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On the need for empathy and kindness in academia

Due to personal problems (my parents have been ill for more than 6 weeks), I have been unable to participate in any of the international conferences of the social sciences’ disciplines I follow more closely (anthropology, geography, sociology and the upcoming political science one, the American Political Science Association, APSA 2014 meeting). However, I follow the Twitter streams with great interest, because I gain new insights on different methods, new theories, concepts and approaches to scholarship.

I recently followed the American Sociological Association (#ASA14) Twitter stream, and I have to admit that while I learned a lot, I was also flabbergasted at the amount of vitriol I saw a few academics spew at their colleagues. Even more disheartening, these criticisms were aimed at their colleagues’ personal traits rather than their scholarly pursuits. To be perfectly honest, I found this incredibly sad, particularly in a discipline focused on the study of social behavior, and sociality. The amount of snark I saw on the Twitter stream of #ASA14 prompted me to tweet the following, which apparently resonated with many, many fellow scholars.

Sometimes, I fear that academics forget that underneath that strong armour of scholarly insights, we are only humans. Personally, I’m neither afraid of criticism nor a wallflower. I was trained by one of the toughest scientists I’ve ever known, and I was educated under the tradition of direct criticism, sometimes punchy and incisive and not even couched in kind and gentle commentary. I take punches, online and offline. But that doesn’t mean that I approve of criticism that is vitriolic. I’m well aware that our job as academics is to challenge positions, criticize and (in doing so), making recommendations and advancing knowledge. But we don’t need to do so by spewing vitriol on other academics.

I sincerely hope that attendees at academic conferences, workshops and seminars never forget that they, too, will at some point demand kindness and gentle criticism. I would just hope that by then, they will also have given the empathy they demand.

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