On Not Being Thanked

Mister Litlove and I have decided that we must have come down with a bug this weekend, as we are both feeling under par. But in my heart of hearts I recognise that cataclysmically wiped out sensation as a remnant of the old chronic fatigue, rearing its ugly head. For me, that means an external cause, something out in the world has had a disproportionate effect on my inner world, and it wasn’t hard to track at least one cause back to an unsatisfactory meeting in college earlier in the week.

You all know that I do this part-time study support job, helping out the students who are struggling with their work. Well apparently the three-year trial period I had no idea we were having is up, and it is time to re-elect me to my post. Only the Senior Tutor (and I should point out right away that I like him very much, we are friends and he was very patient and supportive of me when I was ill) needs to ‘regularise’ my job as it is unlike any other. This will essentially mean more work – when doesn’t it? – which doesn’t exactly thrill me.

‘Do you think college council will be willing to re-elect me?’ I asked, bearing in mind that when I began this job, there was much hostility and resistence to it.

‘Council has indicated it would be happy to see greater provision of study support,’ replied the Senior Tutor, which I took to be a yes. But the u-turn in council feeling was not attributed to the time I have taken over the years to talk to the other fellows, and engage in long email exchanges, explaining what I would do and how I would do it, and the huge campaign of diplomacy I have undertaken not to tread on their delicate toes. And then of course, all the hours I have spent actually with their students. But perhaps it had nothing to do with that at all?

It feels wrong to want recognition. It feels sort of demanding and unreasonable. When we were discussing the students and in particular one whom I worked with a great deal at the end of last year, a student who had been predicted to fail and who ended up with a surprisingly good 2:1, I could have thumped the Senior Tutor when he said smugly ‘I always knew X could do it.’ I did not point out that for two and a half years, X had not done it, and it was only after a massive input of my time and energy that the miracle occurred. Because that felt grasping and arrogant and wrong. But surely I counted for something in the process, didn’t I?

It’s not like I want trumpets and balloons and champagne. I would be embarrassed in the face of effusiveness. I couldn’t bear to be fawned over. I’d just like someone to say thank you, and to reassure me that I’ve done a decent job. We got through a whole meeting without coming anywhere close.

I really feel I ought not to want it, but I do. I know without a doubt that part of the reason I burned out as a lecturer was exactly this lack of recognition. Don’t get me wrong, the students are great, and a solid proportion do say thank you to me every year and that’s lovely. But I sort of feel they shouldn’t have to thank me, really, while the people who employ me jolly well ought to. Is that wrong? I have this genius at being invisible, which Mister Litlove attributes to my façade of self-containment. I don’t look or act needy, which is of course a lie; I’m as needy as anyone else, particularly for reassurance. And this new job turns out to be quite difficult and demanding and almost 95% of the time I never get any feedback from my colleagues as to whether their students are working and coping better. I certainly don’t go begging for gratitude because that sort of strategy would completely undermine its results, wouldn’t it? I’m only interested in what people are willing to give freely.

So at the moment the thought of more years of more hard work with the same old lack of recognition is making me feel  tired. But there is a large part of me still deeply attached to college; I like being a fellow and the perks that come with it, like my room and my book grant. I even appreciate students still, despite spending all my time with the most hapless ones. It’s ironic, really, as so much of what I do with those poor, hapless students is reassure them that I see how hard they are trying, and how much effort they are putting in. Their supervisors only look at the results and when they are not good enough, the first assumption is that the students are slacking off. When it is so much more likely the case that they are twisting themselves up in knots trying too hard. Cambridge is such a harsh system, the opposite of nurturing. And of course I’m a product of this system so I try very hard, too. There is probably a lesson to be learned here for both the students and myself, we should all just put in a lot less effort and watch the paradox of increasing returns unfold. But when Monday morning rolls around, and finds you in your workplace again, take a moment to express your gratitude to someone, say it out loud and generously. There’s just not enough recognition around and it has such an energising and clarifying effect. It’s such a small thing that can really make a difference to another person’s day.


40 thoughts on “On Not Being Thanked

  1. THANK YOU! I don’t comment here very often but I love your posts and your eloquent thoughts and I just know you are doing a brilliant job at your ‘thank-less’ day-job and also here. So thank you to YOU. 🙂
    Grethen Rubin’s The Happiness Project talks about this need to be recognized and how valuable a thank you can be.

    • Oh Care, you are such a dear heart! Bless you, my friend, and it’s lovely to see you whenever you visit. Big hugs to you. And thank you for the mention of the Rubin book. I’m really glad to hear that recognition at work features there.

  2. I wonder if this is integral to the academic world in some way?

    Anyway, I’m sorry to hear you feel unappreciated, and it sounds like you have every right to feel that way. I hope things’ll change for you. Do the students themselves ever thank you?

    • Iris, I think it probably is. Academia is essentially a big institution, and a dispersed one, with unclear chains of command. I don’t think that breeds nurture in the work place, and I suppose nor does the critical and often competitive nature of the job. But the students DO thank me and I am very grateful for that.

      • No it isn’t acceptable not to be recognised for making a proper contribution and I think you are completely reasonable to feel aggreived about it! I am a professor in a UK university and I make very sure that I thank my colleagues, from cleaners to the VC, when it is appropriate to do so. Yes it is a comptetive environment but it doesn’t work properly and we won’t compete effectively without nurture. Why are you so distrusting of your expectation to be thanked? I was amazed and depressed by your comment

        “It feels wrong to want recognition. It feels sort of demanding and unreasonable.”

        Why oh why do you feel like that? Hope your work environment improves soon.

      • Thank you, dark puss, for your comment. Coming from another academic, that makes me feel much more empowered in my situation. And I am very encouraged to think of you, making your appropriate thanks. If only more people did the same! I’ll see how this year goes and reassess again at the end of it.

  3. An excellent post, as ever, and you are so right about the need to thank and be thanked, to appreciate and to be appreciated.
    You are giving a very great deal to your students, and by extension to your colleagues and to the college; that deserves recognition, in as low-key a way as you’d feel comfortable with, but above all with sincerity.

  4. I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect recognition for what you do! And also, it’s a very female thing to distrust that expectation. I am outraged on your behalf! Why shouldn’t you be told that you’re doing a good job? Surely feedback is a fairly basic requirement in work?

    You should perhaps also take note if it’s what contributed to your previous burn-out. You’ve been ill this weekend. Just take care of yourself, dear litlove.

    • Dear Helen, you really are the soul of kindness. Thank you for your hugely encouraging comment. There is something so immensely satisfying about someone else being outraged on one’s behalf! And yes, I am taking things easy at the moment. Believe you me, much as I like the Senior Tutor he is definitely not worth getting sick over! I have at least learned that much these past few years….

  5. In totally sympathy with your position, particularly the part where one’s efforts are so well implemented that they’re almost dismissed. “I always knew X could do it”, when in fact X had not.

    I think it may be easier in an elementary school, where I teach, as the progress is more apparent and the students/parents more appreciative. But, being a Words of Affirmation Girl, I completely concur with the necessity of thanks. Throughout one’s day to those who help and serve.

    • Oh I like the term Words of Affirmation. That’s lovely and a very valuable concept to carry about with the car keys and wallet and other daily necessities. I am very glad that where you teach you feel appreciated; that is so nice to know and I am much encouraged on hearing it. Teaching is extremely hard work and, like nursing, really needs proper thanks. And thank YOU very much for your sympathy – I’m greatly appreciating it!

  6. No, you are not being unreasonable. You do deserve the lion’s share of credit for turning a “hapless” student into a “2:1.” Which is impressive, in fact. So thank you, dear litlove, for all that you do in the cause of teaching and learning, and for all that you do in the cause of serving literature. We need you, and we appreciate you.

  7. It seems to me that the art of saying ‘thank you’ is in rather short supply in some workplaces nowadays. It’s not a lot to ask, is it?

    I can’t help on the work front, but I can at least say thank you for your interesting posts and thoughtful comments. In the wider sphere, your work is much appreciated.

    • Karen, thank you so very much. It’s notable to me that so many of my blogging friends are extremely generous in their support and encouragement. That’s so lovely. If only all our communities could be this enjoyable to be in! I do feel very lucky to have this blog and the friends I’ve made through it.

  8. I felt sad when I read this. You are doing a job that is very important and you are only asking for recognition of this. Absolutely not too much to ask at all.

  9. I don’t know which lesson there is to be learned. Maybe after all it’s the wrong environment for you. Not nurturing as you say and because it isn’t they cannot see what is truly missing. What you do cannot be perceived as help. If it was, they would have to admit system failure. Sort of.

    • Caroline, that is a very astute remark indeed. Yes, system failure is something that I’ve often battled in this job, or at least the denial of it. Thank you, that’s very helpful.

  10. I’ve experienced both a boss who was always appreciative of my work and one who just couldn’t bring himself to thank anyone – he just took it for granted that you were doing what you were paid to do. I was much happier with the first one and disliked working for the other one. I told him the problem and he just hadn’t realised that was how he was – he was surprised that I and other members of staff felt like that about him and his style of management. He tried for a while, but soon went back to his normal unappreciative self and the rest of us just had to accept that that was how he was. But not a happy working environment. Mainly I ignored him and just got on with my work, having as little contact with him as possible!

    There’s no easy answer (as you know) – maybe as Caroline says it’s the wrong environment for you.

    • Margaret, that is so interesting. Thank you for sharing that story. I’m finding it really comforting to hear other people’s views on this topic and at least to be reassured that it’s quite normal to enjoy a working environment in which one is appreciated. I mean, I know it sounds logical on paper, but academia is not filled with normal people, so the usual rules of normality are often not much in evidence. Sometimes that’s good, but it can also be confusing!

  11. Hi Litlove – I agree with the others that say that it is only normal to wish to be thanked. And yes, you deserve the recognition for your hard work and your perceptive engagement with your students and your job! I could relate to your post as I taught for a while in an environment where many of the students thanked me often (because, I think, they came from cultures that valued this) but my employers did not, or at least, not as often as I wished to be thanked. I think they appreciated me, but it just wasn’t their way to say “thank you”. I have to say, it really bothered me at times.

    That said, I want to go a little further – even if you deserve to be thanked, it puts the control of your happiness and satisfaction in someone else’s hands, as I’m sure you’re aware. It’s a very frustrating position! When I get that feeling in my present life (x is taking me for granted etc..), then I try to figure out how I can give what I’m missing to myself (skip the middle-man!). This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but at least I feel I am not waiting for someone else to give me something that s/he might never give me…. When I somehow switch into “grateful mode” it either no longer matters or the appreciation miraculously appears! Good luck with this, dear Litlove. It’s a tough one. For me and for many others, I’m sure.

    • Dear Beth, you have put your finger right on what makes me uncomfortable about this – that lack of self-sufficiency. I do feel that virtue ought to be its own reward, etc. But isn’t that tremendously hard to feel sometimes! I also know that my own satisfaction with what I do is far more powerful to me than anyone else’s in a strange way. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hugely value and appreciate the satisfaction and pleasure of others, and really need to hear it sometimes. It IS a conundrum. Thank you for your wonderfully insightful comment. I certainly appreciate that.

      • Hi Litlove – I don’t think, necessarily, that “virtue is its own reward”. If you feel a lack, then there is a lack. Something more is needed than the thing itself. But, the trick is to find out how you can give that extra thing to yourself that you feel is missing (example, take yourself out for tea & cake to congratulate yourself on a job well done). Thanks for answering – I admire that about you! (P.S. Writing this makes me think…hmmm…I should take myself out for tea & cake to congratulate myself on some difficult things I’ve completed recently.) 🙂

  12. It’s not wrong to want recognition – it’s human. You put effort in, and you want people to notice. Unfortunately, my experience is that people only appreciate you when you’re gone, or when you threaten to go. In the meantime, at least allow me to thank you for putting together such a wonderful and enjoyable blog!

    • Yes! That’s my experience too! When I went off on sick leave I was truly surprised by all the cards and messages I received from my colleagues – I thought they didn’t care at all. Alas, it was not so great to feel like I was at my own funeral. But hey, I was still very grateful for the cards! And thank you, Andrew, for your kind words of support – they mean a great deal to me.

  13. Oh god, your post created a flurry of feelings and ideas that I have yet to order (being in an under-appreciated job myself, albeit not academic at all – excuse me if what I say sounds basically too corporate, and if I’m saying things totally irrelevant to your context). As you’re basically creating your own job as you go along, you are in an extraordinary position to create the means for people to tell you that “thank you” you so long for. I bet everyone else is embarrassed about qualifying your job and how you “perform” at it because there’s no official space to do so. May I suggest a sort of feedback / satisfaction form to both students and teachers at the end of the year, so that you’ll get all your answers?

    • Smithereens, that is an excellent idea, and very practical. I had never thought of a feedback form before, but it might be one way forward – I will talk to my opposite number in the sciences and see if he would also like to help put one together. Thank you!! I really would like to do the best job I can of this, and information, good and bad, really helps.

  14. Litlove, I find your situation at college very interesting. I’m sorry it’s caused you to feel neglected, though, and very glad you are so attuned to yourself that you are able to precisely pinpoint the complaint. So much the better for addressing it.

    Look, I am not at all – not even remotely – surprised that your colleagues fail to thank you for your contribution. They probably don’t see themselves as direct beneficiaries of your time and effort, which puts them at an instant remove from any notion of owing gratitude. You say you do get expressions of thanks from your students, and they’re the ones with whom you actually mainly work. I see the way it folds back into the rest of the faculty, and I can vividly imagine the irritation of having your contribution overlooked, but there is no real or fair way to measure your impact on a student’s changing fortunes, especially not from a lecturer’s point of view, so I am afraid I think your role may well continue to be thankless at that end. If someone does overcome their difficulties, the lecturers, as you say, will no doubt continue putting it down more to the student or – somehow! – themselves, leaving very little room to include you. It diminishes their genius, doesn’t it, to acknowledge your role?! But the students thank you. They thank you, because they know and appreciate everything you have done for them. And in the back-of-house world in which you operate, propping up the institution and its cast of characters and their mammoth egos, I fear they’re probably the only ones who do.

    But let me add my voice to the chorus: THANK YOU!

    • Di, that is a brilliant insight – of COURSE, unless I deal with one of his students, I don’t actually help the Senior Tutor directly, and yes, indirectly would not occur to him. And in fact even helping his students isn’t something he necessarily feels himself. Ah, that is such an interesting and helpful illumination. You are quite right – I should sort of take him out of the equation really, shouldn’t I? I suppose I see my students struggle and sweat and know how much they have put in when they make progress, and I tend to emphasize that rather than anything I’ve done. But yes, I can see how looking to the upper echelons for support would be misleading. Thank you, my friend!

      • What?? Why is your Senior Tutor so blinkered that he doesn’t appreciate the significant support network underpinning their success. I’d get out of this place while you still have your sanity.

  15. I wonder if they realize just what an excellent resource they have in your position as tutor? Academia can be a really harsh environment and you’re helping the students most at risk of not succeeding to succeed (which is ultimately a reflection on the institution). It’s amazing how a simple ‘thanks we really appreciate your work’ can make you feel as though your time and efforts are not all for nought. And it is the simplest (and cheapest) way for an administration to do a little bit of rewarding. I’m sorry they have taken your work for granted–especially as the monetary compensation doesn’t exactly make up for everything else!

    • Dear Danielle, thank you so much for your lovely message of support here. I am so lucky to have such supportive and reassuring friends who make me feel a great deal better. You are so right about the money! I’m clearly doing this out of love and the goodness of my heart. 🙂 It would be really nice if there were generally more thanking going on in my university. It is very thin on the ground!

  16. Dear Litlove, you are so modest and unassuming. I don’t like pointing out to my bosses how great I am either but over the years, and thanks to Bookman’s help and example, I’ve gotten better at tooting my own horn because if I don’t no one else is except on the rare occasion. It is a really uncomfortable thing to do at first and I am still not great at it, but it does get easier and that way you at least get recognized for your contribution even if there is no thank you attached.

    • Dear Stefanie, your comments always bring a smile to my face. I loved this one, thank you! And get that Bookman over here to give me a lesson. I am no good at this at all and stuck in the uncomfortable stage! But you’re quite right it IS necessary these days, however much we dislike it. Sigh.

  17. Wanting appreciation is human. I can’t do anything about the college, but I can say thank you for being here and bringing your intelligence, wit, thoughtfulness, and well you-ness to this blog. I appreciate it.

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