The Inevitability of Intimacy

Moving to the tenure track means rethinking walls between professional and personal identity, writes Alex Golub.

June 21, 2007

This month I finished my first full year of teaching as a tenure-track professor. I've learned a lot this year, much of it an odd amalgam of the practical and philosophical: I've reflected on the nature of education. I've pondered the ultimate existential importance of education for the development of the individual. I've also mastered the overhead projector in my classroom and learned how to make two-sided hand outs on the office photcopier. But the one thing that I learned this year that I did not expect to learn was the value -- and inevitability -- of intimacy.

As an adjunct teaching for the first time I hungered for acceptance and praise. I wanted my students to tell me that I knew what I was doing because I couldn't quite convince myself that I did. I quickly learned, however, that adjuncts have to have thick skin -- negative student feedback is inevitable when you are inexperienced and overworked. And of course students are interested in receiving a high grade and learning a thing or two along the way, not being caught up in the complex interior psychology of their professor. As a result, the message I took away from my years of adjuncting was the importance of separating my private thoughts and feelings from my public role as an academic: professionalism, judiciousness, and a commitment to the craft of teaching were all skills that I worked to cultivate.

Of course, these are not values that I gave up once I became an assistant professor (a point I'd like to underline in case my chair is reading this!) But now, at the end of my first year, what has struck me most about being in a tenure-track position is interplay between professionalism and personal intimacy. And the nature of this interplay is, as far as I can tell, denial: a necessary and yet futile insistence that we can separate who we are as professors is different from who we are as people.

There is very little in a professor's life that does not stem from intensely personal commitments. With the job market the way it is these days you don't become a professor unless you are in love with your area of expertise. In fact, given the length of graduate school and the rise of adjuncting as a near-inevitable phenomena in some fields, it takes so long to become a professor that you have to fall in love with it two or three times as you grow and change as a person in the course of your career. Of course it might not be love for you -- it might be obsession, addiction, or any of the other emotions that keep people coming back for more when they should walk away. But regardless of which particular feelings draw you in, this is a line of work that's hard to get into without it getting pretty deeply entangled in who you are.

In many ways, however, these are unseemly entanglements that ought not be displayed by professionals. Pencils do not get purchased and job advertisements do not get written when faculty meetings involve table-pounding denunciations of the false readings of Blanchot perpetuated by others in your department. Students leave your classes feeling wounded and bitter when they become ego-fests in which your personal agenda dominates. For all of these reasons and more, we tell ourselves that professors -- "even professors" -- must act professionally.

Of all the lies that we tell ourselves, this one is probably the most necessary and also the most heinous. Like most strongly-enforced boundaries, we insist on separating intimacy and professionalism because in practice the line between them is so blurred as to be indistinct.

Take teaching, for instance. I was very lucky this semester to have some very good discussions in one of my classes. I remember one moment in particular when the class as a whole began focusing in on one particular issue. I could feel the entire room poised on the brink of commitment to the idea that what we were talking about was not just interesting, but important. It was one of those rare moments of intellectual and emotional commitment that educators live for.

But why were we only on the brink? What was missing? As I attempted to draw students out I realized mid-sentence that the missing ingredient was me. I brought an important issue to the table, but in doing so I distanced myself from it because I was, at some level, afraid to let my students see just how seriously I took it. I was just about to tell a joke -- the easy way out for all young hip assistant professors -- to lighten the mood but instead I stopped, reset, and tried to lead by example by demonstrating how important I thought the topic in question was for me.
It is not easy for students to speak in class, especially when what they say lays who they are out on the line. In these moments students need to know it is OK to take risks, and the way they learn this is by seeing their teacher do it. As an adjunct I learned the downsides of this sort of openness, but this year I was struck by how inescapable and important it is to temper one's professional remove with a generous helping of intimacy.

Advising graduate students is even more clearly a case of managing the tension between intimacy and professionalism. As someone whose Ph.D. is just over a year old, I have more in common with my graduate students than I do with some of the faculty members in my department. Indeed, some of my graduate students are older than I am. And yet, professors
have power over graduate students: Structurally, they control letters of recommendation, grades, and of course approval of M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s. They have soft power as well -- graduate students care about what professors think of them, and we have an infinite amount of opportunities to make ourselves feel more important by making our students feel less so.

Despite -- or rather because of -- the ambiguities of this boundary, professionalism is key. And yet graduate students are ill-served by professors who hide behind a shield of professionalism. Professors are role models, and much of graduate teaching involves modeling what Malinowski called the "imponderabilia of everyday life" for our students: methods of underlining books, the intuitive way we handle data, and of course the informal shop talk of our disciplines.

Even more important, professors demonstrate to students what a life lived as a professor is like. Having these sorts of role models is key not just to earning a Ph.D., but to one's choice of career. It is not impossible to become a professor in today's job market, but it is difficult. What, then, are we supposed to tell our students? Not to pursue the careers that we ourselves have chosen? The truth is that being a professor is good, but it is hard -- and we need to let our students inside our lives so that they can see this, and make up their own minds about their careers informed of both the intimate and professional side of the professoriate. In my case, I believe the best way to do this is let my graduate students see me in all my anthrogeekery.

Of course the other thing about have graduate students is that they figure out stuff about you whether you want them to or not. In fact, they figure out stuff about you that you yourself didn't know. Does my extroverted overenthusiasm in class hide a deeper, more easily wounded side that I hide from others? Is my overblown dislike of certain approaches bluster which papers over a private more embracing pluralism or am I in fact a brittle, doctrinare academic?
This is the other side of intimacy: its inevitability. As an adjunct I could get in, teach, and get out again -- the relationships I had at the institutions where I adjuncted were relatively unentangling. But mentoring graduate students allows them to see who you are -- indeed, it is in the very process of working with them that I find myself spinning out who I am and will be as a professor.

Even the complex webs of self-cultivation woven during graduate advising seem as nought compared to the ultimate form of academic intimacy: faculty meetings. Hard decisions about important topics get made in faculty meetings, and it is exactly in these high-stakes situations that it is most necessary to act professionally to advance the interests of your department, rather than just yourself. And yet these are also the decisions that will have the most effect on us as people, and deal with the topics that we are least likely to compromise on. You cannot
escape being who you are for other faculty in these sorts of situations.

And worse, like some sort of existentialist novel, departments perdure. We have track records. Decisions made and relationships forged decades ago play out in every faculty meeting. This means that new faculty walk into rooms filled with history, and it makes us -- or me, at least -- keenly aware that the decisions we make today will impact us for many years in the future. Here intimacy is at its most inevitable.

I'm very lucky to have a department full of colleagues who have been welcoming and eager to help me get my footing on the tenure track, and overall my first year went really well -- especially after I learned how to use the projector in my classroom. As I take my first tentative steps down the road to tenure, I realize once again that however much we tell ourselves the academy is not 'the real world' it is far more real than the cubicleland to which many of my high school friends have been consigned. Professionalism is important because it is the only way we to deal with the very scary fact that professors and students share a life together that is both very real, and intimate.


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