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12 February: Generosity as a Strategy for Survival

Published onJul 09, 2019
12 February: Generosity as a Strategy for Survival

There are colleagues who view being too positive about the work of other academic writers as Panglossian. As Harvey Molotch once pointed out: ‘Sociologists like to eat each other . . . critics by disposition and occupation [they] freely take issue with each other, often ungenerously.’ This is because we are valued not for our generosity but for the sharpness of our intellect, for the unflinching nature of our academic judgements. These qualities can be rewarded, for example, by being invited to serve as a judge on panels like those that determine the outcomes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Critical edge becomes a badge of excellence, while generosity shows suspicious signs of intellectual feebleness.

In this kind of climate I have come to think that valuing the work of others becomes a way to strike a small blow of munificence against miserliness in academic life. This is not just a matter of being ‘nice’ to others. Sometimes there are profound divisions and intellectual fault lines that are important to fight over. A university without criticism and argument is no kind of university at all. No, I am thinking more about the pleasure that can be taken in admiring the work of others that you feel animates something important.

Machiavelli was of course right to advise in The Prince to be wary of flatterers and sycophants. Praise can be manipulative, a way of courting favour: the heart of even the stoniest professional can be melted with a few obsequious words. I am not advocating toadyism but rather generosity in the service of what Russell would have called educated self-interested.

One way of coping with life in the university today is – in part – to trade envy for admiration. It is a lesson that I have learned from some of my feminist colleagues. Intellectual generosity can be a survival strategy and prophylactic against the corrosive aspects of intellectual cruelty that have been institutionalized by the audit culture. Try it. You might never get asked to serve on an assessment panel pronouncing on the intellectual merits of those in your field but maybe you’ll feel better about academic life and your place within it.

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