The Gratitude Wall, with dozens of sticky notes listing what people are grateful for

Academic Gratitude

It would be bad form for me to start a post about gratitude without first thanking Flickr user Purdman1, who made the featured image for this post available for use under creative commons. The image was taken at TEDxBuffalo, and I think that this is a great idea. Once things simmer down here a bit and I have a chance not only to make better use of my cameraphone, but to learn how to make better use of my cameraphone, I’ll be adding more of my own work. Until then, creative commons heroes will be filling much of the void here.

Now, on to business, and in this case, the business of gratitude.

I tend to avoid Twitter. That’s a firehose I can’t manage effectively, regardless of the platform I use to look at it or the headspace I’m in when I try. Still, there are some great people doing great things over there, so I do get enticed every once in a while to hop on and look at the myriad photos of fun medieval marginalia or breathtaking illumination work on a manuscript.

Other things, though, end up sticking with me a little while longer, and before I go any further, what I’m about to say has absolutely nothing to do with politics. I’ll confess my biases in that regard in another post; this post is about something a colleague of mine tweeted, and I’m not quite sure how to handle it in my own head. See, this individual has maintained a blog and active twitter account for a good, long while, and this individual and I have agreed on several substantial issues in the past. This individual is intelligent, driven, and legitimately cares about students. This person has every right to be proud of their accomplishments, and I will confess that I stand in awe sometimes when I consider the challenges this individual overcame in order to succeed.

This person can legitimately claim to be a rock star.

That’s why I was so confused when this individual tweeted a message that explicitly stated that the degree they earned was due only to the effort this individual had expended. Indeed, this individual made a point to contrast their own situation with that of someone else’s, someone who was apparently quite vocal about being grateful for the support of others through grad school. My colleague, in fact, triumphantly defied the universe in this tweet after saying that their accomplishments belonged to them alone and to the efforts of no one else.

Now, I don’t want to take away from this individual’s celebration, and this individual has truly stood alone on far more of their journey than others (certainly me). I find it difficult, however, to believe that no one else out in the world ever helped this individual at all. Faculty certainly helped, or at least many faculty members did, even if others presented issues. The department in which we both studied and worked is a supportive environment, and though there may have been disagreements (even very strong ones), it seems to me that there were a number of strong opportunities there, as well. Fellow students and colleagues were also good reasons to be grateful, because they provided the community in which this person learned. I know, for instance, that this individual and this individual’s work have both benefited from programs sponsored by student organizations.

I really can’t bring myself to be truly disappointed in this individual; even if I can’t sympathize with their situation, I can certainly at least try to empathize. I just have to think about how unfortunate it is that this person is missing the opportunity to say thank you to those who provided the silent backdrop of support that they enjoyed during their experiences in the program. And, because it’s me, I have to worry about all the opportunities I’ve missed to do the same thing. Unlike this individual, I can be pretty daft, and unlike this individual, I haven’t really had the drive to finish up my program quickly. I’m pretty sure that I’ve exasperated several individuals and annoyed many more, and even if they don’t think much of it, I know how much my program has been enriched by the work of others.

I’m fortunate to work in an environment that attracts extremely intelligent people. I get to benefit from their wisdom, insight, and guidance on a daily basis. For all the people who have made my graduate school experience better, I wish I could sit down and write a card that tells them exactly how much they have meant to me. Faculty are fortunate because, not only is their role greatest, it is also the least numerous. Cards for the faculty could actually happen. Then I have to add all the staff members I’ve worked with over the years who have made my life better in countless smaller ways (for example, once a semester every semester, I lock myself out of my office: once a semester, every semester, one of the staff bails me out). This number includes the librarians who have helped me find what I need in the labyrinthine online catalog systems we use here and the folks in student government who have helped me and my organizations do incredible things for our members. The number jumps pretty significantly at this point.

Then I get to start thanking my peers, both in the department and in the interdisciplinary areas with whom I get to work. Classmates and colleagues, fellow officers and fellow students and, possibly most significantly of all, fellow human beings, who have supported me and commiserated with me for a long, long time. In my case, I also get to thank the folks at the Russell J. and Dorothy S. Bilinski Foundation for their support to finish the dissertation. Additionally, all the members of the community who are invested in the success of the Institute for Medieval Studies and who have bothered to get to know me deserve my thanks, especially those who have hosted parties receptions in their own homes and allowed me to come in to share their hospitality. I should also remember to thank all the folks who work in the food service areas on campus who have bothered to learn my face and recognize me, even when we’re out and about on campus; I try to read their name tags and remember, but sometimes I can’t even manage that, and it makes me feel a little ashamed that I’ve had regular conversations with these people for years…

There are just so many people to thank.

It’s not a duty, either. I want to say thank you because it’s a privilege to have shared this campus and this time with you, and all that time and all the experience has been to my great benefit. I am so glad to have the ability to look folks in the eye and say an earnest “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” I don’t know that I’ll be able to get everyone in when that time comes, but I’m going to try. I can’t thank all the little people, Oscar style, because there are none. We’re all in this together, and I assure you that I would not have made it to this point without the contributions of each and every person I’ve listed here and more.

So when the time comes, I’m going to flub it. It’s inevitable, but if intentions count for anything at all, please also know that I really do appreciate everyone and everything that was done to get me through, even if I somehow don’t get to tell you so. You deserve a lot more than what I can offer, but know that, at the very least, I intend to try to return some of the support you’ve given me.

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