Put goodness at the heart of your labours: 15 aphorisms for academics

H. A. Hellyer shares his top principles for being a good academic – and a good person

March 8, 2020
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In the spring of 2005, I walked into my viva at the University of Warwick and walked out with my thesis having been accepted. Years of work had paid off. Yet that was only the beginning of an academic voyage, not the end.

Over the course of the past 15 years, students have asked for advice as they have contemplated embarking on their own careers in academia. So as much to serve as a reminder to myself as to help future scholars, I’ve written my academic aphorisms – one for each year since I passed my viva.

Be grateful. This is a vocation where you get to deal with ideas, to engage in a life of contemplation, analysis, pondering, reading and learning. You may decide at some point to do something else, but while you are an academic, be grateful.

Be courteous. Your work will always be better by being gracious and respectful. It is not always popular to adhere to that kind of standard, but it is better. And when you look back on your career, you’ll have less to regret.

Do not be churlish. Too many in this profession, especially young academics, attempt to smear senior academics online and speak about them in ways that they never would in person. You might get scores of likes on Facebook, but it risks your reputation with fellow academics and cheapens your work. 

Think long term. Consider how the effect of your work might be perceived not in a month or a year, but in 100 years. If you then have doubts, just do not publish it. You will not regret this. You may regret doing otherwise.

Consider power. The best scholar is the one who recognises that he or she has a duty to speak truth to power. Write accordingly, and always account for how your words may be used to strengthen those promoting injustice, or to weaken those promoting justice.

Be aware of your own power. You have power as a scholar in the world; and you have power in society in general – be it your gender, your race or your class background. You can wield your power for the benefit of other people or for their detriment. It’s a choice, and you should always choose the former.

Be prepared to reconsider. Always consider yourself a student who can learn from your mistakes. It’s not shameful to see that you were wrong. It is noble to reassess.

Have principles. Don’t simply float through your work. Establish a normative frame based on principles and ethics. That foundation can evolve and change, but be purposeful about it and ensure that it develops on the basis of a considered set of principles, not just out of some spirit of the moment.

Remember your students. Perhaps you wanted to become an academic out of a love of learning and research. But true learning comes only through teaching and engaging with those who would love to learn from you. As the sages say, the true aspirant is worth more to the true teacher than red sulphur.

Remember your peers and mentorship. There will be enemies along the way, but there will also be people who can help you. Pay it forward by making it known that you will always try to be available to help your peers, or to mentor your juniors.

Respect your time. Your legacy is about you, as a person, which is partly about your scholarship. But it’s just as much, if not more, about how you were with your loved ones, and how much you respected their rights over yours. Academic work will never fit into a 9-to-5 schedule; but remember that there is life outside those hallowed walls that you have a commitment to.

Be directed by the ground. Perhaps one of the most crucial lessons I have learned is how easy it is for many of us in the academy to objectify the people we study on the ground. Sometimes, blissfully unaware; sometimes, purposefully ignorant. They are human beings with their own agency, and we are not there to turn them into playthings in our agendas. We are there to give voice to their stories.

And never underestimate the danger to those we study. All too often we forget that as much as we think we’re taking risks, the people we study have a completely different threshold of risk. That’s especially the case when we, as scholars, can leave and go elsewhere, and they often do not have the same options. Centre their risks, always.

Have an intention. It is good to begin everything with a genuine intention, and it is good to have an intention for what you are doing as a scholar. Quite literally, write it down, then periodically revisit it. Consider it, debate it with yourself. It will root you. It may not always precisely reflect your purpose, but it will help you to constantly consider that purpose.

Benefit and give benefit. A wonderful “intention” I once read came from a sage in the valleys of Yemen. It included: “To learn and to impart learning; to be reminded and impart a reminder; to benefit and impart benefit; to be advantaged and to give advantage.”

That sense of giving and taking with the ultimate purpose of goodness – is that not, after all, the point of doing academic research and teaching? And if not, perhaps it should be.

H. A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.

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