Social virtues for academics

Q: Why did the social scientist talk to her colleague?
A: To reveal her ontological security

OK, the one about a broken drum being the best Christmas present is a better cracker joke – in fact you just can’t beat it. However, like many jokers our social scientist does reveal something about our social interactions: academics are rarely recognised for their social virtues.

Last year I was discussing with fellow Christian postgrads about how we related to undergraduates, PhD colleagues and academic staff in our departments. It became clear to me that the social scientists were far less adept at it than the organic chemists. It was a small, unrepresentative and not statistically significant sample, but it clarified the distinction between studying society and undertaking a research project as part of a community. The distinction is between a social aspect in creation and acting in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner.

Being socially virtuous covers a panoply of activities, emotions and motivations. Here we’ll look at just two ideas:

First, critiquing other people’s work is a common task of an academic, whether formally in double-blind review or informally at conference presentations and in departmental seminars. However, very few us provide feedback in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner. Virtuous feedback would work on at least two levels; engaging personably with the presenter/author and seeking out aspects that are worthy of affirmation as well as providing criticisms. Danie Strauss argues that the idea of critical solidarity and not just critical thinking is key for scholarly communication. We find it very easy to find a point of departure from a presentation, but much harder to find elements we agree with.  Unlike the social scientist in the cracker joke, our purpose in dialogue is not to reinforce our own position, but to seek to understand, to grapple with ground motives and to pursue the benefit of the whole community.

Second, developing positive relationships with colleagues (both within the university and in the wider research community) is an integral part of virtuous scholarship. Developing these relationships may support the advancement of our ideas, projects and careers, but do not merely operate at this level. Social virtues for academics involve giving of ourselves to support other people’s research flourishing and will involve developing affirming as well as instructive relationships with students we teach.

A social virtue, when worked through each facet of an academic career, will bring pertinent questions to bear on: research topics; research teams; conference presentations; published critiques; treatment of undergraduates and support staff; and of course those who disagree with us. At Christmas we celebrated a God who left a comfortable position, to be with us, to live alongside us, to show us what it means to love, and to bring us into those loving relationships. A socially virtuous academic will mirror that love in their scholarly critique and academic relationships.

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