Monday, September 20, 2010

Mentorship as Responsible Engagement, or, why I do make friend with (some of) my students

This post 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 that mentorship starts first through friendship.

I am currently in a (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 to 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 inter-generational 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.

Let's have it: do you make friends with your students/professors? Or have I just been quite lucky?


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  2. Erin - thank you so much for this post. First and foremost, I completely agree with your take on the importance of professors who are both mentors and friends; your insights tally with my own experience of the importance of connecting with professors on both a professional and personal level. I am lucky to be in contact (still) with some of my professors from undergrad. Now as a professor myself (married to another professor) we believe in the "pay it forward" philosophy. So there are a number of my students (present and former) and my partner's students (present and former) who we engage with socially as well as professionally. We have had grad students house sit for us; we have gone for drinks with students; I have helped his students and he has helped my students; some people who we now count as friends (full stop) began as students.

    That said, this terrain can often be hard to navigate, and I, for one, have made mistakes along the way. As a general rule, I don't accept "friend requests" for anyone who is a current student; and I generally treat graduate students differently than undergraduate students (i.e. I tend to be more collegial with graduate students).

    But all in all, I think you are very right to note that part of the academic process involves the development of these more personal relationships right alongside the academic development that makes up the whole experience.

  3. Due to technical issues, Julie R can't post this for herself, so here's what she had to say:

    Here is a slightly different take about mentoring. I believe that mentoring is not a type of friendship, but it is a type of relationship. As such, it has sets of boundaries which friendships do not have.

    I strongly believe in mentoring my students, which means that when they wish it, I listen to their ideas and their struggles with their professional lives, I offer advice when I am asked, I have coffee with them and ask about how they are, and if they are graduate students with whom I work closely, I sometimes cook meals for them or go to dinner with them. This type of mentorship isn't the same as the mentorship/friendship I experience with my colleagues and friends in the profession.

    "Why am I not friends with my students? Why don't I have them as friends on Facebook until they aren't my students anymore? Two reasons: conflict of interest and conflicting interests. I'm at a different place in my life from most of my students, and so we don't have the common ground that I have with my friends. I don't think that most of my students would want to be friends with me--they have their own friends already. They need me to be a coach, a mentor, a friendly intellectual and a teacher. I also have a measure of institutional power over my students and so I don't think it's fair to them to imagine that our relationship is on an equal footing, however well-meaning I am.

    I was never friends with my professors, but I was mentored by many of them. My Ph.D supervisor in particular showed me how to be in the institution as a feminist, but how not to give my life to the institution. She couldn't have taught me this if we were friends, because having boundaries was part of the lesson she was imparting to me. Today, I'm grateful to her for that lesson. And now that she's my friend, I've had lots of chances to tell her that."

  4. @ Lindy and Julie: thanks to you both for your responses.

    I wonder, Julie, if my take on mentor-friendships is actually closer to your definition of mentor-relationships. Upon reading your thoughts I find myself nodding, yes, yes! Those are the things that my mentors who treated me as a friend did/do for me. Those are the things I want to do for my student friends (though, as you note Lindy, I too have former students who are now friends full stop).

    What I especially appreciate is how you both underscored what I wasn't able to articulate as clearly as I would have liked: that there is a power dynamic that is crucial (my opinion) for the mentor-friendship to function properly and productively.

    Thanks, both, for your engagement.
    ...Wanna be friends?

  5. Hi all -- I've been thinking about this all day. What I'm thinking about is: affect in professional relationships, and emotional labour in our pad labour.

    I don't think I am *friends* with current students, but I often make special efforts to be *friendly* -- this is a humane way to be, obviously, but it's also a kind of emotional labour that I think is really important but which might be gendered? I know that sometimes I make an effort to give cues of friendliness to students whom I suspect to be feeling intimidated. I'm not sure what that's all about. Hm.

  6. Now I feel all this pressure to be the right kind of friendly with Erin :)

  7. Agree with Julie R that mentoring and friendship are two different things, and also that mentoring and teaching are different. I think a mentoring relationship needs to be driven by the (mentee? Is that a word? Apprentice?). I was once in a professional situation where a senior colleague desperately wanted to “mentor me” and made that perfectly clear. I was completely turned off. It smacked of desperation or something. As a teacher I try to make myself available as a possible mentor and I think a little can go a long way--a casual tone, an invitation to the pub at the end of term, a sense of humour. I can teach many students but I can’t possibly mentor all of them, because there’s something more personal about a mentoring relationship. And I’m so not ready to be friends with students on Facebook. I don’t want to know that much about their personal lives and I’m reserving Facebook as a potential space to complain to my friends about teaching.

  8. My husband forwarded me a link to this blog because he knew this post would hit a chord with me. I am a PhD student, who has also just recently completed my ophthalmology residency. I would consider some of the mentors on my educational journey a friend. Perhaps not the same type of friend as those I have as resident mates/ colleagues, but a friend none the less.

    I am a firm believer in mentoring through friendship. One of my clinical mentors significantly set back our relationship right at the beginning of my residency. She sat me down during our first week together and informed me that we could not be friends (as she was supposed to be my mentor). I can tell you now that this standpoint impaired our ability to work as mentor and mentee and it was a rough 3 years. I was her first resident and I think that she had no idea how to mentor as a friend with boundaries. I must say that my most valued mentors, those that I have learned the most from, are also my friends. Thank you for the interesting blog post.

  9. I've recently found myself on both sides of mentor-mentee relationship. I'm still in school so I have a senior advisor (with whom I have a fantastic relationship) but I've also been teaching as a sessional in my department for a few semesters and have reached out to several students along the way. I supported a job application for a former student (now graduated) and she treated me to tea as a thank-you. [This doesn't quite sit right with me still. Tea is cheap and I made a point of ordering something affordable but isn't supporting applications part of my job? Or is it not because I'm not faculty yet?] We talked about her job, law school, television shows we watch, books we've read. It was a great conversation. Afterwards, she emailed me with a list of book recommendations and an invitation to join her to see some films at the upcoming film festival. She has also asked me to join her and her partner to dinner at a restaurant that serves her ethnic food. I must say I am feeling hesitant. Is that too much too fast to make it a professional relationship? I honestly don't know!

    On the other hand, I made a point of reaching out to a struggling student over the summer and offered to have coffee with her after the course is over to talk about some of the problems she faces being an international student and experiencing language barriers. I may have been rather pushy in insisting that I am available (implied, to mentor her)... but I did that because she seemed to be extremely apologetic about "taking up my time" to talk to her, which was no issue, of course.

    On the flip side, I've been thinking about how to thank my supervisor in my Acknowledgement pages of the dissertation (while daydreaming in front of a blank page on Word). Do I say "Thank you Prof. So-and-so for her untiring support and generous mentorship"? Or can I say "for her generous friendship" as well? We have a great relationship where we had bi-weekly coffee in my first semester her and I now see her regularly at a research hub. We talk about television shows, movies, social issues... but I don't really socialize with her, as in go out for drinks or meals. For I've met and worked with her partner but I've never been inside her condo. So in this sense... I wouldn't consider her a friend (I've refrained from adding her as a friend on Facebook), not to demean our relationship but to say that we have a friendly professional mentor-mentee relationship. Yes, I think I like "friendly" better than "friend".

    And I would extend this view as an educator looking at students. I don't think I'll have them as friends on Facebook (I'm very picky about whot o include as Facebook friends to begin with) and I personally wouldn't have alcoholic drinks with them, even as a group. But I feel like I would do everything I can for them just shy of jumping off a cliff.

  10. I have just discovered this blog, and I am enjoying it so much. I'm glad you started it, and I'm interested to see where your earlier interests in blogging and feminism have taken you.

    Being friends with students is often complicated. I remember a colleague of mine (and professor of yours, Erin), who said "Friends don't give friends C-s." That's true.

    At the same time, I know that I have been, am, and will always be a friend to some of my students. AI will also often be their professor. I believe it's my responsibility to keep those boundaries in play, to be open about when and how they are shifting, to signal which role (mentor, professor, friend) I'm taking up at any given moment.

    It's easier at the graduate level than the undergrad, I think, perhaps in part because we are directly mentoring them for a life in the academy. And they are often closer in age and life experience. And, because we often share passionate attachments to the same theories, texts, performances, etc., on an emotional as well as intellectual level. I miss graduate students terribly here at A&M, and I miss the mentor/friend relationships I could have.

  11. I tried to post this before, and it wouldn't work. Lets try this again.

    Alright, let me share something as a former student of yours. I'm not sure that we could be considered friends because of some impeding factors such as you living all the way out east. Then there is the small fact that I'm paranoid and wonder if I were to try to perpetuate any friendship that it would come off clingy and pushy. I don't want to be either, therefore I think that our "ship" is somewhat defined in blurry terms.

    I think that for me, the greatest reason why I actually even found you on facebook was because I wanted to be your friend..or something along those lines. (My own personal definitions of friendships are quite strict and limited, and thus I can't be sure if my definition is socially acceptable for the majority of other people) I suppose in a way some types of mentor-ship relationships can share similar qualities of what someone might look for in a good friend.

    Perhaps that's the main reason why my perception is skewed. The boundaries are different somehow, thus it is hard to know when the "ship" has changed. However, who wouldn't want a friend who was supportive of your ideas, and perhaps could meet you at your level of intellect and have an interesting conversation. Or likes coffee just as much as you do.

    However, I personally find that I am lacking in friends or mentors that I feel comfortable having a strange discussion about some sort of philosophical concept, I find that if I try to engage with many of my professors I am somehow being a little, smug, *expletive deleted* kisser. Lets not take into account that ever since childhood I have gotten along with people who are older than me, more so then people my own age. Hell my best buddy is almost 5 years older than me, and most of the people I get along with at work are from 5 years to 20 years older then me. I guess that could just be the kind of person I am.

    However what I'm trying to say in a long winded way is that if you are a good mentor, and a good professor or person, it is no doubt that some of your students would want to be friends after the professional conflicts of interests are no longer issues. You probably have some very good character traits that those students are looking for in friends. Lets be honest, most of us students are floating in a breeze of academic craziness, and politics, and ridiculousness just as much as instructors. However somehow, you guys seem to have an anchor. Only the best prof's have the pull to acquire friends after their students have found their own anchors.

    Or maybe all friendships are mentor-ships? Isn't their usually some sort of power dynamic occurring? For example with a lot of my younger friends, I find that I am not held in the same regard as their other friends who are closer to their age. I end up getting asked for advice more, or being some sort of positive influence(or negative lol). Same strategy goes for friends of mine that have more personal power then I do..or institutional power, or are more "experienced". Maybe friendships are just another form of mentor relationships that play more subtly with power than the mentor-ships.


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