Sunday, March 26, 2017

Academic Kindness

I find that discussions of academia are like popular discussions of ethnic conflict--just as there is far less ethnic conflict than there is ethnic peace, there is actually probably more kindness in academia than assholes.  But the assholes do asymmetric damage (depending on how the many manage the few) and create an appearance of being far more prevalent than they probably are.

There is a hashtag #academickindness aimed at spreading positive stories of academia perhaps to offset the outsized impact of the unkind but also to compensate for all of the rejection in this business.  So, I thought I would just try to list key moments or environments of academic kindness in my career.  Because I love anecdata and thinking/writing about myself.

It all starts at the beginning of my career: UCSD in the late 80s and early 90s was a terrific place to do poli sci.  The grad students were truly a community, where much help was given, and where we leaned on each other.  My girlfriend/wife and I moved twice in grad school, and we probably had a ratio of mover to stuff to be moved greater than one with just the promise of pizza and beer to compensate for the first move.  I remained in the program mostly because of the commiseration I received after classes the first term or two as I questioned whether this was for me.  The support I received while studying for comprehensive exams and while revising my dissertation proposal kept me going during times of great anxiety.  And my work was clearly better for having more eyes on it.  Same for practice job talks.

During my temporary job, where I was a dead man walking for 1.5 years (didn't get the tenure track job there in my first year but they kept me around since I lost to none of the above and they needed classes taught), I was treated most kindly by the staff and by much of the faculty, compensating for the deranged folks.

The junior faculty at TTU was perhaps the best community in my career or second best after the grad students at UCSD.  The frequent lunch whine-fests over pizza or burgers were critical to keeping sane in often very stressful times.  As many of us were young parents, we ended up being a great support group.  I will never forget how quickly Cherie Maestas showed up at my house when we needed emergency babysitting.  That was huge.

At around this time, I started developing contacts and networks in the discipline. The folks I met at conferences, especially a certain future President of the ISA, gave me far more than I have ever given them, in terms of reading my stuff, writing letters of recommendation, providing advice and commiseration. Why do I spend so much effort on the annual poker game?  Not just because it is fun, but because it has given me so much. 

One key experience, my Council on Foreign Relations Fellowship, was definitely a product of kindness. I bumped into Dan Drezner as I was preparing for the interview, and he gave me some key bits of advice that helped me in the interview.  Also, that fellowship would not have happened without yet more letters of recommendations.

My next job, at McGill, involved much kindness as well, as I received much help and support while learning how to teach, research, write grants and live in a new country.  I got great advice about where to send my daughter to school from someone who turned out to be, well, not so kind later on.  I got much stats help from one of my colleagues who has since moved on.  When things turned south, I still received much support for the non-Full professors, especially the key associate professors/voices of reason: Jacob and Juliet.  Once again, the staff, including a woman whose laugh was as loud and as frequent as mine, were super-kind people who really set the tone for the place.

During my time in Montreal, I started doing interviews for my research for the For Kin or Country book and then the NATO book.  The key to those projects was the kindness of experts who were generous with their time and with their networks.  Neither project would have worked out that well if I could not rely on experts who helped me navigate their countries.  The NATO project also benefited from book workshops organized by friends, which led to excellent feedback.

I have benefited from much kindness in my new job, as folks showed me the ropes in Ottawa and at Carleton.  The research support folks and the Dean have been incredibly kind to me, helping me do what I do and recognizing my contributions.  NPSIA staff have also been most patient and kind as I have stumbled through the system, and I become even less good about learning rules and procedures as I get older.

My book tours, which have been not just about skiing, have been due to the kindness of both former students and friends in the discipline.  I appreciate their giving me a chance to expose my ideas to wider audiences and also the food and beer that usually accompany such occasions.

My latest work on Japan is going to be successful almost entirely because Jennifer Lind gave me a great suggestion for whom I should affiliate with--Takako Hikotani.  I can't remember ever reaching out and being denied a hand when I have asked for one.

Oh, and about that social media world that gets much grief for the plenitude of trolls, I have met many kind folks who have provided solicited and unsolicited assistance, feedback and support along the way.  I have found very supportive communities online that have made my work more interesting, more knowledgeable and more fun.  Oh, and helped fix my FOMO/Rudolph problem.

I could have included all my co-authors, of course, but then this post would double in size.

What have I learned from this overly long tour of kindness I have experienced in my career?
  • Communities are key--virtual and departmental.  As I have long argued, the quality of communities depends critically on managing the a-holes.  However, the good ones are good in large part because they empower and reward the kind as well as confront and/or marginalize the unkind.
  • Mentoring matters so much. I have benefited so much from the kindness I have received from Miles Kahler, David Lake, Lisa Martin, Peter Cowhey, Pat James, and many others.
  • I can't really return much of the kindness I have received from these folks as they don't need my help much, but paying it forward makes sense.  I have, imperfectly, tried to use what I learned from these folks to help the next generation or two of IR types.
  • It pays to ask for help.  While much kindness will be unsolicited, it is often the case that people don't know what you might need.  
  • Be lucky in who your staff folks and then treat them kindly.  They usually work harder with less control over what they do, so be nice to them.

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