Illustration by Katie Ferreol

Gratitude and the Power of Acknowledgements

As I wrote my capstone’s acknowledgements section, it struck me how indebted I am to others, not only intellectually, but personally. I don’t slow down often enough to think about gratitude and the importance of expressing it to others.

May 2, 2021

I’m a sucker for acknowledgements. Whenever I read books or articles, I often flip to the acknowledgements section and read it. It’s as close as I can get to a behind-the-scenes mind map that shows intellectual influences and professional networks, as well as friendships and other personal relationships. In an enterprise like academic writing that is supposed to be formal and oftentimes impersonal, the acknowledgements section is, at least to me, a welcome respite. Besides, I often find it beneficial to understand who others were conversing with intellectually to help me situate their scholarly work and ultimately, to better understand their arguments.
I anticipated that I would one day be writing my own acknowledgements and in my junior year, I started a document in which I would note whenever one of my friends, mentors or family was present and helped me through a particular problem. And when the day came to write my acknowledgements, I transformed these fragments — phrases, bullet points, incoherent sentences — into a sustained reflection on intellectual debt and gratitude.
As I wrote my acknowledgements section in my capstone, it struck me how much I am indebted to others — not only intellectually, but also personally. While I implicitly knew that the support and guidance of others were crucial to my formation and development, verbalizing the ways in which different people came to my rescue at different times felt unlike anything else. It was a puzzle that finally came together, much like the capstone itself.
In her book Along the Archival Grain, Ann Laura Stoler renames her acknowledgements section “Appreciations.” “The term ‘acknowledgment’ has always struck me as a misnomer that carries with it more an obligatory recognition of debt than the valued recognition that appreciation implies,” she wrote. “How to convey the gratitude that comes from those savored friendships, nourished by trust and care, that in turn enable bolder forays and more engaged critique?”
Indeed, writing acknowledgements, or appreciations, feels anything but obligatory. It is a reflection on the beauty of human relationships — and the conversations that sustain them — and how they can, as a result, make one’s scholarship more precise. As Stoler writes in the “Appreciations” section of her other book, Duress: “I think of appreciations to underscore the privilege and accrued value — rendered in a flash or in longer gestation — of thinking with colleagues, students and friends. My hope is that their patience and persistence have made the arguments clearer, the arc of the book more accessible and its form traceable to those who have inspired me along the way.”
Perhaps more importantly, I realized as I reflected on my intellectual debts the extent to which I don’t slow down and think about gratitude on a regular basis. People often come through and support us when we are preoccupied with something else: be it an intellectual knot or a personal struggle, it is a moment in which we cannot afford to stop and reflect in a sustained fashion on our gratitude to said person or people.
However, gratitude is a practice that can be incredibly humbling not only to the one expressing it, but also to the one receiving it. Even though I enjoyed writing my acknowledgements, they didn’t feel complete until I was sure that those I acknowledge read what I had written. Not only that, but I also wanted others to know to whom I am indebted. Thus, as much as expressing thanks is a solitary act of reflection, it is also a social one, whereby those around you become aware of theirs and others’ contributions to your success and intellectual formation.
To seniors: I invite you to write that acknowledgements section fully. Think about all of those who made it possible for you to be who you are today and contributed to your journey. And if you have already submitted your capstone, write to those you are thankful for. Let them know not only that they have played a role in your life, but also how. They are often unaware of the ways in which they have helped you — it may be a sentence they said in passing or little recommendation they made in an email.
And to other students reading this: every now and then, reflect on how friends, family and mentors have contributed to your learning. Tell them, express it. And keep track of all of those to whom you are thankful. Keep a working note in your Notes app, a Word doc, a journal. One day, as nostalgia kicks in — as it is now kicking in for us seniors — you will have something to look back to and appreciate all of those who stood by you when you needed it the most.
As I write in my own acknowledgements section: “Intellectual debt is the only kind of debt anyone would want to accrue. During my time at NYU Abu Dhabi, I have grown indebted to many — and to that I am grateful.”
Tom Abi Samra is Senior Columns Editor. Email him at
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