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Friends and Colleagues

Friends and Colleagues
January 2, 2007

A friend was up for tenure last year. She was approved by her department. Next step was a vote by some larger faculty committee and then a vote by some smaller administrative council. The faculty
approved her. So did the administrators -- less one vote. That one negative vote so angered her it threatened to spoil the award of tenure by the time the requisite presidential letter arrived.

She felt certain the man who cast that vote was the same one who tried to embarrass her publicly when earlier in the year she had to explain a new course proposal. What struck me is how she loathes this man, with whom she'll have to contend during the rest of her time at the university. "If I passed him in an accident, I'd pour a can of gasoline on him."

What's the reason for the man's hostility to my friend? She doesn't know. It seems the two have scarcely spoken. It further seems nobody likes the man (except the president). At the university there appears to be a veritable society of people (including office workers and even one custodian) who are solely united by their detestation of a noxious administrator.

The interesting thing to me is that few of them are, properly speaking, colleagues, if we restrict the definition of the word to some formal relatedness at the disciplinary or departmental level. This
is what I would try to do myself, although I've never worked at a college as small as that of my friend, where in effect the entire work force is in position to be any one individual's "associate" in some way.

Similarly, I've never worked at an institution so large that virtually the entire work force outside one's own department is effectively excluded from any one individual's horizon of associations. Size matters, regarding colleagues. What may matter even more is that nothing, not even status hierarchy, necessarily excludes anyone at an institution from thinking about anyone else as a "colleague."

Admittedly, it would seem odd to have either the president or the custodian who regularly cleans out his or her office refer to the other as a "colleague." It is assumed that, in order to be colleagues in the first place, everybody is in a position of equality. This is the reason students can happily refer to each other as "colleagues." However, American students normally avoid this designation, perhaps because it sounds too work-coded.

How much does work in fact govern the colleague relation? In one sense, thoroughly; a colleague is not a friend, who can exist quite apart from the conditions of work. In another sense, loosely, if only because a colleague can become a friend, and shed an initial official circumstance (a proximate office, the same committee) like an unwanted skin. One could even say that colleagues, to be colleagues in the first place, must share the potential for becoming friends. Or at least for
becoming, rather paradoxically, more than colleagues.

What exactly would this last state entail? Nobody knows. Thus, for example, our current vexation about the meaning of "collegiality."� To whom should we be collegial? Everybody? Only some? Our colleagues, so-called? But when to make the cut? Sometimes the term seems suitable
(or mandatory) for people who are strictly colleagues; sometimes it seems lamentable for colleagues whose relations (or feelings) are more akin to those of friends.

"Collegiality"� attests to the baffled sociality so pervasive in academic life. We might all be better off if we knew precisely where to draw the line between being colleagues and being friends. Alas, though, we don't -- and this may be as it should be. Despite having become academics, we remain human. So our relations partake of such unhappy situations as those of my friend above; she seems to be entangled in a relation with an administrator who is even less likely to become her
friend than her colleague and yet who demonstrates with respect to her a degree of personal animus more akin to a close personal enemy than a distant college official.

"Never make friends with anybody in your own department."� So quoth a professor many years ago to a group of my, er, colleagues, when we were all grad students. I don't think we understood why anybody would say this. Now I think I do: friendships easily proves threatening to a department, and departments just as easily prove threatening to friendships. Trouble is, now I want to protest: so what? Colleagues we are given. Friends we must make. With whom best to make them than with colleagues in our own department? To hell with the fact they may one day have to cast tenure votes against us.

And yet, and yet. Friends are not always or even necessarily to be preferred to colleagues. Years ago I spent the summer in a National Endowment for the Humanities program of postdoctoral study and got close to one of my fellows. We had common interests; more important, we had common sportive attitudes toward their -- and our -- academization. So it was painful to realize at some point that the qualities that made Ron so attractive as a friend might well make him less attractive -- even
unbearable -- as a colleague.

In her essay on Camus, Susan Sontag states the painful matter very succinctly while differentiating great writers on the basis of being husbands or lovers: "Some writers supply the solid virtues of a
husbands: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the qualities of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness."� As Sontag adds, "it's a great pity� to have to choose between them. But academics don't have to choose -- as academics. Colleagues are what we expect ourselves as well as others to be in our official capacity. And colleagues are husbands, not lovers.

Lovers, it might be said, we choose at our peril (especially if we are married). This is precisely the case in academic life with friends, most certainly if they are members of your department. I've had a few myself, and, while the friendships lasted, they were some of the best of my life. One relationship moved outside the department, into our respective homes or on occasional trips. Another didn't. Each came to grief ultimately for the same reason: the friendship couldn't survive
the inevitable tensions of either the departmental structure or just the work itself.

Strange, because the friendships, however different, were the products of those tensions.  The men and I were friends because of common enemies, common problems, common circumstances, all experienced anew each working day. Remove these circumstances, and it was as if the whole logic of intimacy collapsed. Bred by the position, it died with the position. How many other men and women have experienced this? Has the rise of e-mail changed anything? Could email enable more people now -- many scarcely meeting face-to-face -- to remain colleagues without suffering a fateful fall into friendship?

Of course most colleagues never suffer this fall. Perhaps most come to abide after a few years into a state about which our vocabulary is very poor -- something more than colleagues, something less than friends. ("Collegiality" is no help here at all.) And as always, the narrative you construct about colleagues will be governed by examples so highly individual as to elude almost successfully the terms of the discussion. This past year, for example, I chanced one day to meet a fellow teacher in my department, except that we were each adjuncts teaching at different locations. "The department"� was a fiction that amused us both. We became friends, but only through e-mail, passing right by the condition of having first been, for lack of a better word, colleagues.

Now this woman is out of academic life. We remain in touch. But it probably would be better for the friendship if we had been colleagues for awhile longer, even though this supposition contradicts the logic I've been trying to trace. So it goes. Friendship is the stuff of classic essays (Montaigne, Emerson). Who wants to write an essay on collegiality? As a human essence, it lacks development, provocation, even definition. Colleagues? The relation is finally too superficial.

Colleagues? In any organizational structure, the most interesting examples of human behavior with respect to others may be enacted by people who are not in place to become colleagues at all. Indeed, the happiest formal relation in academic life may be that of teacher or mentor to student -- to judge anyway by the written record, full of testimonies by the one to the devotion or worth of the other. Humanity floods the relationship of mentors to students. In such contrast, humanity seems to recede from the relationship of colleagues to each other.

The finest fiction I know of this kind is Bernard Malamud's superb short story, "Rembrandt's Hat." (In the collection by that name.) It concerns two men who teach at a New York art school. Arkin, an art
historian, is a dozen years younger than Rubin, a sculptor. Arkin, we read, "was friendly with Rubin though they were not really friends." In other words, the men were colleagues. However, the relationship has apparently not been without its unstated or unexplored depths. These surface one day when Arkin chances one day to admiringly compare one of Rubin's many odd hats to a hat from a middle-aged self-portrait of Rembrandt.

After this Rubin ceases to wear the hat and appears to Arkin to be avoiding him. "I'll wait it out,"� Arkin concludes. He doesn't think to ask Rubin about some possible offense; this is the sort of thing that friends do, or care to do, whereas colleagues adhere to a consensual surface. Months pass. One day Arkin enters Rubin's studio. There's really only one piece he likes. Another day, while showing some slides, he notices that the particular hat Rubin wore months earlier more
resembles that of a cook at a diner than Rembrandt's.

Later he returns to the sculptor's studio, congratulates him on the one fine piece, and apologizes for his remark months earlier. Rubin accepts the apology. But it provides no ground for some reassessment of their whole relationship. Instead, the two men (we are summarily told) remain no more than cordial to each other; "they stopped avoiding each other and spoke pleasantly when they met, which wasn't often." Once, Arkin spots Rubin regarding himself in the bathroom mirror in a white cap that now really does appear to resemble Rembrandt's hat.

But this final moment becomes  yet another that goes unexplored, unacknowledged, and unsaid at the workplace of these two men, which constitutes their only lifeworld. In the end -- all violent resentments aside, from Arkin's part, and all fears of self-disclosure, from Rubin's part -- the men have only the relationship of colleagues with which they began. It is a triumph, of sorts; they could have remained enemies. Hats off to them. Most of us do what we can as colleagues, whether or not we secretly fancy ourselves Rembrandts. We try to make the best of it. Hats off to us all.

Bio

Terry Caesar's last column explored how academics avoid thinking of themselves as having or being bosses.

 

 

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