Let’s make kindness the next academic disruption


Academia can be a tough world. The environment is competitive, funds are limited, egos are large. The metrics by which we are judged focus heavily on first authorship or principal investigator status, and self-promotion is an art form; there are workshops in how to do it. Fellow academics are at times colleagues and other times competitors. Lots of EMCRs are clamouring to climb the academic career ladder – or merely just to stay afloat – with increasing desperation and decreasing reserves of energy. Many are doing it with minimal support.

This heady mix can lead to lots of problems, including unhealthy competition, an unwillingness to share time or ideas, battles over authorship and even breaches of research integrity. EMCRs often cop the adverse effects. I have heard of cases where EMCRs have had their ideas ‘acquired’ (stolen) and published by more senior researchers without due acknowledgment. Other EMCRs were restricted from accessing professional development opportunities because they took time away from work on their supervisor’s projects. Some are treated as glorified research assistants or ‘slave labour’, simply helping their supervisors achieve their own agendas with little regard to their own careers.

Are collegiality and kindness dead in academia, as some have argued?

And if so, is it too much to expect to receive (or indeed, give) kindness against this backdrop?

Can we disrupt academic life by actively confronting this endemic competitive and isolating culture?  

I’m sure I will receive responses from people assuring me this proposal is not disruptive or revolutionary, that they work in a very collegial environment where generosity, kindness and support are plentiful. That’s great; it’s also unfortunately not the standard for many, according to feedback gathered from decades of collaboration and mentorship of EMCRs.

What I’m proposing is not a new idea. Clegg & Rowland in 2010 (BJSE 31(6):719-735) discussed the importance of kindness in academic life, noting that it has become undervalued given the focus on performance and outputs. Berg and Seeber discuss academic collegiality in their 2016 book The Slow Professor, arguing that kindness is necessary for the well-being of academics, as well as their institutions. Tseen Khoo’s post “What makes a good colleague” discusses the importance of being “a good critical friend to colleagues and students… supporting each other and providing encouragement, the social work of building connections between groups and individuals…” And these two very nice posts discuss giving and nurturing in academia and why “playing the academic game” does not have to mean compromising your morals.

Yet the concepts remain more conceptual than broadly practised in academic environments. I propose we make kindness the next academic disruption.

Why should we?

Unkindness leads to unhappiness, and unhappiness in the workplace is detrimental to multiple domains of performance – it hampers creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Evidence shows that staff with ‘unhappy inner work lives’ are more likely to get distracted from their work, disengage from team projects and give up on goals. Simply put, happy workers are better workers. But there’s more: Kindness not only nourishes the person on the receiving end; it also benefits the givers. So bestowing kindness is good, even for purely selfish reasons.

How could we?

What might kindness as an academic disruption look like? What are the conditions that might foster it? It goes beyond simply a duty of care, or professional obligation. It’s about being supportive, and generous, celebrating your colleagues’ successes and empathising with their challenges. It’s about taking a moment to enact a thoughtful gesture that benefits someone in your workplace. It can start simply. Ask someone how they’re work is going, and really listen when they answer. Buy a colleague a coffee. Leave a post-it acknowledging something you admire them for. Model collegial work practices. There are lots more examples here – a Tumblr site devoted solely to sharing acts of academic kindness. It makes for inspiring reading and hopefully motivates others to pay forward similar kindnesses. There’s a Festive kindness calendar here with lots of ideas too. A simple thing we can all do now is to ask ourselves today, and every day – have I positively impacted my colleagues’ lives today? How might I do so tomorrow?

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.  ~ Dalai Lama

A final note for 2017 

Speaking of kindness – I have been overwhelmed by the abundance, sincerity, and generosity of your feedback on Happy Academic, which has welcomed more than 16,000 views from over 100 countries in its first year! Your enthusiastic engagement through comments, emails, tweets and verbal feedback and discussion of the posts has been the highlight of my year. Heartfelt thanks. Please keep these, and your suggestions for what you want to see posted, coming.

After a short break Happy Academic will be back in 2018 with more topics, including tips on grant writing, saying no, and traversing the mid-career dead zone…. as well as an exciting new project in the works!

In the meantime I wish you all a very happy, peaceful Festive Season filled with joyous down-time and good company, food, and cheer.  ~ Kylie

10 thoughts on “Let’s make kindness the next academic disruption

  1. Many thanks for this blog Kylie, I really have enjoyed your contributions this year. They have been interesting, relevant and very well considered 🙂

    I agree that academic kindness is so important in this era of competition and corporatisation; it brings humanity back into the system and reminds us that we are doing good work, despite the constant challenges, and even if we are not on the fast train to promotion. I recently encouraged a fellow ECR to apply for a DECRA and I was surprised to learn that I was the first person to ever make this suggestion, when my colleague clearly has great potential. We need to stop feeling threatened by people who are doing good work, and pat them on the back. We can learn from them too! I am very lucky to have a few mentors who are constantly encouraging me with small acts of kindness (and a little goes a long way).

    Readers might also be interested in following the Effective Successful Happy Academic on Twitter @EffectiveAcad

    Happy holidays to all!


    • Thank you so much Stefania for your considered comments and kind words! Great to hear you have benefited from great mentorship (and wonderful that you are passing this on too). Thanks for the link too, I enjoy @EffectiveAcad!


  2. Pingback: Creating Kind, Brave, and Curious Spaces in Academia | Unwritten Histories

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