“We’re not asking for the moon on a stick”: Kindness and Generosity in the Academy

“We’re not asking for the moon on a stick”: Kindness and Generosity in the Academy

Sarah Burton and Vikki Turbine

It’s February 2019 and the London sun is beating down on us as we sit restfully outside the Museum of Childhood. Following our earlier piece in Discover Society, on the solidarities of kindness formed amid the UCU strikes of 2018, we’ve been invited to speak at a postgraduate conference. They want to hear something uplifting, something hopeful – that our bonds can provide protection and that it’s possible – through generosity and care – to not only survive, but thrive. We openly offer this hope, shaded with pragmatism though it might be. Fast-forward two hours and we sit as friends rather than colleagues to confess the latest in a long series of the pains and damages of a life lived in the academy. Cocktails and good food dull the edge somewhat, but within our visceral connection of love and hope runs a seam of real and tangible hurt. One of us is leaving her job because of it; one of us experiences the built environment of her job as trauma and terror.

In this piece, we explore – one year on from the UCU strikes of 2018 – where our solidarities of kindness have led us, what we’ve put into practice, and what we’ve learned. Given the pit of exhaustion, ill-health, sleepless nights, counsellors, therapy, hospital appointments, anti-depressants, panic, beta blockers, and tears we were living in, were we right – were we ethical – to offer the light of hope to those postgraduate researchers? Was our cynical humour well-placed enough to undercut the optimism of our display of solidarity and friendship – or did we lie to them? Pertinently, we also draw attention to the ways in which kindness as a demand is so frequently viewed as unreasonable or even unprofessional – and ask why it is that academia so often excludes and negates the human, and what it means to be ‘professional’ in this sort of space.

Our reflections show an academy in which everyday forms of kindness and generosity work as both solidarities and sins. Whilst they are essential in building friendships, trust, and warm collegiality, we also discover that the prevailing attitude of the academy can see these acts reframed as negative, and those who engage in care censured and rebuked. Much like Sara Ahmed’s important work on complaint (Ahmed, 2017), in which the complaint itself frequently draws negative attention to the ‘complainer’ rather than the underlying injustice, our interactions in academia point to how compassion, care, empathy, and forgiveness quickly become weaponised. This prompts us to question the reciprocity of collegiality – particularly across career stages – and the underlying frameworks that silently but surely work against the privileging and foregrounding of practices of care and kindness in the academy. When it comes to being kind to one another in the academy, and to valuing kindness as a legitimate position, are we really asking for the moon on a stick?

Solidarities of Care: What Striking Taught Us About Creating Community
The premise of our 2018 piece was twofold: firstly, that the act of looking after one another whilst striking together was one which bound us in a new solidarity; secondly, that we should be mindful of the ways we can be kind in how we strike – particularly when engaging with our colleagues who felt too financially or professionally insecure to join the action. Here we noted the necessity to be aware of the ethics of care, including not leaving the labour of caring to the most vulnerable or marginalised. In the year following the UCU strike, we’ve come to understand this intellectual argument in ever more acute and tangible ways. The work of collegiality is continuous, consuming, and at times even monotonous. Care and kindness is not simply a particular attitude of geniality or occasionally ‘brightening someone’s day’. Instead, we need to comprehend it as both radical dispositions and radical acts: speaking truth to power, refusing damaging hierarchies, rejecting restrictive and exclusionary interpretations of ‘professionalism’. Care is both remembering to take new colleagues for lunch and challenging harmful and marginalising policies; it is recognitions of, and robust responses to, university policy and rules failing to understand us as human and checking in on the welfare of colleagues. Care is, most of all, a constant vigilance as to your power and how you wield this.

Vikki’s experience since the UCU strikes demonstrates the necessity for solidarities of care in the academy. As much as feeling the academy as a care-less space (Gill, 2009), Vikki was also burning out from the care work she was trying to enact – and at the expense of her own self, and care work in and for her family. As the strikes ended and we all went back to the work of the university – the marking, exam boards, conference papers, grant applications – Vikki was becoming progressively more unwell. Diagnosed with endometriosis 7 years previously, Vikki had masked the illness to all but a few close friends, choosing this position because she was afraid of the risk of being viewed as an unreliable worker. There was no sense that there would be real care or solidarity for those not performing at the exceptional – those going ‘above and beyond’. While Vikki had no doubt people would be sympathetic, would care personally – as colleagues, there was no room or slack in the system for that to result in real collective supports. As Vik consistently argues – the structures we are enmeshed in deliberately create conditions of unkindness – the competition, the elitism, and the overwork.

By June 2018, and almost a year ago to the day of this piece, Vikki scheduled an appointment with her GP – whilst also, of course, ensuring she had pushed through running exam boards, examining a PhD, supervising students, applying for a grant, and presenting conference papers. Seeking help and admitting burnout, was perhaps not a choice: her body simply began to cease functioning. Yet, Vikki also wonders if it was in part the kindness shown on the picket line and Twitter that made this admission possible. Others disclosed their own health issues, sharing their understandings and experiences of broken system that was breaking many. After a prolonged period of sick leave, Vikki returned to work, hopeful that disclosing chronic illness would reveal modes and spaces of kindness. Yet, being ‘back’ could only mean being back to business as usual – everyone simply too overstretched to even be kind to themselves. In May 2019, Vikki finally exited. Her ‘post-ac’ 6 weeks have been the biggest act of kindness to herself, but it also affords her the opportunity to foster the kindnesses we saw during the strike.

Except, this is outside. What about those inside?

The Vulnerability of Being Kind: On the Weaponizing of Generosity
What Vikki’s story brings to light are the tangled issues of individual and structural care in academia, particularly the friction between the necessity of kindness and the fraught position that being kind can lead to within academia. We’re both uplifted and energised by the communities, connections, and friendships forged through the strike action – and heartened that our attention towards these and privileging of them in our personal and professional worlds has seen them endure beyond the picket line. We’re also aware of these as grounded in grassroots or DIY politics. This counter-hegemonic position offers sanctuary and sustenance, without which neither of us could continue in our intellectual work. However, the fact that care, kindness, and generosity are continually placed and framed as operating outside of the central structures of the university creates a number of problems.

A lack of understanding care as part of the mainframe of university policy or academic life leads to a destructive othering of these practices – to be kind and to expect kindness is then read as alien and unprofessional. Kindness becomes – as one of us was told – ‘a bonus’ in the workplace. Such a position makes it ever harder to assert the necessity that our humanity is acknowledged within professional spheres – rather, owing to the notion that kindness is not part of professionalism, it is us who are read as troublesome, disruptive, and out of place. This position also further enables the metric university to reduce all staff to numbers, statistics, graphs and rankings, but most especially it facilitates reading academic staff as nothing more than a REF ranking star-grade or the value of their most recent grant. This is, of course, especially destructive if your work is not recognised within dominant systems of intellectual value, thus further marginalising people of colour, disabled scholars, women, and most – if not all – teaching-only staff.

Equally, in the neoliberal and individual-focused university, the placing of care outside of the structures of institutions or professionalism culminates in demands that we, as individuals, be wholly responsible for both our own care and our wellbeing. This successfully obscures the role of institutions and workplace cultures in our mental and physical health and creates conditions for individual blame rather than collective responsibility. Moreover, in setting apart care from the institution, the caring work that is done is made invisible.

This problem is further accentuated in that the majority of more ‘formal’ caring work within universities – such as pastoral activities – too often falls to women and people of colour, who are viewed as ‘better suited’ to this form of labour. These assumptions and ensuing allocation of work then become circuitously taken up as expectations; when women and people of colour refuse to perform in such ways, this – as Sara Ahmed has argued – is regularly interpreted as lack of gratitude, lack of collegiality, and even laziness. The threefold result of this is that the labour of care undertaken primarily by woman and people of colour is unrecognised, unappreciated, and delegitimated. We – some of us anyway – are at once demanded to undertake caring labour whilst also repeatedly told that multiple other iterations of generosity, kindness, love, and hope are idealistic, fantastic, or ‘unprofessional’.

Seeking the Moon on a Stick: Frameworks of Radical Kindness
Too many discussions of academia outline a broken system, appeal for change, but stop there. As authors, we’re uncomfortably aware that much of the above argument centres on pain and marginalisation rather than positive, ethical, steps forward. In this final section we hope to sketch the beginnings of optimism by locating the principles of radical kindness. The question we return to, is whether demanding and centring kindness, generosity, and care within university and academic systems really is wholly idealistic. We remain unconvinced by an academia in which aggression and confrontation is subsumed into ‘professionalism’, in which egocentric ‘everybody for themselves’ attitudes prevail, and in which we are continually exhorted to be ‘resilient’ and possess ‘grit’.

Kindness as a radical act is not just ‘being nice’ to one another; it is the core of articulating, recognising, and valuing the complexity and beauty of the human condition, and putting this into practice in order to dismantle harmful systems of oppression and subjugation. Radical kindness is the creation of space for vulnerability. While unsure of how to do this within the current structures and pressures of institutions that make up the academy, on the outside, Vikki has created a virtual collective. It foregrounds the forms of generosity, kindness, playfulness, friendship and fun that Vikki enjoyed as ‘extras’ from her ‘outside networks’. These bonds are as essential – particularly for those marginalised – in ‘navigating’ a system in which our institutions as workplaces and spaces are often unkind, and at worst, unsafe. Through sharing experiences and amplifying voices, Vikki hopes these free resources offer an inclusive space to explore how we can create feminist, intersectional, and non-confrontational communities. The principles of these are founded on sharing care work and kindness, and dislocating our sense of self and success from the destructive forms of ambition and competition that the academy promotes. In these spaces we can play, imagine, and create. Significantly, it is in having no skin in the game anymore that means Vikki can engage in this work.

Radical kindness is practiced in how we conduct ourselves on personal, everyday, and institutional levels. We see hope, for instance, in the recent election of Jo Grady as General Secretary of UCU. The thoughtfulness, respectfulness, and tangible inclusivity of her campaign, and that it was led by grassroots members, demonstrates that building spaces of genuine collaboration is possible and that they will herald change. Likewise, radical kindness should involve reflexively deploying our privilege and power: not just avowing others’ oppression, but actively seeking to change the systems that oppress. Crucially, radical kindness must be done by all: it is unjust, unethical, and unsociological to rely on already-marginalised people to speak up against injustice, to undertake caring labour, or to create and perform atmospheres of happiness.

Kindness is not a bonus. It is our core, our humanity, our revolutionary weapon.

Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gill, R. (2009). ‘Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’ in Flood, R. & Gill, R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.


Sarah Burton is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Department of Sociology, City University. Sarah completed her Ph.D., Crafting the Academy: Writing Sociology and Disciplinary Legitimacy, at Goldsmiths, University of London, and has published widely on sociology and the politics of knowledge, including a contribution to the 50th anniversary special issue of Sociology. Sarah sits on the Executive Committee of the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association and is a member of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network. Vikki Turbine Freelance and Founder of ‘The Learning Curve Collective’; https://vikturbine.com; @VikTurbine

IMAGE CREDIT: Sadek Kessous