When the Going gets Tough, be Kind

In academia there is tremendous pressure to be permanently at the top of one’s game. One is expected to be able to perform across many fronts: lecturing, grant-writing, pastoral care, admissions, outreach, committees….Not only to perform, to excel in all of these at once, from the day you start as a group leader or lecturer. It’s a tough ask. I would say far more is expected of the current generation than of mine. Things were, if you like, a lot more amateur then. Fewer forms to fill in but fewer tasks to complete. No help given – in grant-writing for instance – but less expectation of instant success in winning grants. No Powerpoint (or even computers for those of us of a certain age) or communication skills courses: it was all done by slides whose glass broke in transit, or transparencies which smudged, both of which could be heavy when hefted around in quantity.

This pressure can make it all too easy to be intolerant of others. If something is going wrong then the office boy kicks the cat. In other words, it is usually easy to find someone to scapegoat, so that you can shift the blame and feel better about yourself. However, these other people may also be suffering from overload or stresses. In such situations, the sentence I came across recently really resonates with me:

Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

I found these words here and they absolutely struck a chord. They are so true. We have all been in bad places due to personal crises, lack of sleep, a horrid argument, a recent bereavement or any of hundreds of other distressing circumstances. Having fallen into whatever slough of despond it is that has tripped one up, it is hard to climb out, let alone to climb out unscathed. In the meantime academia (indeed just about any employment sector) expects you to continue to be your sunny self, work flat out and deliver. WS Gilbert put this well through the words of the tragic jester Jack Point:

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
And took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don’t mind —
They’re exceedingly kind —
They don’t blame you — as long as you’re funny!

The reality is, at times when the world has thrown you a curved ball one simply isn’t able either to be sunny or to deliver. Whatever smile one attempts to affix to one’s face, so as not to scare the students or staff, it may at times be only skin deep. I recall the year, when a family member was slowly dying an untimely death; I still had to do my exam marking and I tried to do this conscientiously. I was furious when the senior examiner complained my marks were out of line, too harsh and made me re-mark, but he was right. When I looked again I could see how my grim mood had permeated my marking and the re-marking was absolutely justified, however tedious to do.

So being kind to those who appear to be behaving out of character simply amounts to realising there may be more going on than is manifest behind their stiff smile. And being kind matters. In HE – as elsewhere – it seems to me we have even more occasion to try to be kind this year (although this post was started before US news this week made it yet more topical). We are faced with a world in which kindness is being submerged underneath racism, misogyny and rejection of any kind of individual who is ‘other’. The liberal world of my youth, which recognized what my parents’ generation had fought for in the last World War, expected acceptance of difference in opposition to anti-Semitism and Facism. In our universities we now have a truly diverse community of students, researchers and staff who may have come from down the road or equally may have come from the other side of the world. In either case they may look, sound and indeed be different – with different faith, gender-identification, colour of skin or sexual orientation from ourselves. More trivially, they may shave their heads or grow their hair. They may have griefs we know nothing of from experience of violence or trauma, ill health or bereavement. But by being kind, what have we got to lose?

We do not live in a zero sum world where giving warmth and exhibiting thought and care for others detracts from what we each can receive ourselves. Kindness here does not mean less kindness somewhere else. Absolutely to the contrary I would advocate. In the face of recent votes here in the UK, in the US and, in the months ahead, elsewhere in Europe, we in education must recognize why some people are so frightened. It is our responsibility not only to put our heads together to work out how those who feel so alienated by the current state of the world can feel that there is something in it for them which does not involve kicking the cat, but continue to exhibit compassion all around. This is not a case of checking our privilege (a phrase I detest), but of using our privilege wisely to support those who signally lack any.

So next time someone seems to be underperforming think twice before letting rip regarding their failings. When you spot someone (metaphorically or literally) standing at the edge of a group, consider joining them or including them in other ways. And when you see an eruption of hate or abuse, think about how you can offer support.

 

 

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2 Responses to When the Going gets Tough, be Kind

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for the post. As a department head I constantly remind myself to try and remember to be kind to people, particularly about performance. Not that I am naturally unkind, but I think it is something you have to display and show to people. This in no way means “turning a blind eye” to poor performance. Far from it as I know how dehumanised an institution can become the further up you go, and so it is my duty I feel to make them aware that you are there as interface to the organisation. A department head is best placed to know personal circumstances of staff, and to treat matters with tact and kindness trying always to find reasons why people behave in the way that they do. This is not always easy, but it’s far more effective to do this and can bring about very positive results in performance if you are prepared to help people.

    • Hannah says:

      Great! As a postdoc I also try to behave this way towards my collaborators and students. I feel it improves the general atmosphere and thereby everyone’s performance. Contempt and snarkiness rarely are good motivators.

      Also, in interdisciplinary fields, it is all to easy to think that because someone doesn’t know something which is standard in your field, that they are not experts. However, you don’t know all the things they know in their field.