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Friends and Mentors - II

Friends and Mentors - II

October 8, 2010

I agree with a lot of what Erin says. I agree that intergenerational conversations are a joy. I really like my students; I am amazed by their energy and their wit and their ingenuity. I have feelings of warmth, respect, and concern toward them. I am thrilled by their successes and I will always make myself available to talk about their institutional, personal, or intellectual difficulties. In addition, and less personally, I think our highly cerebral institutions should be friendlier. I believe that it's important for women who have "made it" to hold out an open hand to those who want to make it. So I Facebook current graduate students and former undergrads, if they want, though I don't take it personally if they don't.

Some of my students and mentees (as the lingo has it) may be reading this, which makes what I am about to say kind of awkward:

I do not necessarily want to be friends with them.

It actually has nothing to do with them; I don't really want to be friends with anybody. I am not looking for new friends. My friend drawer is full. I barely have time to stay connected to the friends I do have. I have made approximately three new friends in the last five years -- OK, maybe four -- OK, maybe one a year. (OK, yes, you're right, maybe a few more than that.) Each one is a surprise. We are thrown together by circumstance (leadership training, the academic plan, a queer festival, to cite some not-so-random examples, or the job market drops someone in) and gradually what's between us becomes more than that. I cannot identify the moment when it happens -- I find that growing sense of commitment and interest, those tendrils of inchoate affection magical and mysterious, and I like it that way -- but I can mark the moment when I realize we are friends. It is kind of like the moment I admit that the seemingly disconnected sensations of sore throat, itchy eyes, and muscle aches are not just random, but evidence that I am actually coming down with a cold. A cold! The common cold! Same sense of disbelief, similar sense of outrage.

Outrage? Yes. Because friendship demands a lot. My friends have always been the most important source of succor to me, and there is nothing I would not do for them. Deliver your babies in Portland? Check. Fly to Seattle to help you through a rough patch? Wouldn't think twice. What, you need to move in with me for a while? No problem.

Maybe I have a ridiculous understanding of friendship; maybe those thousands of dollars in therapy would have been better spent on shoes, since evidently I have no boundaries where my friendships are concerned. Or maybe I should be less uptight and allow the Facebook standard ("I know you, therefore we are friends") to characterize the mutual caring, understanding and trust that passes as friendship today. But let me get to my point.

The problem I have with befriending students is that women are already disproportionately called on to do unpaid emotional labor in this profession. We do this work because we believe it is important. Reread Erin's column: everything she says is true, and her gratitude is heartfelt. We believe we have benefited from such care; we believe we can help others by extending an open hand and a listening ear. I believe all those things. I also believe -- though we admit this far less readily -- that we get something (re/assurance? a sense of worth? an optimistic glimpse of a profession after the old boys' game?) from the sense of being needed by someone junior. But this is not exactly friendship, with its ragged and unpredictable demands and its besotted joys, or at least it shouldn't be.

And I'm not convinced that the concept of "mentoring" solves the problem, either. In fact, I worry that mentoring -- particularly now that it is shaping up to be another institutional command (enhance your teaching! engage your students! mentor your colleagues!) -- is just one more way of masking women's unpaid emotional work. Mentoring is a relationship initiated within and largely determined by institutional conditions that we forget at our peril. Students will drop issues into the middle of a crowded inbox and their crises are blind to whatever is going on in your life (even if students themselves are considerate, which mine most certainly are). If you ask me, our feelings are no less genuine for being institutionally mediated -- and no less complex. But mentoring talks about boundaries and modeling as though human interactivity is a technology, as though any situation has a pat answer that will protect everybody's individuality and model appropriate behavior, when in reality we live most days like battlefield surgeons: you live! you die! you wait! you're next!

I'm willing to bet that what guides most of us through this chaotic minefield is emotional intelligence: a well honed sense of what others need, what we can provide, and what's sustainable. It's so well-honed it feels intuitive. So we drop everything (or not), we take our junior colleagues out for coffee, we make the time and find the energy to stay connected.

But do you think men do? Do you think our male colleagues steer through chaotic days according to a goal of cultivating the whole person? Do you think they feel the same sense that the university's very livability rests in finding the right email tone, making a prompt and compassionate response, offering understanding as well as solutions? Doubtful. (Cue the standard caveat: not all women, not no men.) And will the institution ever sufficiently reward women for the actual work we do in the name of mentoring? Just think of it: teaching seen as more than classroom practice! graduate supervision recognized for its quality! tenure and promotion: more than a research sweepstakes!

Until that happy day, we will keep mentoring and even befriending our students and junior colleagues because we genuinely care, because it's the right thing to do, because we believe in paying it forward, because we need each other, and because we crazily, optimistically, recklessly hope that these human interactions might help build not just a better institution, but also a more equitable future.

Bio

Heather Zwicker is associate professor of English and film studies, and associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Alberta.She blogs at Hook & Eye, and this essay is adapted from a post there.

 

 

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