Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Cruelty and Kindness in Academia

Full unsinkablemollybrown 1

Original Image: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

When my oldest kid started second grade this fall, her teacher emphasized that one of the main goals of second grade was to learn how to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” Yes, the Golden Rule is officially part of my kid’s curriculum, and I couldn’t be happier. Empathy and kindness — so frequently lacking in the world around us — are traits that I want both of my children to have. Kindness can take you far.

Impressed by the teacher’s remark, I jokingly told my partner that maybe we should send some adults back to second grade to learn (or relearn) this lesson. Especially academics.

Academics don’t have a reputation for being kind. To put it gently, higher education values intellect over affect. Kindness tends to be viewed as the opposite of criticism. Scholars, after all, are trained in critique, and not necessarily the constructive kind. Academics pass around stories of other scholars behaving badly: hostile questions and comments in seminars and at conferences, microaggressions, petty rivalries, sabotage and backbiting, racism, misogyny, ableism, ad hominem attacks, general rudeness, cruel footnotes and endnotes, harsh criticism of graduate students as a method to malign their advisers, remarkably long emails listing years of complaints, insidious gossip in the hallways, hate and disdain directed toward students, harassment, and even assault.

Sometimes, the stories we hear are personal. Over drinks or coffee, people recount the (most painful) times they’ve been dismissed, unfairly criticized, publicly embarrassed, and/or bullied. When I asked colleagues for help to manage a situation in which I was bullied, some offered advice and guidance while others dismissed my concerns as overreaction. A few even reminded me that I needed to learn to deal with these kinds of behaviors to be successful in the academy. Over and over, I heard some variation of: “This is just the way things are.”

For me, academia emerged as a hostile workplace. If I wanted to continue to work there, I had to learn to live with that kind of treatment. I wasn’t sure that I did. Other academics (and former academics) have their own stories, painful in particular yet familiar ways.

The common thread of those stories is that unkindness becomes the norm, and kindness, a rarity.

In a popular 2013 post, “Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness,” Inger Mewburn, who blogs as “The Thesis Whisperer,” considered whether jerks really do get ahead in academia. Relying upon Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Mewburn notes the advantages of being an asshole — someone who pursues his or her own career with ruthless dedication while stepping on and over others. More than that, unkindness is viewed as a signifier of intelligence and kindness as a signal of intellectual weakness. Academia rewards those who represent the clever and cruel version of intelligence. So nasty behavior gets reinforced. Jerks admire other jerks, and departments and institutions can become havens for assholes.

Academia emerges as a competition to be won, no matter the consequences. The winner takes all (or the winner takes most). Since many assume that academia is a system of merit, those who succeed emerge as the the best, not the luckiest. Only the best people win — um, earn — tenure-track jobs, promotions, grants, and/or awards.

Maybe being the best requires that you act like a selfish jerk because you can’t “succeed” without a laser focus on your work and your career. Maybe academics act unkindly because the stakes seem to get higher and higher. The increasing reliance on contingent labor and the decrease in tenure-track jobs makes kindness seem like a luxury.

In that climate, your own career success is of the utmost importance. Unkindness becomes a buffer between you and all the other people seeking those elusive tenure-track jobs, grants, promotions, book contracts, prestigious journal articles, named chairs, editorships, and so on. Your career begins to matter more than collaboration and pleasantries exchanged in the hall. Maybe academia is up to its ears in assholes because that is an acceptable route to the career you trained for.

Yet academia is not unique in its devaluation of kindness; it’s a reflection of our larger culture.

According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, kindness “has become a forbidden pleasure.” In their 2009 book, On Kindness, they explore how kindness has emerged as trivial, corny, and/or silly rather than a crucial component in our social interactions. Simply put, kindness has a bad rap. They write: “Most people, as they grow up, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” We think people who act kind are weak or are only acting that way to further their own interests. Kindness actually makes us suspicious of other people’s intentions.

For Phillips and Taylor, how we view kindness comes from how we understand humanity. If we understand our fellow human beings to be fundamentally good, compassionate, and altruistic, kindness matters because how we treat other people matters. If, on the other hand, we believe that humans are terrible, deceptive, scheming, and self-interested, we are more inclined to treat other people unkindly. Kindness appears as sentimental and unnecessary. And yet, we still find pleasure in being kind, and we recognize and dwell on those moments when others are unkind to us.

Being kind makes us vulnerable to other people because we don’t know how they will act or react. It makes us care. Caring opens us up to hurt, but it also makes cooperation and collaboration possible.

Academia is not a space that encourages vulnerability. There’s often a disdain for care and kindness. In their 2010 article, “Kindness in Pedagogical Practice and Academic Life,” sociologists Sue Clegg and Stephen Rowland found that kindness often appears “out of place” in discussions of higher education, even though students “see kindness as the mark of a good teacher.” Part of the problem is that kindness gets associated with emotion while ideas and intellect go together. That dualism, they write, is “a philosophically thin account of what it means to be human.”

And it is, but the division between intellect and emotion seems to linger in higher education. Thought is what’s important. And emotion? Less so. Kindness, however, requires both thought and emotion. It requires reacting to other people as people. It requires empathy. It requires a reaching out rather than a closing off.

It is much easier to choose to be unkind. It is also easier to imagine that the only thing that matters is what happens to you.

We don’t have to go along with a system that rewards cruelty and diminishes care. In fact, kindness has the subversive potential to make change. And many academics already know that and practice it.

The Academic Kindness Tumblr documents acts of kindness, in an attempt to normalize it in higher education (yes, it would be nice if it had more posts). Raul Pacheco-Vega made a plea for choosing kindness in academia, and he routinely practices what he preaches. He founded the #ScholarSunday hashtag on Twitter, which encourages scholars to reach out connect with other scholars in a positive way. My #altac and #postac communities on Twitter are kind, gracious, and helpful. We support each other with gifs, fancy memes, and emoji-filled tweets.

As I was writing this essay, I realized that I needed a PDF that I didn’t have access to because I lack institutional affiliation and library privileges. A full professor emailed me the PDF and explained that she would be glad to help if I needed any more assistance.

Some academics are already kind. Is it selfish to want to see more of that?

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