Academic Musings

My favorite colleagues

Back in the day when I was, myself, an egomaniac, I admired academics with impressive CVs, charisma and bravado.  But ever since the Universe bitch-slapped gently brought me down to earth, I now find myself gravitating toward colleagues for entirely new, less shitty reasons.

In the last few months, I’ve had the chance to finally make connections with more scholars at my university and in the larger NYC metropolitan area.  Last year, when I was new to campus (and to the professoriate), it was all I could do to simply keep my head above water.  Now that I’m entering my second year on the tenure track and I’ve started to get a lay of  the land, I’m finding the bandwidth to branch out.  In so doing, I’ve been meeting some junior and senior colleagues, some of whom have impressed me greatly.  A few have even become fast new friends.

Many of these colleagues do, indeed, have formidable CVs. But that’s not why I like them.  I’ve noticed that they share a few characteristics that I find incredibly attractive:

  • They are positive.   The colleagues I have in mind struck me immediately with their upbeat attitude and optimism.  These folks run the gamut: male and female, white, people of color, gay, straight, tenured and tenure-track.  What they share, however, is a positive outlook.  They don’t bitch and moan (too much) about the profession.  Somehow they have faced challenges, encountered difficulties and overcome hardships in their personal and professional lives without warping into bitter, downtrodden shadows of themselves.  They inspire me – and their happiness resonates with my own.
  • They take an active role in being of service.  When I meet a scholar at a soup kitchen where we’re feeding the homeless, or I learn that someone was active in the Civil Rights movement or created programs to help thousands of minority students enter into STEM fields, I instantly know that we share common values.  By the way, I’m pretty sure being of service is a large part of the reason why these colleagues are happy.  Finding manageable ways to contribute to the community (without being overloaded and overworked) not only helps those around us but contributes to our own sense of well-being.
  • They have an almost childlike enthusiasm for their research.  I love talking with people who are excited about their own work. Their enthusiasm is contagious.  There’s a difference, though, between relaying your work in an arrogant, egocentric way, and discussing it with a natural, unaffected manner that simply conveys your own genuine interest.  I much prefer the latter.
  • They can explain things in clear, down-to-earth language.  The best colleagues are able to talk about research without getting too jargony.  This is probably why they’re also often very good teachers.
  • They are unpretentious.  The best colleagues are folks that don’t care about prestige or their academic pedigree even if they are, of course, interested in producing good work.  They may have an impressive resume, but they don’t brag about it.  And they don’t think their degrees, publications or honors make them better or more important than anyone else.  No one likes pretentious people.  Believe me, as a formerly pretentious person, I know.
  • They have a fantastic sense of humor.  I like to laugh and I like people who laugh at my jokes.  My favorite colleagues don’t take themselves too seriously.
  • They are socially adept.  Academics are known for being rather awkward.  I’m pretty sure that has a lot to do with the super-sized egos.  It’s easier to get along with people when you have nothing to prove.  My favorite colleagues are friendly.  They smile.  They can have a conversation about anything.  Preferably over wine.  Or whiskey.
  • They are generous.  Given what we in the social sciences have learned from exchange theory, it is perhaps not too surprising that I’m attracted to colleagues who are generous.  If someone offers to help me with a grant proposal, read a chapter of my manuscript, introduce me to an important contact or otherwise hook a sista up, we’re probably going to get along famously – and of course I’ll be repaying in kind.  I’ve noticed that my academic friends are kind and generous – not overly concerned with defending their turf or enhancing their own reputation. Very attractive traits indeed.
  • They are spiritual – or at least philosophical.  The more I’ve taken my spirituality into the public sphere, the more I’ve been blessed to encounter other academics who are also on a similar path. They may or may not meditate and do yoga.  They might be Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or atheist – but in any case, they think deeply about important life questions and our conversations are often animated by existential concerns.

All of this to say: the more I become the kind of person and academic I want to be (less egocentric, more service oriented, driven by inspiration rather than aspiration, rooted in my spiritual life) the more I naturally find myself meeting, forming friendships and building community with folks of a similar feather.