Generosity as an intellectual virtue

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9,11)

We return to our series on good scholarship and fittingly, as we have just celebrated God’s self-giving love in the sacrifice of His Son, this week’s focus is on generosity. Generosity means giving beyond duty. At first glance, there seems to be quite a lot of generosity around in academia. As a PhD student, I was surprised at how willing other researchers were to help me: providing access to museum collections in their care, helping out with fieldwork, or even sharing unpublished data with me. Now, as I approach the end of my second postdoc, I have become more cynical, expecting other motives to be in the background: people may expect to be co-authors on publications, or look for favourable reviews of their own publications, or seek to strengthen their reputation. And the same goes for academic institutions as a whole: when you bring in a prestigious grant, you are fêted and paraded around. But as soon as your grant runs out, expect no further investment from your institution.

Now of course I am generalising here, and I am sure many researchers do act out of true generosity, a desire to help others, and to further their field of research as a whole and benefit wider society. I am grateful for many colleagues who really have freely given of themselves to me. It seems, therefore, that generosity is primarily a matter of attitude.

As Christians, we should be keen to give freely of ourselves. When we remember whom we serve, we remember that Christ was willing to give his life for us. God so loved the world – and all people in it, including our colleagues – that He gave his only Son. And we are called to have the same self-giving mindset as Christ (Phil. 2: 5-11). So what would this look like in practice in academia?

In the competitive environment of academia, there are many opportunities to practise generosity. Acknowledge other researchers’ contributions to your work, and welcome them to take ownership of joint work. Strive particularly to reach out to researchers from places without as much access to libraries, expensive journal subscriptions, and research facilities. Help those who are less advanced in their studies to develop their ideas and take initiative in their research. If you are teaching, make yourself available to students, whether brilliant or struggling. Give back to the people who fund your research (often the taxpayer!) by taking part in outreach activities.

I must admit to a struggle in this area, however. Maybe some of you who read this can offer your own comments. I personally have a rather limited energy store. So whilst I would love to say ‘give sacrificially of your time and strength’, I know that if I put that into practice, it would probably negatively affect my health, and thus, in the long term, my ability to give to others. In the same vein, there are jobs that I might sacrificially offer to do that I am not actually very good at. So we need to prayerfully consider what we can and cannot do, and what our gifts are. But let us be willing to serve others out of love for Him who loved and served us.

Comments

Thanks, Eline. I’ve been thinking about the top-quality teachers in my (1950s) grammar-school; they had chosen the job rather than taking it up when all else failed. But un-common generosity committed them to un-promising careers in an industrial town with pupils whose parents all left school at 13.
Then last evening the BBC brought news of a grave teacher-recruitment crisis.
This morning, I woke with a strong sense of an historically significant moment of opportunity for Christians in academic life. Your blog makes clear that professional honours are not everything. Here’s a moment to commend the generous calling of the school-teacher to bright youngsters of faith. It’s work that will bear fruit for decades – even centuries.

Generosity in research is a difficult subject because while networking and building good relationships with fellow academics is vital. The importance of publishing some “original” contribution to your field means that people have an incentive to keep things to themselves. Although I suspect this is more extreme within the sciences than within humanities subjects. When doing archival work I regularly come across documents and other sources which I know are valuable to colleagues and make a point of photographing them and sharing, of course there is an ulterior motive, it is almost impossible to visit every relevant archive and read every relevant book, so I’m hopeful that others will do the same when they find information relevant to my thesis.

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