Why Academic Kindness Matters

Last week I came across two articles commenting on academic wellbeing. The first was a piece on how feeling supported, encouraged and engaged at college affected levels of engagement and wellbeing at work, afterwards, based on a study by Gallup-Purdue; the second was a piece in the Guardian on how the stressors of academic life had impacted academics struggling with mental health problems. The commonality? The research underlying both articles show that feeling valued matters.

The topic interests me as it touches on one of the core concepts that I teach, both in my online course, and when I teach seminars. It is that (academic) wellbeing is not simply the function of the demands placed on an individual, and how he or she copes; but as the function of the demands and the rewards in place. In terms of rewards, the most important tends to be ‘feeling valued’. In short: when we feel our efforts aren’t rewarded and our work and presence isn’t valued or even noticed we become stressed out, and our performance suffers. However, if we do feel supported and rewarded we are much more likely to rise to the challenge of whatever is thrown at us. We become resilient. (If you’re interested in the literature on this start with Siegrist (1996))

You might balk at the psycho-babble and the pseudo-science that, let’s be honest, often goes with managerial talk of ‘optimal performance’. But if you look at the data, and, into your heart, you will find some truth in this reciprocal model. In the Guardian survey, it’s true that ‘heavy workload’ comes out on top as major stressor (mentioned by 51% of respondents), but the two runners-up are ‘lack of support (44%)’ and ‘isolation (43%)’. These issues are major, and I believe they deserve more attention than they currently do. Academics are human. Easy to forget at times.

Click for the findings in full of the Guardian’s mental health survey

But so are students. The study by Gallup which looks at links between college experience and being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being afterwards, suggests that student interaction with engaged and encouraging professors is key (just skipping over the issue of direction of causality here – let’s assume that professors indeed encourage students to develop their thinking, and themselves, leading to higher job and life satisfaction later, not that more engaged people in general are more likely to find mentors who inspired them). Professors who ‘made me excited about learning,’ ‘cared about me as a person,’ or ‘encouraged my hopes and dreams’ are important figures in a person’s life.

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Click for the full Gallup – Purdue Index report

I know that for me personally, this has been very true, and I can find many examples that illustrate the links between feeling valued and challenged, and performance. When I was a student I was very lucky to have mentors, who helped me shape not only my thinking, but also my attitude. I have talked about Gordon Smith, my tutor at the LSE, before (I never stop when I start talking about Gordon!), but he really was fantastic. He was terrifying enough to frighten me into engaging in seminars – he barked at me during our first meeting: ‘I expect you to come to my office weekly, and report on your contribution to the academic debate at the LSE. If you decide to keep your mouth shut in class, I will get very angry.’ So yes, he ‘encouraged’ me. He was also offensive enough to make me cross, which resulted in some very sharply written essays he was more than pleased with, and when he was done offending me, there would always be an unexpected compliment thrown in, which would mostly be suitably politically incorrect, and would flatter and entertain me immensely. When I was worried about failing my exams he would exclaim things like: ‘Amber, I don’t worry about you, and neither should you!’ Thank you, Gordon. Other mentors (Stefan Collignon comes to mind) have been tremendously important in shaping how I think about the world (he also encouraged me to ‘develop my originality’. Immensely grateful for that), or simply by being absolutely terrific at what they do and showing me a new way to think, period (Simon Hix).

On the other side of the uplifting experience of having a mentor who challenges and supports you, there are the anti-mentors who put you down. The difference can be down to personality – I know some of Gordon’s students did not appreciate his style, and I remember comforting a crying friend whom he had told to ‘stop floating around, or get married and have children.’ (I told you he was politically incorrect! I appreciated it, but I can see why others wouldn’t). But style aside, some things should never be said, to anyone. Too many people have told me of PhD supervisors telling them they were too stupid to be in academia. Personally, I have been told in a seminar setting by my supervisor at the time, that he ‘doubted I was capable of producing a single coherent rational argument’. It would have been funny, if it wouldn’t have been for the anger and disdain behind the words. For some time, I almost believed him, and it affected me. I knew my work was in a bit of a chaotic phase, which is probably the understatement of the century, but I also knew I was at least somewhat capable. I started doubting that. I have heard from others who have had to endure much, much worse from the same person. PhDs should not be torturous never-ending projects, but they became exactly that in the absence of decent supervision.

The bottom line is that, in academia, maybe even more so than in other work environments, the quality of social interaction in general, and of supervision relationships in particular, can make or break you. So how go about creating an academic environment that is challenging, encouraging and supportive? An environment that truly supports the academics working there, and the students they teach?

I’ll give it a shot. To start it’s important to be aware of how the way academia and academic work are set up may impact our wellbeing, and how we can devise strategies to best cope with these pressures. Such strategies range from the very practical, such as setting up our workday in a way that allows us to do your work most efficiently, to the profoundly spiritual, in the sense that work becomes almost effortless when we are more connected to why we do it in the first place. These are strategies at the individual level, but their effects will spill over into the organisation we work in as a whole. I also believe it is important we are sometimes reminded of how valuable we are, and can be (and in some cases could be), to others. That we affect others, positively or negatively. That we matter. I believe it makes a difference.

This is touchy-feely territory which is incredibly challenging to approach in any organisation, let alone in the cerebral, insular world of academia. Which self-respecting academic doesn’t roll their eyes at ‘motivational’ or ‘team-building’ activities? I know I do. How many hollow phrases and pointless activities can we endure in one lifetime anyway? Trying to picture someone like Gordon, the ultimate difficult academic, in ‘motivational’ activities, is enough to cause a laughing fit. I sometimes wonder whether these things can be orchestrated, at all. At the same time, of course, I am someone who goes to universities to speak about these topics, and from what I’ve heard people leave inspired (So please, yes: hire me. Warning: surges in productivity, wellbeing and self-reflection will ensue). I have found my audiences to be more open and receptive to what I have to say than I had expected. Which, in turn, may not be surprising seen the fact that academics struggle with exactly these issues, as articles such as the Guardian article quoted above underline. *facepalm*

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Mostly, I believe in an inside-out approach. It’s why I like Twitter initiatives such as #ScholarSunday and @AcademicKindness so much. Simply academics showing a bit of appreciation and sharing small, important, moments of kindness. This whole business of feeling valued, and creating a supportive environment, is about being genuine. So, keep your sarcasm, keep your wit. Be difficult, if you are. But be kind. It’s appreciated. And it matters.

Siegrist, J. (1996). Adverse health effects of high-effort/low-reward conditions. Journal of occupational health psychology, 1(1), 27.