The best academics

26 Oct

The best academics are the most generous. I have been in this ‘game’ for a long time. I have known a lot of academics types: the fragile (everywhere), the bullies (mainly York), the egotists (everywhere), the shockingly dull and boring (everywhere, but north America is over-blessed with them), the management drones (sadly an increasing bunch), the lazy (everywhere, seriously), and the out-of-their depth.

I am also privileged to know (and to have known) lots of extraordinarily talented academics – those that are effortlessly coherent on a conference panel, those who write with such fluency that I think of great literature (a few even write as clearly as EM Forster), or those that have read so widely that I think they must never sleep. These academics drive us on – they inject our debates with ideas and concepts that make us think. Even those academics whose arguments/interpretations I disagree with do us wonderful service in stimulating debate and causing constructive controversy.

But, by far, the best sorts of academics are the most generous. By generous I mean those who devote time and enthusiasm for others. That is not always easy. We all have our own concerns and think that our own time and our own research agendas are the most important things in the world. The political economy of academia gives no rewards whatsoever in taking an interest in the professional welfare of others.

Looking back over my career (and I hope I have a couple more decades to go!), I can think of many academics who have been encouraging, sympathetic, humane and personable. I can think of very many who have not. I will concentrate on the former category and I will mention names – quite simply because they deserve it, and I hope I do not embarrass anyone.

So, many years ago when I was PhD student (perhaps the loneliest station in life) I remember walking along the Politics Department corridor at Queens in Belfast and Elizabeth Meehan saying ‘hello’ to me. Every time we met she asked how I was and how my work was going. She was not my PhD supervisor, but she took a genuine interest in students. She probably did not realise it, but her interest was invaluable. She made me feel that it was worth it. And then there was David Denver. I was a rookie lecturer at Lancaster (and had the office next to his) and I remember going to a conference with him at Salford University. David – a senior professor – sat directly in front of the podium as a series of grad students gave papers on electoral studies (his specialist subject). It was nerve-wracking for them. But David had words of encouragement for all of them. “Well Done” or “Absolutely” he would say as they gave their papers. I contrast this with the cat torturing mouse dissection of grad student papers that I have seen by other senior academics (who clearly have enormous insecurities that they take out on junior academics). I could names here – many of them are at the top of their game and have no need to be so gratuitous.

And then I remember Andy Williams who came up to York to give a paper when I was a lecturer there. On the morning after his paper I stumbled across him having a bacon sandwich in the college café. There began a friendship and academic partnership. He showed me that it was possible to be an academic and to be (reasonably!) normal. We talked about family histories and how we are a small part of a large machine. The personal is the historical and the political – a really important lesson.

I cannot help but mention John Darby, who gave me my first job. John was a truly inspirational figure (and cannot be discussed in isolation from Marie, his wife). John was a real leader in the field of peace and conflict studies. I was privileged to work with him. One of his many great qualities (apart from his fantastically dry sense of humour – believe me, he cut me down to size every day) was that he did not lavish praise. If you did a good job he would praise it. But if you did a mediocre job he did not. I learned a lot from that.

I also remember an ISA panel in … I forget which city. David Chandler was the chair/discussant on a panel comprised of PhD students. Rather than show off his genius, he took the opportunity to reflect seriously on the papers that had been given. He was genuine in his praise but gave useful critiques of their papers. He could have simply sat back and been a time-keeper, but he chose to be supporter of grad students.

And I remember the very many internal and external examiners I have worked with on PhD vivas. They worked hard to keep students calm and focussed. Vivienne Jabri gave a master-class – a really tough examination but fair and humane. But Roger Zetter, Roberto Belloni and many others showed how to be tough but fair.

We work in an industry in which peer praise is rare (I nearly fell off my chair recently when I received – unsolicited –an email from another academic praising me for a review article I had written). The main currency in contemporary academia is critique: that interpretation is wrong, that conceptualisation is too shallow, that view is a-historical; you have not read enough. Frankly, much of the literature is a whinge “this is wrong, that is wrong”. Obviously we need critique. But I look back and I think we need more encouragement too. We need mentors and encouragers. We need the sage words of wisdom that I was not bright enough to appreciate (Adrian Leftwich, John Darby), we need the inspirational teachers (Frank Wright, Mick Cox), we need the subtle mentors who are too good to give overt advice (Neil Carter, John Anderson), the good chat over the nice pint (or beverage of their choice) (Jim McAuley, Marie Zoelle Zahar, Aaron Edwards, Marie Breen-Smith, Tim Jacoby, Kris Brown, Alp Ozerdem, Landon Hancock, Jon Tonge, Richard English and loads of others), more junior scholars who show us how it is done (Stefanie Kappler, Birte Vogel, Sukanya Podder, Chrissie Steenkamp, Helen Basini, Gezim Vizoka, Laura McLeod and Walt Kilroy (who I hope are not offended by being called “junior”)), the collaborators that really stretch how I think but make allowances for my sloppiness (Oliver Richmond, Pamina Firchow, Alp Ozerdem, Roisin Read, Sandra Pogodda, Madhav Joshi, SungYong Lee, Roddy Brett, Jen Peterson, Birte Vogel), the people I know in person shallowly but are encouraged through their Facebook posts (Kevin Clements, Richard Jackson, Sherrill Stroschein, Lyndsey Harris and many, many more); the huge number of MA students I have taught and are inspired by their work for the UN, INGOs and NGOs; and – of course – those outside of academia that remind me that academics rarely have the answers. Mrs Mac Ginty works very hard to keep me grounded (though ‘floored’ might be a more accurate term). Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty.

I do not claim to be the most encouraging or humane academic out there. I try, but often I am tired, distracted, and (I am sorry to say) not terribly interested. But I do look back and think of all the academics I have met and think: how un-encouraging most (yes, most!) of them have been. I remember at Lancaster as a new lecturer and thinking how spectacularly unfriendly most of my new colleagues were. Surely we can all do better. We do so little to encourage, celebrate, and champion others.

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14 Responses to “The best academics”

  1. Maija Jespersen 26/10/2015 at 12:30 pm #

    Too right! And thank you for saying good writing is important. I sometimes feel like I have to write worse on purpose to be taken more seriously.

    • rogermacginty 26/10/2015 at 9:24 pm #

      Well said Maija! I share the same feelings and think that sometimes I have to add a “sprinkle” of fancy sounding references to add some intellectual weight to what I write. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we just dropped the pretense and write what we think?

  2. Fashionable Librarian 26/10/2015 at 4:39 pm #

    I absolutely agree with you…without the generosity part we become something else totally. If people who don’t take the time to write well are rewarded then what is the incentive to do so is always my question. I would think that it would be in our best interest to do the best we can since said writing will be linked to our name.

    • rogermacginty 26/10/2015 at 9:26 pm #

      Yes, Fashionable Librarian. Only over the past decade or so have I come to the decision to stop reading things that have not been written with the reader in mind. Rather than struggle with impenetrable journal articles, if I do nit understand the first page I move onto something else. I wish I had realised that a long time ago! Thank you for your comment.

      • Fashionable Librarian 26/10/2015 at 10:05 pm #

        You are so right…

      • Fay Ballard 28/10/2015 at 7:30 am #

        As someone who has recently come back to postgrad study after a decade in work, this is very liberating advice. I write for a living (conveying NGO programming ideas and plans) and I would never get away with some of the sentences I read in academic papers – people would simply stop reading and assume my ideas were poor and being hidden behind jargon and unnecessary complexity. I do not understand why some academics don’t just lay things out clearly and simply – is it because they think this makes their ideas sound more sophisticated and ‘deep’ than they really are?

      • rogermacginty 28/10/2015 at 3:53 pm #

        For some, there is a conscious act of over-complicating issues with high sounding words because they think that is what it “should” look like. For others, they have been genuinely inculcated (big word there!) into systems of thinking and writing (called disciplines) that demand such exclusive writing styles. In a sense, they do not notice it anymore. Every profession or trade has its own jargon, academia (and the practice of law) takes this to such an extent that outsiders cannot take them seriously.

      • Fay Ballard 29/10/2015 at 8:04 am #

        All groups have their norms, signs and culture, but the very point of academia is to foster positive change through evidence-based research, so communicating with non-members of the group is critical. Even those who have been inculcated need to retain the ability to make their ideas understood to everyone – for if this is not possible then what is the point of the research? All they’re doing is conveying ideas to the tiny band of people who can understand them, which surely cannot be satisfying for the vast majority of academics. Writing so that people outside one’s discipline can understand (and use) ideas seems to be one of the most important forms of generosity.

  3. marmitefeminism 26/10/2015 at 7:40 pm #

    Hi! You are one of only two professors that I remember fondly from my time in York and for who I had a great deal of respect. Not only did you intellectually challenge me during lectures but you also took the time to continue the discussions after lectures, turning a cerebral exercise into a discourse to drive activism and challenge the status quo. Thanks for that and I hope you’re keeping well.

    • rogermacginty 26/10/2015 at 9:21 pm #

      Thank you Marmite feminist (do feel free to share your real name). I have to say that the best bit of teaching is when students challenge me, or are unconvinced by by ramblings. It is wonderfully challenging.

  4. Rosie Mac Ginty 28/10/2015 at 7:53 pm #

    Keep up the good work Mrs Mac Ginty!

  5. Helen Basini 29/10/2015 at 6:32 pm #

    What a lovely post, not least because I made your list!

    It reminded me of the first ever ISA I attended in Montreal as I fledgling PhD student. I was with another grad student and we must have looked a bit lost and shell shocked as we attended an event which honoured an academic. Cynthia Enloe came and sat down in front of us and immediately turned around to ask if it was our first ISA, how we were finding it and to generally encourage us. We couldn’t believe someone so eminent was talking to and encouraging ‘us’ over all the other important academics in the room! I’ll never forget that and maybe one day can I make another student feel as welcomed in a similar situation.

  6. Helen Basini 29/10/2015 at 6:52 pm #

    What a lovely post – not least because I made your list!

    I utterly agree about the need to be more encouraging. Critique is necessary but there is a is a way to deliver it that does not crush the confidence of those we work with/teach. This is a skill that sadly not all academics posses.

    When I read the post it reminded me of the first ever ISA I attended in Montreal as a fledgling PhD student. Myself and a fellow grad student went along to an event honouring a feminist academic. We must have looked a little lost and overwhelmed. Cynthia Enloe came and sat in front of us and immediately turned around to say hello, ask us if this was our first ISA and to generally be very encouraging about our research. We couldn’t believe someone so eminent was talking to ‘us’ over all of the other important academics in the room. I will never forget how kind and encouraging she was and how wonderful that made us feel.

    p.s. I’m glad you remembered Mrs Mac Ginty…even though you have taken away her identity!

  7. Maya Arendt 25/11/2015 at 1:26 am #

    Thanks for the interesting post and for being an inspirational figure for some us, humble students! Your work linking theory with practice, going out in the field and showing us the methodological tools should be praised too. By my side, as a practitioner, I often lack the time to read all is out there and sometimes I wish the day is of 28 hrs!

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