What can kindness offer higher education? Working from the micro level to explore the analytical and political potential of kindness

Year: 2017

Author: McLean, Jan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Kindness, it seems, presents a dilemma for higher education. On the one hand it has been largely ignored by researchers and so, up until recently, has been under-researched and under-theorised. This lack of regard for kindness by scholars has been attributed to discomfort with the lay normativity associated with kindness (Clegg and Rowland, 2010), because kindness lacks "the heft of 'solidarity', 'justice' or 'community'" (Brownlie and Anderson, 2016) and as it is considered insignificant and 'soft in the 'hard' real world of power and injustice" (Hamrick, 2002). On the other hand, a spate of recent papers make big claims about how working with kindness, particularly within its normativity and at the micro level around small and seemingly insignificant 'acts of kindness' reveal it's potential as an analytic and a political tactic to challenge the taken for granted and to bring new understandings. Clegg and Rowland (2010), for instance, make a case for working within the lay normativity of kindness and say that attending to kindness can be subversive of neoliberal values and assumptions within higher education that focus on utility and cost above human values. Magnet et al (2014) conceptualise 'feminist kindness' and deploy this as a methodology to bring a "micropolitical analysis of power in the academy". Brownlie and Anderson (2016) outline the 'analytic purchase' of 'noticing' seemingly insignificant acts of ordinary kindness to make a case for the relevance of kindness to sociology.

This paper draws together this recent research and connects it with my research into kindness which centres on 'small stories' of 'becoming an academic' in the modern neoliberal university, to further illuminate what researching kindness can offer higher education. Using a relational lens that brings a view to 'selves in relation', to 'fellow feeling' and to 'social atmospheres' I aim to offer a conceptualisation of kindness which distills features that appear to be key to the constituent qualities of kindness as well as to its analytic power. In doing this I hope to show it's potential to contribute to the HE research agenda, to offer views which challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy, while also providing a generative analytical frame through which to make sense of the place of relationships, feelings and connection in becoming an academic.