Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Healthy Friendships Within Academia

Departing from the Women, Academia, Sport theme for a minute - I am so not the person to write about such things, though the posts have been excellent! 
Have you noticed? There've been a string of articles recently about the value of female friendships, and how they supply alternatives and perhaps stronger bonds than marriages and romantic partnerships (or how they themselves can offer to straight women a different form of romanticism). There was this one in NYMag about a stormy "friendship affair" between two women; this one about love that sits outside of friendliness and sex and "both inside and outside of 'family'"; and most recently, this one in the NYT about what friendships offer women outside of love (written by the author who writes about single women dominating the political landscape in America). Maybe this is following on the wake of Elena Ferrante frenzy (there is now a TV series in the works!), or maybe it just reflects a general across-the-board questioning, broadening, and even dismantling of traditional marital structures.

Personally, I have always been deeply reliant on friendships, perhaps because I do not have an especially large or close family. Maybe I expect my friendships to supply the permanency associated with family, and so find myself struggling--like, a lot--when friendships fade, when people move away, when I realize it's been a minute since I've had a quality conversation with someone.

As I've discovered, academia presents particular difficulties to strong friendships.  This cleverly diagrammed listicle by Tim Urban from Wait But Why offers what I think is a stimulating system for thinking through the healthiness quotient of friendships. Consider this graph:


If you're in the first stages of a PhD program, I would especially urge you to consider this graph, because these are some of the times when you're likely to achieve the first-tier brother- and- sister-like friendships described in the Urban article, due to what sociologists identify as the ideal environment for making lifelong friends: "proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other" (generally associated with undergrad degrees, but I'm a late bloomer). At the beginning of a grad program, you're taking the same classes, writing the same papers, gossiping over which professors are in touch with and available to students, or who gives minimal feedback on papers and holds office hours only by appointment. Together you are excited and proud to be enrolled in the graduate program, and eager to form new friendships that bridge the personal and the professional. Perhaps you hold area reading groups, language groups, writing workshop groups, you organize meals and drink dates together, and schedule regular coffees to talk through that final paper. You're in the process of exploring yourselves and each other. You share hotel rooms at conferences and sometimes even plan vacations together, and you practice-test each other in the months leading up to oral exams. Together you build a uniquely generative and intimate intellectual community of scholars and buds.

Years later, when you're still waiting for those letters to appear after your name and some of the prestige of being a budding PhD has worn down, when you're unsure how you're going to pay the bills the following year, when you're competing with colleagues for courses and even jobs and facing the harsh reality that writing a dissertation is perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you've ever attempted in your life, things change. The paths of you and your friends are diverging, perhaps in ways you don't even realize. Sometimes, friendships end for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. Inherent in romantic relationships is an expectation that you provide some kind of explanation when things go awry. Not so with friendships.

So, if you're an early graduate student, I'm here to offer you a couple tidbits of advice as you form bonds with the grad students around you.

  1. Be cautious when developing close friendships with people who tend toward excessive gossip or cattiness toward other people in the department. If you spend most of your time talking shit about other people, chances are the some day you'll be talking shit about each other. I mean c'mon, Mean Girls taught us this. 
  2. Don't feel you need to accept all offers of friendship presented to you. Is there something about this person that attracts you to them as well? Do you find him/her inspiring in some way? Or are you just feeling pressured to enter an academic clique? 
  3. Be intentional about reaching outside your institution and forming connections with other people, either at other institutions (if you are in an area with multiple universities), or outside academia entirely. Join a basketball league! Find an online community with shared interests or a hobby you'd like to develop! Take an art class! One of my favorite circles is the feminist book club I'm a part of which is composed mostly of nonacademics. In addition to ensuring that the sum total of your identity is not tied to academia, and helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance, these connections may open up inspiration and creativity in ways you don't expect. And, with friends outside your department, the stakes are lower. I can celebrate my friend-outside-Fordham's Teaching Excellence award with nary a twinge of jealousy--to which, let's face it, we all fall prey.
  4. Be thankful for the lasting, genuine, tier-one and -two friendships that you have. These are the friendships that contain minimal suspicion and jealousy; regular, reciprocated enthusiasm; excitement and positive vibes. With these friends, you're on the same team--and that is truly beautiful. Any kind of relationship that relies upon effort and enthusiasm rather than contractual obligation to enhance some aspect of our lives should be celebrated. And in that vein, why not pick up your phone and shoot off an expression of gratitude to someone dear to you right now!

#friendshipgoals

What about you, readers? Have you struggled with friendships within your academic environments, or found them to be generally fruitful and positive? Any advice you'd like to add?

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