Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nice vs. Kind


I should probably admit, up front, that my thoughts on this topic are a bit jumbled. Some of it has to do with "nice" being a gender expectation, and then there's the growing students-as-customers mentality. Those two ideas are coming up against the fact that things are starting to ramp up on campus (new students coming this week, returning students this weekend). The end result is that I've been thinking a lot about the difference between "nice" and "kind" lately.

My mental conception of "nice" has always had a slightly negative connotation. That overused cliche about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish? In my mind, "nice" is the person who gives the fish. "Nice" is making it easy for people without thought of what that might cause in the future. It's catering to the whims of our students without regards to long term plans or research in the field. [Side note: no, I'm not complaining about my current employer or any past employer. This is mostly on my mind because I'm taking on a new role at my current institution - teaching a class in the first year program.]

The thing is, I'm not "nice." As a professor, I'm a hard grader. As a librarian, I have no problems calling students on it when they are loud in the library. I've told students, faculty, staff, and even upper administration, "no." I will push back when I disagree. I am, however, kind. I will bend over backwards to help a student learn, to put faculty members in touch with resources they can use, and to make any member of my community more self-sufficient. It may be hard to get an A from me, but it's also hard to get an F.

Back to the fishing analogy, "kind" is teaching the man. Kind is about having patrons come back weeks or months or even years later to thank you. Kindness is why students come back to me and say, "thank you for pushing me when I was a freshmen; it made me a much better student." The difference between "nice" and "kind" is closely related to the differences between some students' expectations and institutional mission.

Further, it's also tied to why I refuse to call members of my community "customers." I've heard endless complaints about how self-entitled students, especially incoming freshmen, can be. I've been known to grumble about this myself. But I think we're feeding into it by thinking about students as customers. College is about learning to do things for yourself, including learning how to learn and learning how to think.

Being "nice" does a disservice to our communities in higher education. When I worked at a tiny two-year institution, I would often say, "the librarians at the school where you transfer might not be as available as we are, so I want to make sure you know how to do this for yourself." As a professor, I talk about how writing and public speaking are life skills my students will need in the job market. As an employer of student workers, I'm mindful of the fact that working for my library is frequently the first job our student employees have ever held and that we are teaching them how to be an employee. Holding students accountable after teaching them these skills will serve them better in the long run.

I know it sounds a bit paternalistic to say I know what students actually need, but with my experience and knowledge of the industry, especially with our accrediting bodies and the US Department of Education placing more and more emphasis on accountability, I do actually know better in some ways. I know we're a service industry and we want to take care of those who come to us, but it's much better if we teach them to care for themselves. Be kind, be friendly, but please... don't be nice.

How about you? What are your thoughts on the topic?


  1. This is exactly what I needed to read today. I'm always erring on the side of nice. I need to get this in my brain. Thanks, Jessica!

  2. Great post! I completely agree that being too nice is a disservice, no matter what type of library you work in. I'm in school now and an archives class instructor brought this concept up many times throughout the semester. We are often too nice and it can even discourage them from wanting to learn how to help themselves.