In the past week, I have received six (6!) academic thank-you notes of various sorts: some by e-mail and some by regular mail*. I am fortunate to know a lot of nice people, and it made me feel very good to be thanked.
I started thinking about all the ways that we professors have of "doing good" just in our routine, daily working lives. I have written about this before, but here are my current thoughts, based on my recent haul of thank-you notes:
Many of us write a lot of reference letters. We write letters for undergrads applying for internships, other jobs, and graduate schools. We write letters for MS students applying for PhD programs and jobs. We write letters for grad students and postdocs and colleagues applying for jobs and fellowships. We write letters for the tenure and promotion evaluation of faculty at other institutions, and we write letters in support of colleagues nominated for awards. If we tailor each letter to each application and if each individual is applying to multiple places, letter-writing can take a lot of time. Yes, it's our job, but it's one of those things that we don't really have time for but we somehow make time (because it's important). Not all those who request letters from us thank us (or even let us know the outcome of their applications), but some do.
Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good teachers. We get some feedback from our students for every course (in the form of teaching evaluations) and some students even say thank you at the end of the term, but when a student writes to say that a particular course convinced him/her to pursue a particular career and that they are very happy, that's even better. For me, this was especially nice to hear for the class in question because, in that same class, there was at least one student who absolutely hated me.
Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good advisors. Advising has many rewarding aspects to it, although it's typically best to take the long view and not focus on any one day or week or even year. It's particularly nice to be thanked after a student has graduated and has gained some perspective on their days as a student-researcher, or when a certain bit of advice turned out to be helpful.
Many of us try to be good colleagues. One of my thank-you messages was from a colleague who spent a sabbatical in my department, primarily interacting with my research group. This was many years ago, and now this colleague is on another sabbatical at another institution that is not so welcoming or stimulating, and so this colleague (whom I did not know at all before the sabbatical in my department) was reminiscing about the good old days of the previous sabbatical, and thanking me for the positive impact I had on their career. In fact, I benefited a lot from interacting with this person as well, and I gained a new colleague and friend, so it was win-win. Even so, I will keep this thank-you note because it made me very happy to receive it.
I also get the occasional thank-you-for-blogging e-mails, and those are nice, too.
Those were the particular circumstances of my recent swarm of thank-you notes, but there are other ways that we as professors can do routine good: by being thoughtful reviewers and editors, by serving on committees of various sorts (but especially for grad student exams), by visiting schools and judging science fairs, by attending (and not falling asleep in) talks by visitors to our department, by not snorting (too) loudly in faculty meetings every time a particular colleague speaks, and by making an effort to thank those who help us (administrative and technical staff, students..).
Most of these things are part of our job, and some of these things are time-consuming and can be quite tedious. Therefore, I think it's good to get a bit of perspective now and then and appreciate all the ways that we can have a positive effect, just in our daily lives as professors, even when we are otherwise feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by all the things that need doing, many of which probably should have been done yesterday (or last week).
I personally had a somewhat annoyance-filled day today, starting with an encounter with a patronizing plumber soon after I got to campus. But then I sat at my desk and saw my little pile of thank-you notes, and that cheered me up immensely. I had to stifle an urge to thank the senders for thanking me..
* And no, in case you are wondering: The thank-you notes were not all from females.
7 months ago