I recently experienced the death of a close colleague. We had co-authored a few papers and books over the years, and her passing makes me reflect on how fortunate I was to be able to work with her.
My musings led me to think more broadly about the rich relationships that are possible in academia and how important they are to the common enterprise of education and scholarship we pursue.
The scholarly life of academics is often rather hidden from students, who form too many of their impressions of academic life from classroom performances of instructors. Much new research on the impact of higher education on students has shown that working jointly on research with faculty Is a powerful accelerator to lasting value of learning. Having colleagues who show us all how to do this, and involve multiple faculty in such opportunities make us all better,
Further, faculty in the same field who are giving of their time are precious resources at various points in a research project. At the very beginning when we’re selecting the next question to address or the next creation to make, a common issue is how risky a project should be attempted. Big important breakthrough products usually start out with great uncertainty. Projects that are the next logical small increment generally have higher odds of completion but lower impact. Having a good colleague to help assess risk of success and failure is valuable.
At some point in every research project I ever was involved in, there were unexpected and troubling intermediate outcomes — puzzles that made no sense. At a certain point, thinking through the puzzles more and more was a dead end. However, having a colleague listen to your narration of the issues often illuminates new ways of “getting unstuck.” My experience is that oftentimes the new insight came magically merely from the retelling of the issues. What I needed was a knowledgeable listener, who asked a few questions.
Similar experiences occur at the stage of drafting descriptions of the research. All writers get stuck, and colleagues who are willing to read lousy first drafts are treasures. Such relationships depend on great trust because all the weaknesses of the writer are exposed. A colleague who can provide insightful and supportive suggestions is of priceless value.
One of my best memories of learning from colleagues stems from joint teaching activities, especially when the skill sets of the colleagues were complementary to mine. I never exited such an experience without rethinking my own contribution to the class. Several research ideas from such joint teaching led to wonderful collaborations.
Perhaps most important in these kinds of supportive behaviors is the fact that they generate a virtuous cycle. One colleague helps another in one of the ways above; soon the generosity is reciprocated. Intellectual support generates more intellectual support.
So this is a post in praise of caring colleagues. Those of you who enjoy such benefits, it’s worth thanking those who provide them from time to time. My memories of my colleague who died are filled with such sentiments.