This column comes to you by way of a bit of a syllogism:
In a recent post at the fabulous University of Venus, Denise Horn wrote about becoming Facebook friends with one’s students. She suggests, and I agree, that part of the professorial job is mentorship, and that often mentorship first starts through friendship.
I am currently in the (not so) unusual position of applying for both postdoctoral fellowships and — why not? — faculty research grants. This has me contacting former supervisors and committee members, as well as colleagues, for letters of advice and support. I am lucky to say that all of these people who were initially my mentors and professors are now also my friends.
Which leads me to the following conclusion: mentorship is a form of friendship, and like it or not, we’ve all signed up for this. Working in the academy means encountering undergraduate and graduate students in all phases of their lives, as well as their work, and while the life aspect of these encounters can indeed have the potential to cause complications, this is the emotional geography in which we work.
I will never forget the first time a professor and I got together for coffee and discussion. I had a good sense of how taxed her time was, and I was incredibly appreciative of her willingness to talk with me about my work. As it turns out, we got along incredibly well. Her willingness to be friends with me — which amounted to getting together for coffee every couple of weeks, both on campus and off, as well as exchanging informal emails and periodically getting together for a meal — had an insurmountable impact on me. She made me feel like being an academic didn’t have to mean hiding my personality and, even more so, she made me feel like my perspectives mattered outside the classroom as well as inside it.
When I transitioned to the other side of the podium as a teacher, I found myself strangely reticent to become friends with my students. I worried that my age was (for, well, approximately five minutes) too close to theirs, that I would be misinterpreted somehow. But without quite realizing it — until, that is, I read Denise’s post in the same week I was contacting reference writers — I have discovered that reticence has changed. No, I do not make friend requests willy-nilly to my class lists, nor do I accept friend requests with abandon. But I do try to take time to talk to the students who want to chat, and I do suggest going for coffee sometimes. After all, in addition to the promises of fame and fortune I got into this profession because I love talking with others. The privilege of intergenerational discursive engagement is just that: a privilege.
And so, in this harried month of class list changes, grant writing, and general insanity I’d like to say thank you to the professors and colleagues who have mentored me. And to my students, thank you for reminding me that mentorship is a kind of friendship, and that both require responsible engagement.