The Unexamined Life of Academic Kindness

Marilee Turscak

  • Article
  • February 19, 2014

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” - Aristotle

If one types phrase “academia is” into a Google search bar, the first four results that appear on autocomplete are the phrases “academia is a joke,” “academia is a cult,” “academia is bulls**t,” and “academia is like a drug gang.” Similarly, if one types the phrase, “academics are” into the search bar, Google autocomplete will suggest the adjectives “arrogant,” “cool,” “stupid,” and “out of touch.”

Rarely does the adjective “kind” appear in conjunction with the noun “academic.”

Rabia Gregory, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia, seeks to change the unflattering stereotypes that characterize the world of higher education. Her new Tumblr blog, Academic Kindness, publicizes random acts of kindness in academia “as a testimony that not all academics are brutish self-centered narcissists who delight in tearing apart the work of others.” Even more counter-culturally, she aims to “document that generosity and compassion are normative in academia.”

Examples of kindness reported on the blog include a student who sent an encouraging email to a former professor, a faculty member who took a student out for lunch, a Nobel laureate who took time out of his schedule to give feedback on an graduate thesis, a university author who shared a zip file that saved a student over $1,000 of expenses, and a professor who helped a student score a job in a molecular research lab.

One contributor, when recalling a time when a renowned professor paid for his family’s medical insurance, wrote, "Even now when I think about that moment, I get teary-eyed."

The page, according to its mission statement, aims to keep a “record of kindness, unexpected goodwill, and excessive generosity in academia.”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Tumblr contributor Noelle Phillips, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, wrote, “We as academics, 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.”

She admitted that academics can at times exhibit unwarranted cruelty, and added, “The challenge of rigorous scholarship has (wrongly) justified behavior that is just plain nasty rather than constructively critical.”

No one could deny that there are arrogant, selfish people in academia, and perhaps the cut-throat nature of scholarly competition makes people more susceptible to snobbery.

Nevertheless, such arrogance exists in every profession, and it seems unnecessarily cynical to allow blanket statements and complaints about academia to overshadow the virtues of those who are truly passionate about their work and willing to make sacrifices for other scholars within their communities.

Academic Kindness provides a platform for people to draw attention to the many often-ignored instances of generosity in academia, and perhaps inspire people to “pay it forward” and perpetuate such kindness.

Robert Frost once wrote, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

If negativity and anger can, indeed, impede one’s educational progress, then a proper dose of gratitude in a form as simple as a Tumblr blog may offer a much-needed antidote. 

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