While in the depths of maternity leave, I received an unsolicited and unexpected email from a very senior scholar in my field, whose work I admire, but with one of whose articles I had taken slight issue in my first book. The academic in question, whom I had never met, had nonetheless emailed to say how much she had enjoyed my book, was recommending it to her students, and hoped we’d meet some day to talk about our interests. I nearly didn’t go back into academia after maternity leave, but the breathtaking generosity of this email was one of the reasons I did. Years later, I met this kind person, and she turned out to be as charming and generous in person as she was in that email.
I’m in the midst of my very first “real” teaching job — an adjunct lectureship at a wonderful teaching university. Since I’m still in my Ph.D., it’s been a bit intimidating, to say the least!
Today, a student dropped by my office to argue over points that I’d deducted for an incorrect answer on his exam. I held firm, and explained to the student why the answer was wrong, that his grade was consistent with other students’ scores, and that I wouldn’t be giving him full credit for an incorrect answer.
The student continued to push me on this issue, expressing his frustration and starting to raise his voice. I had the situation under control, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant.
Then, much to my surprise, a senior faculty member with an office across the hall stepped into my office. He asked if anything was the matter, and then looked the student in the eye and informed him that he was badgering and bullying me, and that this was not acceptable behavior at this university. He insisted that the student apologize to me, and then left. After the student, much more meekly, finished consulting with me about his exam and left, I had the chance to thank the senior faculty member for his help. He told me that a student would never have tried such a thing with someone on the full-time faculty, and that backing me up was the least he could do.
This is just the most prominent example of a series of instances during my first teaching experience when my peers on the faculty have provided advice, mentorship, guidance, and help! I am very grateful!
A conversation with a friend and colleague about academic kindness made me think of this story. Many years ago, I was interviewing for my first tenure track academic job. I had worked there for a year as an adjunct professor, and I had developed a good relationship with the students. I may be quirky and odd, but I yield to no one in caring about my students. Anyway, I gave a required “job talk.” The auditorium was full. I was introduced.
And before I could begin, the students in the audience—-a lot of them—-did “the wave.” I didn’t know what to say, and folks laughed with delight at the cute moment. Now, I am not so smart, but there is a part of my brain that is asleep most of the time, but wakes up from time to time to say smart things.
"The wave" finished.
"You know," I said drily, "I have always dreamed of a day when scientists could be seen the way sports stars often are. Today must be my day."
Everyone laughed again.
That is a memory that is always with me. Things didn’t work out at that institution, but I adored the students. And some of them seemed to like me back. Don’t get me wrong: I like my job where I am now, the students are very nice here, and I appreciate at last having tenure. I also get to teach my speciality every year. But no one does “the wave” for me here! Thank you, students from that institution. Truly, that was my moment.
My choice of PhD programs came down to two schools: one an elite private school and the other a top public school. For various reasons, I chose the public school. When I called the admissions office at the private school they were clearly surprised at my choice and were somewhat cold on the phone. I felt uncomfortable and also wondered if I should have chosen the more elite university.
A few days later I received a letter. It was a hand-written note from a senior faculty member at the private school. He is one of the most famous people in my profession—an internationally known scholar. His note congratulated me on choosing a school and told me that the best thing for everyone is for me to do well wherever I attend. He wished me the best in my studies and said we would stay in touch throughout my career. It was a wonderfully supportive and thoughtful note from someone who had nothing to gain by sending it. Now that I am on the admitting side of grad school admissions I keep that note in mind when I talk with applicants.
When I began thinking about going back to school after years in the workforce, I had a field in mind but no idea where to start. My tiny undergraduate career center had no contacts for me. Searching the faculty at the local universities, I came across a senior professor who was an alumna of my college program. A little bit of luck, a little bit of kindness: of the dozen-ish cold emails I made, she was the only professor to respond welcoming a face-to-face meeting. Within the week I was in her office for an hour-long chat about the fundamentals of the discipline and how to make it in academia as a newcomer and a strong thinker. She gave me a book at the end of our meeting: to her, nothing more than an editor’s copy of a reader in classic theory of the discipline; to me, the doorway into my career. I had no idea where I was headed and she still managed to give me the directions I needed.
As an undergraduate student returning to college from a dysfunction hiatus, I was very anxious about undoing the damage two years of misguided studies had wrecked on my GPA. This was particularly important to me because I wanted to apply to graduate school and couldn’t afford a bad grade in what was supposed to be my triumphant return to my studies. I had managed three semesters of solid work, and was in the home stretch but taking my final 18 credits in one go. This meant that when midterm exam week came, my life was Hell. Papers and tests had to be done to the best of my ability while still accomplishing required reading and attending class. I was cramming for tests and writing like mad, and finally sat down to my last exam strung out but confident. However, no alarm bells went off when I turned in my exam booklet while getting strange looks from my peers. But, when a C- grade was returned to me a week later, I realized my mistake. I had completely ignored a set of directions and missed completing a large portion of my exam. I was devastated. No matter my grades for my other assignments, I couldn’t get better than a B in the class. And, I was really embarrassed. I wrote a brief and apologetic note of explanation on my test booklet, just hoping to explain to my professor that I hadn’t failed to study for her test. Imagine my surprise then when, the next class, she stopped me after and explained that a similar incident happened to her in college and the professor had forgiven the oversight. She granted me the missing points, gave me an A in her class, and wrote me a glowing recommendation to graduate school. I will never forget that kindness and I always try to pass on that good deed.
When I—a first year graduate student—submitted an abstract a few months ago for a specialized conference, the senior scholar-organizer wrote back to ask me if I could help him find a source. Since those initial emails, he has been trying to get me extra travel money for this conference, has asked me to submit a proposal for a conference he is organizing in September, and has been working with me to organize a truly spectacular presentation (not just a regular paper) for it…before it has even been accepted! It made me feel quite warm and fuzzy to see his last email signed “Looking forward to meeting you again!” We have been on different continents during these email exchanges and have never skyped or spoken!
I am lucky enough to be doing a PhD, but over the course of research it has delved into several fields that I knew nothing about. My supervisor suggested I email someone he had once done a project with, who he knew was in the field of study I was having trouble understanding. It was a very kind academic, who turned out to be at MIT, still working through his own research monograph, busy with a hundred different things, but he emailed me back almost immediately to say he’d be happy to help and then proceeded to send me a long email explaining the field, it’s history and what the key works I should read were (including attaching the works so I wouldn’t have to search for them). I was so surprised how much time he was willing to devote to a lowly PhD student in another country (England) just because he has once worked with my supervisor. What’s more, he still sends me emails (a year later) asking how things are going and if I need any further help during writing-up.
My undergraduate career was greatly shaped by a senior scholar who was always, unfailingly, generous and encouraging about my work. I’m currently researching a topic about which this scholar literally wrote the book (or one of them, anyway) and I decided to e-mail this person and ask if he knew of any good, recent sources on the topic. I only half-expected a reply, knowing that this person had been ill, and when I didn’t hear back initially, I assumed that the scholar was too busy. Imagine my surprise when I opened my inbox today to find a generous and detailed reply! Thank you, as always, wonderful man.
The situation happened years ago, when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. In our department most examinations were (and still are) oral, allowing the student to present and defend a full argument. It is customary to wear a suit for the exam. On one occasion, for an exam with the Departmental Legend, I was dared by my fellow students to attend in a tuxedo.
When I entered the room, professor (in a suit) at once got up and excused himself for a moment. He came back only 15 minutes later, dressed to match the opponent… in full black tie. He didn’t acknowledge that the situation took place and proceeded with the exam like nothing happened.
I just received a rejection to an admittedly highly competitive national grant. Much to my surprise, this letter included comments from two reviewers, as well as the evaluating committee. Although none of the comments were damning, one of the reviewers comments were absolutely glowing, including statements like “this is a great proposal moving in a new and significant direction” and “the description is masterfully written; it is as persuasive as it is fascinating, truly a model project and proposal.” I am so grateful not only for that reviewer’s generosity, but also to the grant organization that rejected me, for bothering to share these comments with me (and not just the bad ones!). I may not have gotten the grant, but this is the first rejection that also cheered me up!
While at the recent annual conference, a much more senior scholar who I had long admired but never met spent two hours one evening speaking to me about my book manuscript and a recent article I had written. I had critiqued his work in the article, and he had actually been assigned to review it. Despite this fact, he sat with me and talked through the problems I was having and counseled me on everything from publishing to tenure. I will never forget his kindness toward this junior scholar, and only hope I can pay it forward one day.