Not gonna lie. I’m angry. As I reflect upon the presidential election and the troubling ripples it continues to cast I am angry. And fearful. I have tried in the short-term to productively channel these emotions by calling my congresspeople and making donations to various organizations.
But in the longer term I have concerns about my anger. I think it is okay to be angry, but generally speaking I am aware that my anger and fear have made me impatient and short-tempered in my daily interactions with colleagues and students. And this worries me. While I think anger can be an inspiring emotion–it can motivate us to take action and fight back–it is ultimately, in my experience, an exhausting and unproductive emotion if you inhabit it for too long. So inspired by a terrific Tumblr account and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicKindness, I’m determined to find ways to insert more of this into the culture of my campus and my broader professional communities. And before you accuse me of being a Pollyanna and just trying to paper over real problems with sunshine and flowers, I also want to offer some insights as to why such an approach has merit beyond temporarily assuaging unpleasant feelings.
Being truly present for my students. Over and over again the evidence about retention and student satisfaction demonstrates that one of the most significant factors is the sense of connectedness that students form with their professors. In his book, Small Teaching, James Lang highlights small, easy things we can do to reach out to our students. For example, arrive a few minutes early for class and make a point, over the course of the semester, to chat with each student–not just the ones in the front few rows. The twenty-first century university has, in my opinion, become too enamored of shiny software fixes. Yes, that clever online advising system does make a difference, but so does something deceptively simple: human relationships.
Such an approach doesn’t just make students happier, it can also impact student learning. In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have demonstrated that student motivation increases when they sense this kind of investment and attention from their professors. If we can engage students at this level, then we can leverage that motivation and enthusiasm in other ways that promote their learning.
But then it occurs to me, why would we limit such an approach to our students? Surely we want to retain good faculty and colleagues and promote their job satisfaction, too, right? Surely, we want to motivate them to do their best work. What might this look like in practice?
Create community among our colleagues. And no, I don’t mean department meetings. I never cease to be amazed at the power of a shared meal or cup of coffee and conversation. When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly opportunity for faculty to gather, imbibe some caffeine, and share a snack. It cost next to nothing and it fostered tremendous good will. Some of the conversations inspired new initiatives and projects. We could replicate this practice or variations on it across various categories enacting it at the departmental level, as a way to foster interdisciplinary conversations, or to bring colleagues together to discuss teaching and pedagogy.
Recognize good work. Let people know when they’ve done something you appreciate or find valuable. In these short-tempered days I am very quick to complain about the colleagues who annoy me. But this it to ignore the ones who unfailingly meet deadlines, produce great work, or otherwise are just easy and pleasant to work with. And here, too, the lessons from student motivation and learning have something to tell us. Much of what drives faculty is the reward system of tenure and promotion–in other words, they are extrinsically motivated. Staff motivation is often built upon a parallel rewards system of merit pay and the like.
But in these difficult times I believe it is all the more important to help connect the people we work with to intrinsic motivation, something bigger than themselves and beyond the quotidian tasks at hand. Research has demonstrated that the more specific we are in our praise of students and the more we connect it to their development of skills or a larger purpose, the more it resonates with them and motivates them to improve or continue to perform at high levels. So rather than simply thanking a staff member for helping a student, what if it went something like: “thank you so much for taking the time to work with that student. Connecting her to that important resource is going to help with her graduate school application.” And for the faculty colleague: “I really appreciate your hard work on that report. Your thoroughness is going to make it much easier for me to argue with the dean for new positions.”
Finally, practice some academic kindness on yourself. I know it’s a busy time of the semester/quarter/term. But this week commit to carving out 20-30 minutes in your schedule for something that is pure joy for you: reading for pleasure, going for a run, watching an episode of your favorite sit-com, taking your dog for a walk, enjoying a meal and conversation with your partner or a friend, or maybe, just maybe sitting still and doing nothing.