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  • Writer's pictureProf James Norman

Guest Blog: The Kind Professor by James Norman

In this latest guest blog, I am very pleased to welcome Professor James Norman to the Grateful Academic. A renowned and award winning academic from the University of Bristol, James remains a true advocate for both staff and students.

He writes his blog on the amazing quality that is kindness, and I cannot think of a better day to share this than today - #worldkindnessday


Kindness /ˈkaɪndnəs/ noun

the quality of being gentle, caring, and helpful


Last year I went through the promotion process. As part of the process, you get to choose your title. Now you’d think suggesting a title would be easy, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s really hard. You want something short and punchy that makes sense to everyone and not just the people who know your field well, but you also want it to grow with you. A little like naming a baby and thinking of a name that works when they are both 1 and 91.

I went through quite a few iterations. One that I really liked was Professor of Kind Design. I thought this summarised at least what I try and do. The problem is ‘Kind Design’ isn’t a thing. Literally no one would know what it meant! So, I went for something much more mundane, Professor of Sustainable Design.

But the word kind has stuck with me. Maybe I’m not a Professor of Kind Design because it doesn’t exist (or not yet), but I could be a kind professor. This reminded me of the book, The Slow Professor[1], that has sat on my desk for the last two years and I have dipped in and out of. Being a Slow Professor is about not being in a rush and noticing the important things (I think, I had to recently return it to the library). The Kind Professor is maybe similar.

The idea of this blog series is to offer some practical advice – so I thought – what simple, almost innocuous things could I offer. Things that no-one will see, and celebrate but will make a small impact?

Here are three kind acts:

Say no thank you

As I have progressed towards being a professor people have started writing to me to ask if I would supervise their research. Sadly, I have very limited capacity for doing such things as I am a teaching focussed member of staff, so the answer is almost certainly no. The easy thing is to ignore peoples’ emails. But I also know what it is like to send something in and never hear anything back. It’s hard. I have sent in a number of book proposals and just had no reply. You go through the hopeful phase where you refresh your email continuously to see if they’ve said yes, then the fretting phase where you refresh your email continuously to see if they’ve said no, to the despondent phase where you refresh your email continuously because you don’t have energy to do anything else. None of these phases are fun, or productive, and in the few times when I have got a ‘no’, it has actually enabled me to move on much more quickly. So, when people mail me to ask if I will supervise them I try and say ‘no thank you’ gently but firmly.

Take time to notice the things that trouble you

Life is busy. Very busy. I have more email than I know what to do with. It is easy to rush through work and respond to the things that shout the loudest. But sometimes I try and take a short moment to think about those students or colleagues who I haven’t seen. The quiet, unassuming email, that in my rush I glossed over. Sometimes I just find someone on my mind. I try and make time to add these thoughts to my to do list and then make sure I follow them up. I also find the best time to do this is the start of the day (even better the start of the week) before I’ve opened my email or laptop, and let all the noise in.

Take time to raise up people who are not like you

It may be hard to believe, but I’m not your typical academic[2]. Back in 2015 I joined the University as a full time academic. I had, at that point, spent most of my working life in industry. Just 6 months after joining full time I was asked to be a Senior Tutor, and a year later, I was asked to be Programme Director. I have no doubt that these opportunities have enabled me to achieve what I have achieved today. And they came from Professor Sally Heslop who was Head of Department at the time. To say we are not alike would be a huge understatement. However, she noticed something about me and invested time in me. She gave me opportunities. She gave me responsibility. She let me make decisions. The first year was really tough, but I learnt lots and I am very grateful. I have tried to take a leaf out of Sally’s book and looked to champion people not like me.

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About the author:

James, is an award-winning engineer and teacher, who has designed landmark buildings and developed innovative teaching that combines practice with learning. He’s written several books for engineers and students making sustainable building a reality and transforming the civil engineering curriculum. You can find him on twitter @JamesLecturer


[1] Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, ‘The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy’, University of Toronto Press, 2016.

[2] I can’t write that sentence without thinking about ‘The Goats’ Typical American – if you know what I’m talking about I hope it’s a nice walk down memory lane – I just refreshed my memory and it is classic 92 hip-hop.

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