copper-bottomed bitch · making friends

Why I don’t want to be friends: a word from Dr Chary

I’ve been thinking about Erin’s Monday post about friendship and mentoring – and everybody’s smart, smart comments. I agree with a lot of what she says. I agree that inter-generational 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. So I facebook current graduate students and former undergrads, if they want, though I don’t take it personally if they don’t.

I’d bank on the fact that many of my students and mentees (as the lingo has it) are 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 – okay, maybe four – okay, maybe one a year. (Okay, 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 post: 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. While I like Julie R’s articulate response in Monday’s comments – that mentoring is a relationship initiated within and largely determined by institutional conditions that we forget at our peril – her proposal presumes that what students need from us is a relationship, and if a relationship is done right, it can’t be predicted or easily parceled out into chunks of time and attention. 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.

(PS: M, I’d still like to come over for dinner on Saturday – if you’ll have me.)

11 thoughts on “Why I don’t want to be friends: a word from Dr Chary

  1. Heather, thank you for sorting through these issues so thoughtfully. When Aimee brought up emotional labour in her response to Erin's post, I knew she was on to something, but I couldn't pin it down. You have. And no, I don't think many of our male colleagues spend as much energy examining the emotional implications of their daily action; more importantly, I don't think students expect them to. Students will come to me before going to their male professors when they have a problem, even if their problem relates to that male professor's class. At the very least I am saddled with explaining compassionately how and why they need to speak to the male professor, talking them out of panicked responses and equipping them to have a professional conversation with the professor in question. I’m not my students’ mother, nor am I their friend, but I must spend the time and emotional energy to teach them these truths, whereas my male colleagues are rarely faced with the expectation in the first place. If they do not address a student’s emotional needs, they are simply doing their job; if I don’t , I must deny or reject the student first, which can negatively effect my evaluations and my department’s future enrollments.


  2. In most fields, in most settings, there's an expectation for women to do this work…and, as Heather so aptly identified, no formal recognition for it. It is both invisible (in the sense that it is not seen as work) and unrewarded (professionally). In fact, it can, and often does, keep ME from being productive in the more traditional, and traditionally valued ways.

    {heavy sigh} this *month* in sexism indeed.


  3. Still, that work is also deeply satisfying, and nourishing, as Erin so adeptly points out. My feminism acknowledges and respects that choice, and the choice of calling it “friendship.” My feminism also respects Julie R.'s choice to do that work and call it “mentorship.”

    The challenge of this post is to make our feminism big enough to respect Heather's choice to do that work, and call it, well, *work*.


  4. I talked to my guy about this, and he agrees that male instructors don't face the same kinds of emotional expectations from their students. They do, however, occaissionally have to cope with students (usually female) who have skewed responses to male authority figures and an inappropriate conception of boundaries. Perhaps, most young academics are susceptible to the desire to be liked, and for women this becomes 'friendship' while for men it can become 'intimacy' (both in scare quotes because the power imbalance makes these relationships ring false).


  5. Mo! What a great reminder of the both/and nature of these kinds of debates–we can get tripped up by the either/or mentality. Of course, the emotional labour of mentoring, as I experience it, is BOTH a kind of work AND a source of joy and satisfaction.


  6. Again, owing to some technical difficulties… Here is a comment from Linda W.

    “This discussion about mentoring was on my mind even before Erin's post. And the fact that it has come up so quickly in the life of this excellent new blog suggests to me that it's an issue that many women faculty struggle with–if we are in the position now to be mentors to others–and wondered about–when we were in need of mentoring ourselves. Hold that thought…at what point did I stop needing to be mentored?

    There is a huge difference between mentoring new faculty (absolutely, without question, and those people probably will become my real friends), graduate students (absolutely, goes with the job, but I'm not comfortable if it becomes too personal), and undergraduates (intellectual mentorship IS teaching, but many personal matters are just not my business and I'm not trained to deal with them).

    I think boundaries are VERY important. We have to be able to be tough with students sometimes (ie not motherly and gentle). But if I've heard all about their private lives and shared beers and meals with them then it gets awkward. More than awkward. If things get difficult with their academic work I need to be the professor, not their friend. But trust me, I've felt their sense of betrayal. And I have squirmed and struggled and felt guilty and have NEVER forgotten those moments. They haunt me. But I don't think my judgment as a professor was wrong…

    Oh, and some male professors are called on to perform that emotional work of mentorship. My partner is much better at it than I am!”


  7. As a student..I would just like to add that many times it is frustrating for us (especially female students) to approach our male instructors for fear that we will be ignored, looked down upon, made feel stupid, or something worse.

    I have had a few male instructors who have been great supporters, however all of them have a significant age gap on me, and therefore I think both myself and that instructor feel more comfortable about the mentor ship-friendship.

    For example my mentor for sculpture is a guy who is (and im guessing here) in his 60's. Let us not forget that visual art is still predominantly male and thus to find a female role model in an academic situation is almost impossible. Especially with sculpture being your focus.

    However, in my experience, when I have tried to approach my male instructors in other faculties of study, like philosophy, or even English. I get a very different response. Half the time many of these male instructors are worth mentor-ship, because they are smart people who could be very good at helping us kids out through that horrible ocean of university. Maybe it's because I'm and undergrad, i don't know. But I get flat out disregarded. Ignored. Worse, talked down to, and made feel stupid. The worst so far was a former English theory teacher I had for my first round of the class. Every time I tried approaching him about an issue he would give me uncomfortable looks of displeasure like I was wasting his time. Then he simply said “oh your just not diving deep enough into the content” then when I asked how I could do that more fully, he just shrugged.

    However, I also personally think all mentor-ships, are a form of friendship. Both require some emotional investment, and spending time together. It just depends on how invested you are in the other person's well being on more than just an academic success level that would constitute more intimate (remember intimate does not have to be sexual) friendships.

    The worst feeling in the world for a student who is trying to do their best, or at least trying to engage the material is an instructor, male or female, who disregards you. I hate feeling like I'm being annoying.

    Therefore because of that, I have only had two mentor's. Erin Wunker, and Ron Kostyniuk. I would be mortified if I had ever annoyed them.


  8. I agree with Heather that much of the emotional work of mentoring people into the academy falls to women, that this is unpaid and unrecognized work. (Though I would also suggest that this is feminized work, not women’s work. Not all women are called upon in the same ways to do this work and lots of men do do it, too.)

    Maybe we need to rethink what the social framework of academic engagement looks like. I don’t know what that means, but it makes me ask some questions: Does sociability between women (or even between women and men) always require emotional labour? I think we accept that this kind of labour is informal, unpaid, and in excess of our jobs. Do we, as women, move too quickly into emotional caretaking as the hallmark of friendship? Could it be that what we’re all looking for is a way of becoming more conscious of the easy slide between emotional and professional intimacy? Might it not be possible to think friendship outside of emotional labour and still call it friendship? Or to reclassify what we take to be emotional labour (like responding to anxiety or feelings of inferiority or class displacement) and recognize it as part of the job?

    To the last, I would answer: I think so. And for this reason, I also agree with Erin. Establishing social relationships that are not reducible to work projects/conversations per se are often an essential part entering academic life.

    I’ll take myself as an example: Without an important group of professors who befriended me (and called it friendship) and showed me how to live an academic life, I would not be working in a university today. (As it turns out, at least three of the four most important professors in that group were men.)

    I’ve also experienced the flip side of that problem, having had other professors who picked and chose who, among their students, will get to go bowling with them, have drinks with them, and go to dinner at their houses when famous people come to town. I know that I did not have the same invitations or opportunities to meet those famous people in informal settings. In short, I’ve benefited and also felt shortchanged by what some would call bad professional boundary setting.

    Academic life is organized into coteries. It used to be the case that those coteries were cadres of men and they excluded lot of people who weren’t like them for one reason or another (women, visibly minorities, queers). What held them together were certain practices of sociability. There’s a reason that tweed jackets, sherry-drinking, and pipe-smoking are clichés. The content and the characters of the story may have changes, but the form is essentially the same. Queer theorists have their own cliques. So do feminists. Coteries are exclusive, even the ones we like. And we all know when we’re being left out of them—or not being included to the fullest extent.

    We are all part of these networks. Why not use them for good instead of evil? Why not aim to be fair and ethical in parceling out the professional advantages we have attained simply by virtue of landing the kind of job our students may never get?

    There will always be some students we “like” better than others and want to befriend. Professional sociability (of the kind that Julie R points to) takes us some distance toward establishing some benchmark for professional responsibility that is distinct from friendship. But at the end of the day, this might just fetishize actual friendship even more when the real problem may not be the parceling out of emotional labour, but tying professional advantages to social relationship.

    Cultivating professional intimacy may be another way of describing mentoring. But it kind of sounds better (particularly given that the very origins of mentorship expose exactly the kinds of slippery problems that people have already been discussing here).

    Sorry for the rambling length.


  9. What rich, rich commentary. Thanks to all of you for taking my ideas seriously, even if the expression of them was kind of stroppy.

    As I've been mulling this over during the week, I find myself wondering whether these issues would be so acute if we didn't have such an individualized/proprietary relationship to My Work. If we worked together more – I mean, literally, in groups or teams (or pods or cells or name your preferred metaphor) where we saw each other on a regular basis, created things together and solved problems collaboratively – we would de facto mentor each other, and the codes of sociability would not be so tightly tied to the disproportionate doling out of academic goods (the invites to dinner that Nat points to, e.g.). Friendship could be friendship, not what I've been calling “unpaid emotional labor.”

    It wouldn't be perfect, I'm sure, but what workplace is?


  10. I think that we have an obligation to community. This might be because I am an extrovert–but especially in queer contexts where family is redefined as a kind of friendship, or a set of friendships, adding people to the circle is vital.

    But then I am younger, and I feel sort of guilty now, taking time from people when people don't want to have their time taken.


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