Unconditional Teaching

a living manifesto for healthier relationships in education

About Acknowledgements, Needs, and Vulnerability in Academia

Jessica Koch | 15 Oct 2021 | 1 comment |

One of my students showed me the humanity of the academic project with a simple page of acknowledgements.

One of my students recently began his BA-Thesis with a very heartfelt and very personal page of acknowledgements: He thanked not only his supervisors and teachers, but also many other people, friends, his family, for their individual support. In my eight years of teaching at our university, I had never seen a student do that in their bachelor thesis and it immediately resonated with me.

While I imagine that to some academics and teachers, this gesture may feel too personal (“Too much information”), unprofessional (“You can do that once you have written a book”), or even worthy of patronizing ridicule (“Sweet, but it’s just a BA-Thesis”), this page of acknowledgements does not only pay tribute to the fact that academic work is a communal, communicative effort, but also spoke to me about something else with an unintended but brilliant clarity:

Research and therefore the exploration of new intellectual horizons becomes possible because we as academics are being supported.

Because this student’s way of phrasing was so honest and heartfelt, so raw in a sense, it immediately and beautifully exposed the humanity in the academic project. We don’t do research all by ourselves. Research and therefore the exploration of new intellectual horizons becomes possible because we as academics are being supported.

This support comes in many different shapes: Researchers that sparked ideas in us. Teachers and lecturers who inspired us and told us that we can do the thing. Parental figures, who ask whether we need anything and remind us to eat, and sleep, and shower once in a while even when deadlines are pressing. Grandparents that bake us good cake and listen to our most recent academic ideas even when they don’t always understand what we are rambling on about. Pets that keep us company and listen when we practice our first conference talks at home and love us unconditionally when we feel terrible about ourselves and accomplishments. People who keep us from falling apart when the imposter syndrome rears its ugly head and the mere idea of working on a research paper seems too big for us to handle. Friends and lovers who are genuinely excited when we finally reach our goals and celebrate them with us.

In other words: Academic research is done by real people, with real needs, who need real support for their research to exist and who want to genuinely thank the people who supported them when the job is done.

Academic research is done by real people, with real needs, who need real support for their research to exist and who want to genuinely thank the people who supported them when the job is done.

Academic publications are often entirely void of any sign of the person writing in order to uphold the nimbus of objectivity (the hotly contested use of the first-person pronoun in academic writing is just on example of this erasure of the researcher) that it is easy to forget that academia exists and lives and grows because of researchers who are real people with real, human needs.

Acknowledging this can feel uncomfortable: When I read my student’s page of acknowledgements, my first instinct was to feel a bit embarrassed and a bit ashamed, simply because of how honest and vulnerable this person showed themselves to me – and how, in turn, it reminded me of my own needs, my own vulnerability. After all, we don’t learn very well to cope with these things in our profession.

But I realize now how good it was for me to read this introduction to his BA-Thesis: A lot of our students understand the communal aspects of academic research and they take themselves and their work seriously enough to thank their support network for helping them in their quest for knowledge and growth. Writing a thesis like this is no small feat: It requires more than intellectual vigour and mental stamina to pull this off. And the pride and gratitude that we may be able to feel is something that – just like the research itself – is most beautiful and fulfilling when it is a shared experience.


Comments

Tyll Zybura

15 Oct 2021

I really like this and reading it makes me wistful about my own BA and MA theses, neither of which includes acknowledgments, even though both texts have a long history of thought and conversation, inspiration and support behind them and their content was really meaningful to me. It wouldn’t have occured to me to add acknowledgments, both because I often find the genre cringey when I read it and because I had strongly internalized the thought (which I now find horrifying) that my theses are just byproducts of a larger academic goal, like a position at uni and a dissertation.

After reading your framing, Jessica, I feel compelled to understand acknowledgments not as a message to the reader of my theses, or to the people being acknowledged (who won’t be likely to read them), but more as a performative gesture to myself: It is I who did this, I am a complex person and not an anonymous scholarly voice, this process was important to me as a “quest for knowledge and growth”, as you say. And because this quest was influenced, inspired and supported by a lot of people (or pets, or books), they deserve to be included in my written research, even if it is in a separate note written in a different, disparate text genre. Not for their sakes so much as for my own sake, to acknowledge who wrote this, was able to write this, and how, and why.

Thinking about it like this, I think I would like to actively encourage students to add acknowledgments, but maybe even a more general research reflection to their thesis, where they can describe their quest and reflect on what it has meant to them to write this text that completes their degree.



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