Is there still a place for kindness in today’s harsh academic environment?


Weaving and hoarding

There’s a striking moment in George Eliot’s 1861 novel, Silas Marner, when the miserly weaver is described as being so entirely reduced to the “functions of weaving and hoarding” that his face and figure shrink and bend themselves into “a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life”. Marner works his loom and counts his coins, withering into the shape of his toil; his eyes, which used to look “trusting and dreamy”, now appear as if “they had been made to see only one kind of thing that was very small”.

Eliot imagines Marner’s diminishment as commensurate with that of others who are isolated from community through their self-absorbed attention to work. She writes that the same process has been “undergone by wiser men”, who, instead of “a loom and a heap of guineas”, have “some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory” that narrows and hardens their lives into “a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that [has] no relation to any other being”.

Substitute “weaver” for “academic” and “guineas” for “research outputs” and the picture is familiar enough. Academia often encourages a kind of hoarding and miserliness; our ideas must be protected and tallied, and, like Marner, we are reduced to mere functions. We too are shrunk and bent in relation to our function, and our dreamy trust in colleagues is replaced with a more cynical and narrow strategic vision. Our participation in community is always fraught, since what we are taught to desire is only our own good; collegiality is always tinged with suspicion and jealousy.

Author Bio: Jedidiah Evans is an associate lecturer in the department of writing studies at the University of Sydney.