Academic Kindness

A record of unsolicited kindness, unexpected goodwill, and excessive generosity in academia.

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Let them eat cake

My supervisor is a busy and important leader in his field.  Despite this he always makes time for his PhD students. In one moment of particularly kind thoughtfulness, after I sent around the rejection letter for a paper that I’d had high hopes for,  he found me at my desk and gave me a fancy boxed piece of chocolate cake, just saying that he thought I might need it.  

A most wonderful supervisor

When the opportunity arose for me to study for my PhD in a foreign country, finding a mentor was foremost in my mind. I really wanted someone with whom I could work, someone who I could respect, and someone who would be supportive of a student who constantly experienced self-doubt.

I found her.

Working with her made my PhD one of the best experiences of my life. My supervisor gave me time to develop a research project and do a literature search on a subject she wasn’t sure about. But when I uncovered some important leads, she was right on board with me.

She guided me in the right direction, was there during the times when I started to doubt my abilities, and offered sound advice. She helped me accomplish heights I never dreamed I would reach.

I am grateful for all her help, and now, years later, happily call her my friend.

A PhD advisor becoming a mentor

When I was a beginning PhD student, I went through an enormous change of life circumstance, with starting a new job in a stressful (and not supportive) academic environment and being 500 miles away from my husband. My PhD advisor recognized my stress and took me to lunch on several occasions, while also encouraging me to take better care of myself, start yoga, and consider getting some therapy. He recognized my scholarly capacity (the first doctoral paper I wrote was immediately published in an outstanding journal), but he was clearly concerned for my well being during a dark time in my life, when it seemed that nobody else was there, nobody cared.

His gentle nudging, sense of humor, and support I think may have in some ways saved my life, and honestly helped bring me out of any suicidal ideation I was having. His willingness to reach out to me also propelled my academic career in a different direction.

Ten years ago I completed my dissertation with this person as my chair, and in addition to my tenure track position, I now occasionally teach alongside this person as an adjunct for this same school where I was a student. His kindness, mentoring capacity, and caring are something I strive to emulate in my own work with students.

When in doubt, reach out in kindness to the struggling student; you just may save a life!

Rekindling my work from an unexpected place

The summer before my senior (thesis-writing) year of my undergrad, I had the privilege of traveling across the world to get my feet wet in research. It led me to look deeply into a particular migrant community on an island state, which made me both excited and nervous to study it. Also my then-partner is from that island state, and I met her online.

I found a senior scholar who has a solid reputation of being a kind-hearted, engaging and passionate scholar-activist-artist, whose work I had read in my initial travels. Later that summer, to do some field work, I traveled to that island state. This scholar agreed to meet with me.

I nervously waited in front of her door, and feared that twenty minutes after the top of the hour, she had forgotten about our meeting. Just as I turned to leave, there she was at the other end of the hallway, slowly walking towards me. She kindly apologized for her lateness—she had been serving on a committee which ran later than expected—and let me into a tightly-packed office teeming with shelves of books. After pouring me tea and agreeing to let me record our conversation for future notes, we spoke for almost two hours about the field, the island state and its migrant population, and scholars who I could contact to help me out further. 

Towards the end of that conversation, I told her about my doubts and fears about entering this field, partly because of my simultaneous personal connection and personal disconnection with it (I am a member of the migrant community I study, but elsewhere and not in that particular area). Growing up, I felt ostracized from this community, but my studies have led me back to my origins.

To which she, also a member of this migrant community, replied, “but you need to do it. Our field needs new scholars like you to do this work, because you’re part of our community and your questions are so important.”

She then asked to read my thesis once it’s done, and we parted ways. Also, we went from Professor/Student addresses to traditional family-based addresses that prevail in our culture. Which was both nice and tear-jerking in retrospect. 

My relationship with my partner didn’t end up working out, but that community continues to be a nexus point of my research interests. I’m so thankful for the kindness of that professor.

The big shot and the tiny little conference

Two years ago a tiny, struggling regional history conference that I am associated with somehow found the money to bring in a keynote speaker. They landed one of the top historians of race and the Civil War.

Mr. Bigshot not only came out to our part of the world, he attended the entire conference. As in taking notes and asking questions. His keynote was his standard speech about race and memory, except that he wove in bit of what he had learned at the conference, including a shout out to the presenter. “As we were reminded by Susan Smith’s excellent paper yearterday…” 

Keep in mind that most of the presenters were community college faculty or employees of local museums and historical societies. For them to hear themselves being quoted in public by super-famous bigshot was—well, it was a very good day. It was the classiest thing I have ever seen in this profession.

Encouraging comments on first publication

I just discovered this site today, and I hope it continues to grow! 

My story is about my first experience with peer review. I had submitted an article based on my Master’s degree research to a peer-reviewed journal for students in the field. The reviewers are experienced academics. The paper was a reflection on methodology, and I referred to myself several times as a “novice researcher”.

Both peer reviewers suggested revisions, but were so encouraging regarding the content of the paper, and both suggested I should refer to myself as an “early career researcher” because they thought I had strong potential.

It was such a confidence booster at a time when I was wondering whether I should continue in academia or go back into practice (I chose academia). It also has been a good example of how to give feedback in peer review without being horrible about it. 

Back when I stared my second year of electrical engineering, I was feeling confused by the circuit theory. The lecturer was very generous with his time when he could have just told me to go read the textbook, instead he stayed behind with me in the lab after-hours, going over it all, including stuff I should have known.

I’ve never forgotten that he didn’t think he was too busy or too important to spend time helping me understand.

Conference collegiality

Ten years ago, I was attending my first big international conference in a major European city. I had just passed my comps, but had not yet started writing my dissertation and thus was not worth talking to, according to the logic of the name tag once-over that determines so many conference interactions. I didn’t know a single person at the conference, which was full of prominent scholars whose books I had read while studying for comps and to whom I was too intimidated to introduce myself. A few days into the conference, when I was despairing of making any real connections, a senior scholar struck up a casual conversation while we were waiting in line for the ladies’ room; when she discovered that I didn’t know anyone, she promptly introduced me to the group she was with (which included some of those people whose books I had read). They all essentially took me under their wing, asked about my research interests, and made sure I met the people I needed to. I will always be grateful for their collegiality, freely extended to an unknown grad student. Now, whenever I go to conferences, I always try look out for grad students and junior colleagues who are in the same position I was and draw them into the conversation and make sure that they feel like part of the academic community too. 

My PhD supervisor has been busy working on a grant proposal, and this week I walked into my office and found this lovely surprise on my desk. They had bought me a book to ‘make up’ for their being busy working on other things. This was really touching - not only because they had thought of this and gone out of their way to do something so nice, but because even while being busy they are still an amazing supervisor. 

My PhD supervisor has been busy working on a grant proposal, and this week I walked into my office and found this lovely surprise on my desk. They had bought me a book to ‘make up’ for their being busy working on other things. This was really touching - not only because they had thought of this and gone out of their way to do something so nice, but because even while being busy they are still an amazing supervisor. 

Anonymous said: Academic kindness? Is that an oxymoron?

apparently not.

melioravit said: Thank you for doing this! Really.

Aw thanks! And thanks especially for the encouraging message during the midsummer silence. We all can agree that the real gratitude should be directed to each person who took the time to write a submission and the mentors and strangers who’ve inspired these posts. Without their stream of stories, kindness might still seem a mythic fluke. Please keep sending in your memories, or maybe if any readers have copied a kindness tactic or changed their habits, pass that on too.

Blue and Proud

Today I sent a thank-you to the facultymember who, years ago, heard one of my stories about my family and told me about living in a trailer with his wife during gradschool. His first academic contract stipulated that he did not have to wear a white collar. In those years his collars were blue. He is a fine scholar, well-regarded in his field, and such an important mentor for those of us who, like him, come to academia from far outside of it. He has supported me in my career path for many years.