A colleague stopped me in the hallway last week and passed on a positive comment from a student about one of my classes. It was a shot in the arm and I appreciated it.
It got me thinking about academic environments and passing on encouraging words. In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Stanley Hauerwas notes that academic departments are hives of professional envy—and he’s speaking of Religious Studies departments and divinity schools! Academics often have fragile egos and tend toward self-importance.
These dynamics can produce competitive environments in which colleagues don’t encourage one another.
Several years ago a colleague relayed to me a positive comment he had heard about something I had written. I thanked him and said that was really great to hear.
He then said that he thought about telling me when he had originally heard it, but declined because he didn’t want me to get a big head. I still don’t know how to think about that sentiment.
It seems to me that we ought to be eager to pass on good reports to others. It’s a practical way of encouraging one another and fostering an environment of mutual support.
Another colleague told me that he had heard good things from students about a professor in our department. I asked if he had passed it on to him, and he shook his head, saying, “nah, he probably hears it enough.”
I’m always baffled when I hear about someone intentionally withholding praise.
These are strategic opportunities to foster fruitful community life, strengthen relationships, encourage others, and keep the destructive dynamics of envy at bay.
Further, it’s a good spiritual discipline. Envy and destructive competition shrink our spirits and shrivel our souls, distorting our vision and corrupting our hearts.
Taking initiative to speak an encouraging word expands our hearts and enlarges our spirits. We want to be the kind of people who love and honor one another, who seek the good of the wider learning community. Encouraging one another is an excellent practice that makes us better people.