Practicing Academic Kindness in the Classroom

17 February 2020, 1654 EST

This is a guest post by Philipp Schulz, who is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. Philipp’s research focuses on the gender dynamics of armed conflicts, with a particular focus on masculinities and wartime sexual violence. His book ‘Male Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence – Perspectives from northern Uganda’ is forthcoming with University of California Press. 

Academic competitiveness and pettiness is alive and real. From expediting demands of the competitive academic job market, disrespectful peer review comments, to micro-aggressions and open hostilities at conferences – in particular to early career, women and/or people of colour scholars – there seem to be countless examples for an acute absence of kindness and empathy in the academy. Probably most of us, although to varying degrees, have been confronted with the unkind aspects of academic environments. In many ways, of course, these problems are embedded in wider structural problems of racism and sexism within the academy at large.

Fortunately, there seems to be increasing (albeit slow) recognition of the toxic practices of academic work cultures. As an early career researcher, I am particularly excited about some of the kindness that many of my peers are extending and the horizontal generosity that is beginning to spread across conferences, workshops and social media. Yet, I do believe that the (sub-)field of feminist international relations is particularly unique in that way, perhaps not unrelated to some of the disciplinary sanctioning and marginalizing that the field still experiences in the discipline more widely. 

Kindness through Thank You Emails

Inspired by some of that inclusivity and kindness of the scholars I look up to and read – and I am specifically looking at Cynthia Enloe here, who has often been praised for being ‘amazingly generous to feminist colleagues and graduate students’, or my former supervisor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin – I too aim to be more mindfully generous and kind, in my research and writing, as well as during conferences/workshops and teaching. Here, I want to share one particular way in which I try to practice (and teach) academic kindness in the classroom: Together with my students, for each session in our seminars, we write an email to the authors we read that day, to share our appreciation for their work. 

The idea came to me when a scholar whose work I absolutely admire in an email also mentioned that she had assigned one my recently published articles in one of her seminars, and that the students liked the text. For me, this was the first time I heard that someone had used any of my writing in class, let alone that it was apparently well received, and so this was an absolute highlight for me that semester. I have also been inspired by others following similar paths, such as Megan Mackenzie, who has previously recorded thank you videos with her students for the authors they read in class, and shared those publicly via twitter.

Influenced by that, I intend to myself share more positive feedback with the authors I read – whether for research or for teaching. We all get so used to receiving and articulating critique (mostly constructive, but often also harsh, unreasonable and imbalanced) about our work and papers, whether at conferences, during peer-review or from supervisors and/or peers. But in my experience so far, we too seldom just articulate positive, affirmative, encouraging and generous feedback about something we truly enjoyed reading, and from which we benefited intellectually, politically or even personally. 

In order to change that, for the past two semesters now, I have made it a practice of together with my students sending positive feedback emails to the authors we read. With these emails, we aim to let the authors know how we engaged with their work, to recognize and thank them for their work, and to share with them how this has been beneficial for us. 

How does this look like in practice? After discussing the weekly readings, towards the end of the seminar, we take about 10 minutes for us as class to collectively articulate what we liked about the text, what we most benefited from and what most surprised us. As the students voice their feedback, I take note of their comments and afterwards draft it up into an email, which we then send to the authors, signed-off collectively as class. In these emails, we also let the recipients know how their readings helped us to answer our respective seminar questions, as well as what others readings we engaged with alongside their work. 

In my experience so far, these emails are overwhelmingly well received, both by the authors but also by the students who partake in writing them. Responses from authors highlight that reading our feedback ‘made their day, even their month’, and that our practice is generous, helpful and much appreciated. Many have in return articulated wonderfully encouraging comments directed to the students, and thereby accepted our invitation to practice kindness amongst ourselves. For instance, Cynthia Enloe, in her usual yet remarkable kindness, observed that ‘it’s wonderful to think that we all are stretching our feminist curiosities together!’ – and encouraged students ‘to keep doing research that will stretch me.’ 

The students similarly appreciate this practice, and the opportunity it offers them to directly enter into conversation with the authors they read in class. It is my hope that it demonstrates to them that they as students are not just passive recipients of knowledge, but instead have much to offer and say about the theories, cases and examples they discuss in class, and are constant co-producers of knowledge. In that way, I would like to believe that this approach also extends kindness towards them. In course evaluation, students always praised this exercise as positive, encouraging and empowering. 

Particularly interesting to me were the slightly different experiences in the two seminars where we did this so far. In the Gender and Security module, we overwhelmingly read feminist IR scholars, and received responses to our emails from virtually all authors but one. In the War and Peace module, however, we also engaged with some of the more ‘mainstream’ political science literature on armed conflict, often authored by elder, white men at prestige institutions. From these authors, we did not receive any response. In that class, the authors who entered into a dialogue with us were female and people of colour authors, and in particular, again, feminist IR and peace researchers. Make of that what you will, but for me this speaks volumes about differing practices and standards in the discipline.  

‘Kindness is punk as f*ck’

Overall, however, this approach helped me to introduce kindness in the classroom, extended both to the authors and to the students. In his new poem How to be alone, Northern Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama expresses that ‘kindness, needs no reason’. And yet, in a context of academia’s competiveness and precariousness, kindness may be particularly important. As author Daniel Abraham has put it, ‘in an age of performative cruelty’ – which academia certainly is – ‘kindness is punk as f*ck.’ With this exercise of generosity, we aim to be punk as f*ck.