I’ve just spent the last five weeks meeting an assortment of academics in Jönköping, Borås, Stockholm, and Göteborg at seminars, in meetings, at fika, and once on a public bus. As a young person traveling through unfamiliar territory on my own, I find myself getting lost in foreign places and realize how much I take the kindness of strangers for granted. (I like talking to strangers, and #thetravelingpingu project is my legitimate go-to opener in approaching random people in new places.) As a young academic still attempting to figure out the industry while accumulating both pleasant and acrid experiences, I feel that kindness in academia is underrated.
It’s not that there are quantitatively very few kind people in academia, or that the kindness in academia is qualitatively superficial and transient. As an analytical and highly self-reflexive bunch, we have made humorous self-loathing and self-critique our group culture. We just don’t seem to like to/want to/happen to talk much about kindness in academia. Just look at how many of us can relate to PhD Comics, Shit Academics Say, and #WHATSHOULDWECALLGRADSCHOOL (which are my top three favourites, btw).
We learn, as younglings ala myself, to identify the academy’s flaws to the T. We are told to dream big but be realistic, that there are in-built systemic privileges and prejudices that we all know about but perhaps can do little to fix. Or that as PhD candidates of this generation, we are knowingly signing up for future precarity – over-educating ourselves into unemployment. Many of us encounter depression emanating from our experiences in academia, and we also learn the tropes of cautionary tales. And posturing is everything.
How salient is this climate of ‘bonding-over-the-bad’? I don’t know about you, but I often find the quickest way postgrads transit from being awkward strangers to transient BFFs at conferences and events is through commiseration. There is always some universal narrative about a bad experience with x character in x setting at x stage of your candidature. We may be embedded in extremely different international academic systems that make little sense to each other (I made friends with a bunch of North American postgrads in Oxford last year and learnt about prelims, quals, the job market, and all that jazz) but yet we all know the script.
Truth be told, all this whining and commiseration is actually functional, although not always the most productive. My usual suspects on Twitter are some of my favourite postgrads in the world because we trade anecdotes (both gruelling and great) for self-care. And transnational affect through words and gifs and emoticons and emoji across timezones makes for heartwarming coping mechanisms during melodramatic academic meltdowns at 0400hrs in the morning. As I’m writing this paragraph, I’m literally having a Twitter conversation with three junior women academics over how our relatively young appearances have solicited queries about our competence, calibre, and confidence in various settings with senior academics, peers, and students. Knowing we all share some universal script can be heart medicine.
But it would also be lovely if we spoke more openly, more publicly, more frequently about kindness in academia. I, for one, have been on the receiving end of much unsolicited generosity as a youngling, and these exchanges are going to stick with me and remind me of what type of academic I want to be when I grow up/grow older/actually get a salaried job. The Academic Kindness Tumblr is another one of my favourites that documents and honours these good people in our industry.
We aren’t all citation-grubbing, publication-hungry, status-wary, celebrity-mongering people. There are so many fabulously generous and mentoring people in academia. So why do we under-visibilize them?
Is it because many of us still believe in (the myth of?) meritocracy? And so feel that we deserve or have earned the breaks/opportunities people give to us? Because precluding kindess, as Jason Laker puts in, “signals our legitimacy“?
Is it because we don’t want to visibilize our ‘networks’ or the ‘help’ we have received? For we are all to be independent, self-sustaining, intellectuals?
Is it because we are lean mean academic machines? And so feel it isn’t the norm to show our human-ness?
I don’t know yet. But I think I’d like to start honouring some of the people who have been kind to me, in academia and in life. In seminars, in cafes, in bars, on social media. Because some times, on a really really bad day, these glimpses into my mental and mediated archives remind me to keep on keeping on.
Spread the word: Less posturing! More mentoring! Come on, academics. We can do this.