students who said something insightful in class (all undergrads). The email might be a quick comment on their comment, or it could be a more involved attempt to show them the upshots of their comment. In any case, students seem to appreciate them.Report

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

We need so much more of things like this. One more anecdatum. I (way back when) luckily fell into a grad program at Tennessee that teemed with faculty of genuine good will. Several of the OP’s bullet points were my actual experience. The only reason I had a great career–and am beginning to enjoy my generous recent retirement–was due to my friends at UT who also were my instructors and advisers. I’ll only embarrass two by name, though there could be more mentioned. When I tried to type my dissertation on my own for final submission to the grad school (I did say this was long ago), it was rejected because it exceeded error corrections permitted per number of pages. My director, Rem Edwards, and without even asking me, paid for a typist to do it, informing me later that I could pay him back a few bucks a month at a time, which I did. That touched me. But even before that, my committee member Richard Aquila paid for my flight to Wisconsin for the only interview I ever had–for the job I just retired from. I paid him back in the same fashion, slowly but surely. (And dedicated my songs page to him, which is still up and running FWIW.) But I can never repay him and Rem for their astonishing generosity. I’ve tried in my own career to mirror that–the best way to honor them and the many other of my instructors who modeled integrity in every way, along with the intellectual kind necessary but not sufficient for being truly good teachers.Report

Anna
Anna
3 years ago

I had a very hard time financially in grad school. My first 5 years I worked 20-30 hours a week in addition to TAing, but living in a high cost area it was never enough. There was one senior professor (female, since to many people this will matter…) that at one point loaned me a thousand dollars. I am not even sure what it was for anymore, maybe a conference or interview? Anyway, she soon made clear that her “loan” was not to be paid back, and it was an absurdly high payment for subbing a few classes. Things like that mean so much, on so many levels. I knew that even if I did not make it in the profession, I met people worth knowing, which to me was more important than learning things worth knowing.Report