Academic Kindness

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


Ask a question about academic kindness   Share a moment of unexpected academic kindness

My dissertation advisor was a senior British academic with a reputation for being a very hard professor. He was emotionally quite reserved. I struggled with my dissertation and in the course of my graduate school career was married and divorced, and felt, like most people, extremely insecure about my work.

I wanted so much to please this professor whom I so admired. But I felt we couldn’t talk about what a hard time I was having. However, he always made time to meet with me, and always took time to take me out for a coffee and talk at length about my project, drawing notes on paper napkins I could take with me so I’d remember our discussion. These conversations always helped me feel like I was making progress.

At some point, he asked me what I did for fun, to relax. All I could come up with was my weekly yoga class. He told me it was really important to keep up the yoga, and every time we met after that he always made it a point to ask me how the yoga was going. He was actually the only professor I had who seemed to pay attention to me as a person. I knew that he cared about how I was really doing. Since my graduation and his retirement we have continued our friendship and I ask my graduate students how they are doing and what they do for fun, regularly.

A pretty good birthday after all

A mandatory New Faculty Orientation was scheduled for 7:30 am on my birthday. So early in the morning! I didn’t want to be there or talk to anyone so I sat alone at the table closest to the coffee urns.Then the organizer of the Orientation came over to talk to me. He was an administrator in a very different area of specialization and he wouldn’t let me just quietly drink my coffee.

He found out that it was my birthday and that my area of work overlapped with one of his neighbors. To my surprise, a few days later he invited me out for coffee and introduced me to this person,who rarely goes to social events, doesn’t answer email, and is a real hermit. He is now a friend and mentor.

But this person didn’t leave it there. He still invites me out for coffee, even though he’s been promoted to a Provost-rank position.We chat about teaching. He has advised me on how to handle academic bullies. He introduced me to other people I never otherwise would have met.  He has budget disasters to solve, kids growing up, more meetings in a day than I face in a week or two, yet he still says hello on the streets and always wants to know how I’m doing. He cheers me up and cheers me on. He never just lets me drink my coffee quietly.

Thank you.

Anonymous said: I needed a book chapter for a project I was working on, so I checked with my university library but found that the book wasn't available because it was used for long-term loan. I then emailed the author of the chapter, who didn't have a copy of his own chapter either. He suggested I email the editors of that book. One of the editors replied saying that he didn't have an electronic copy available but he very kindly offered to mail me a copy of the book!

How generous and collegial! Enjoy the book! Thank you for sharing this story, and thank you anonymous editor for your kindness.

unsolicited article review

The other day, out of the blue, I received an email from a senior scholar in my field. He had only just got to a published article of mine, and was writing to say how much he enjoyed it, and how much it extends the discourse. I’m currently going through the mill on the job market, and this short email (received on a Saturday morning) really re-established my confidence in myself and my scholarship. 

I replied, thanked him, and told him about my future research plans. This kind email turned into a lengthy exchange in which he offered detailed and helpful advice, most of which I intend to use. Some of his advice I’ve chosen not to take—and that, in itself, is a confidence boost!

Anonymous said: Not sure if it's been posted yet, but at UC Davis someone started a facebook page called "UCD Compliments" where one may go to say nice things about other people on campus. A student pointed out to me when her classmate posted something there about me--as a lecturer there for only one year and little feedback from my department, this made my year. Thanks, UCD community, for being genuinely good people!

Oh how wonderful! Congratulations, anonymous lecturer!

Many campuses have a Compliments page on Facebook. Why not check out https://www.facebook.com/UcDavisCompliments and then browse to see if there’s one for your own community.

Anonymous said: Thank for running this blog... It's a really lovely thing to see

Dear Anonymous:

Thank you for this kind message! It is so heartening to see each new submission as it comes in and witness the positive responses pour in. Thank you to each and every person who has submitted a story thus far, and to everyone who has favorited, shared, or reblogged a post.

Testing Facebook and Twitter Accounts

Dear followers and fans:

As you may have noticed, AcademicKindness has fallen into a mid-semester silence. My apologies! Thank you all for your support and your contributions! Please do continue submitting your wonderful stories.

This post is a TEST and an announcement of a new Social Media Adventure. With a bit of luck, the post should also be tweeted by @AcademicKindness and linked to https://www.facebook.com/AcademicKindness

Whether or not this test-post works properly, those of you who prefer other social media platforms should soon be able to keep up with posts.

Bookstore kindness

I’d always been impressed with how our department chair made an effort to remember undergrads’ names, even after only interacting with them as a guest lecturer.

But one day, I was standing in line behind the department chair at the student bookstore, making small talk. When he got to the register, he motioned for me to put my things on the counter as well, and wouldn’t let me protest.

It was just a binder and some (terribly expensive!) pencils, but I was still really touched that he’d be so kind to an undergrad.

Unexpected email

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.

Unexpected back-up by a more senior faculty member

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!

My first job talk…

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.

No hard feelings

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.