The Value and Pressure of Academic Closeness (Ought Experiment)

The Value and Pressure of Academic Closeness (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment, which returns after a brief waiting-for-more-emails hiatus! (Hint hint guilt trip hint.) This week’s question is from a woman wondering if the close friendships that many grads seem to have with their professors are necessary for professional success.

Dear Louie,

What kind of relationship should you foster with your professors, supervisors, and letter writers? I’m not from the U.S., but I’ve noticed that a lot of students here form close, personal friendships with their professors. This might be considered a mentoring relationship, and it can certainly confer benefits in terms of getting promoted and helped by authority figures in the field. But as a woman, I tend to be reserved about my personal life. This is due to various factors, including fear of being sexually objectified and slut-shamed, seen as ‘hysterical,’ over-emotional, or ‘irrational,’ being modest and diffident due to sex-role socialization, etc. Men seem to have an easier time being on close personal terms with their professors, and talking about dating, family issues, etc. I worry that my reticence will undermine my chances of getting a job. This surely is not just a problem for women, but women face special challenges.

Should I be more friendly with my professors? What is the appropriate stance to take toward one’s higher-ups?

On the flip side, what kind of relationships should professors foster with their students?  

Close to Success

Dear Close to Success,

I’m sympathetic to your dilemma: navigating close-yet-professional relationships can involve incredible double binds, especially when your success partially depends on personality, and on getting people more powerful than you to invest in you. And that’s even before we consider gender-specific dimensions of the problem, which can complicate and multiply those double binds all to hell (in both directions). For readers not persuaded that this is a legitimate problem, look no further than the murky line between networking and attending events on the one hand and socializing on the other, and how relentlessly we advise grads to do more of the former.

That said, I think it would be helpful to tease apart a few different kinds of relationships that your letter runs together. For example, being friendly with a senior colleague or mentor isn’t the same thing as being friends, let alone close friends. And being close, in the sense of bonding over the course of 6-7 years, isn’t the same thing as talking about personal topics like dating. Coming at it from the other direction, you don’t have to be close friends with your committee to discuss career-affecting personal matters like a two-body problem, or child care or other care obligations, or issues of work/life balance – topics that have an altogether different tenor than chats about dating as such. The choice isn’t between securing investment by befriending professors and being neglected because you’re reluctant to merge your professional and personal lives.

There are two distinctions that I think we should keep in mind. The first is the distinction between being friendly and being friends. The second is the distinction between professional closeness and personal closeness. Yes, it helps to be friendly, and yes, working closely with another person can often create feelings of fond familiarity, if not outright friendship. (Unless you and your advisor/supervisor hate each other, in which case hello, definitely email me about that!) But neither friendliness nor familiarity requires you to be friends with professors, in the sense of spending time outside of work with them. And even if you are friends with them, that doesn’t require that you be close personally, in the sense of discussing topics best left for intimate friends. These notions all come apart, and my advice is going to track that.

Which isn’t to say that this is entirely a matter of choice, or that the lines are shiny and clear. I buy that there’s structural (and sometimes even direct) pressure in academia to merge your professional and personal lives. Work can dominate our days. Throw in social and geographic isolation, and the fact that few people outside academia can understand our problems and preoccupations, and the folk we spend all day with are likely to become our friends. We talk about our lives. We hang out. We go to non-academic events together. We drink, and dine, and sometimes dine and dash. We laugh together on Facebook, and eagerly catch up at conferences, and blog about our dogs.

And importantly: I don’t think that any of that is inherently problematic, or that someone’s intersectional identity determines whether they need to be ‘protected’ from it. (In fact, I don’t know anyone who thinks the latter.) Close professional friendships can be a wonderful thing, and colleagues can sometimes make wonderful personal friends. But equally as important: just because such friendships aren’t inherently problematic doesn’t mean that they’re unproblematic. In fact, there are many factors we professors have to be mindful of precisely because there’s a natural tendency to merge the professional and the personal. More on that in a moment.

So, back to your original question. Should you be friendlier with your professors in order to increase your chances of success? If what you mean by that is talking about your dating life with them, or listening as they talk about their dating life with you, then no! Ditto if you mean cultivating a close, personal friendship with every professional contact. (Those can be nice, but they’re organic developments rather than prerequisites.) But if what you mean is whether being friendly can improve your chance of success, then yes. You probably should be friendly. Departments aren’t wrong to want to hire friendly colleagues. People don’t have an obligation to work with you in particular. And as stressful as academia can be, I might go so far as to suggest that we all pro tanto owe each other a degree of friendliness. And this third kind of friendliness, the one that I think probably is a component of professional success, is one that you can engage in without having to be friendly in any of the other senses we’ve covered. Friendliness is compatible with individually drawn boundaries.

But I’m not even sure if “being friendlier to improve one’s chances” is the right framework in the first place, if what you’re concerned about is securing investment. What matters for success is finding a good working relationship—professors and letter-writers with whom you work well, whom you get along with well enough to spend years working alongside, and who seem genuinely interested in your project and your prospects. It’s not about ingratiating yourself more, or demonstrating your willingness to accept friendship on their terms. Some people get along well, and some don’t. Some see sufficient reason to invest in you as a future scholar, and some don’t. These kinds of fit are important considerations in your committee selection, and in which relationships you cultivate in the profession as you move forward. The aim should be finding an excellent working relationship—whatever that means for you—not a strategically intimate one. And if you can find professors with whom you work well on your own terms, then the risks you’re worried about won’t materialize.

Of course, this advice only holds so long as your immediate and potential colleagues all cooperate with your preference not to be close, personal friends. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t hold it against you, but they’ll invest more heavily in the grads with whom they have chummier relationships, creating a functionally equivalent barrier that no one actually intended. And maybe they’ll hold it against you outright, and be reluctant to engage or even see your merit. I’m not in a good position to assess how real the worry is. I don’t know the specific people involved in your case. And given my preferences, I haven’t much faced these risks myself, so I probably shouldn’t trust my intuitions about their size or consequences.

If you’re in a situation where the problem is very real, and the risks are significantly high, then the question you’re asking me changes. Then it’s no longer about whether you should be friendlier, or how to know if you can have a good working relationship with a given professor. It becomes a question of whether you should be complicit in practices you abhor, or sacrifice your personal comfort in ways you shouldn’t have to, or risk male professors investing in you for the wrong reasons (or you not knowing the real reasons) in order to make it in an otherwise desirable profession. And those questions are far too complicated to answer in a single paragraph. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, then your situation is impossible, and any advice people give you needs to take that impossibility as the starting point.

In the event that you really are caught in a tangled mess of unprofessional vulnerability, where your success depends on the equally fraught roads of calling out the inappropriate friendships of powerful others or grudgingly partaking in such friendships in order to advance yourself, then my advice won’t be aimed at you. (Do, err, what you think is right for you. Glad I could help.) Instead, my advice is going to be aimed at my fellow professors. The ones not facing an impossible situation. The ones, in fact, creating the impossible situation. The ones about whose actions I can speak in the comfortable generalities to which I’ve grown accustomed. So only continue reading if you know the secret professor handshake.

Dear Fellow Professors,

Look, it’s not wrong to invest in some students more than others, or to promote some students more than others. Not all students are equal, and to the extent that our job is to train future scholars, we have to use our best judgment about whom to support, and where to direct our limited time and cognitive resources. But given that a lot of us value close friendships, we have to be mindful about what’s informing our judgments, and what’s directing our allocations.

We have to be mindful of power imbalances, and the tension that exists when pedagogical considerations lead us to treat grads as both our students and our junior colleagues. We have to be mindful not to take social inhibition or non-attendance at parties as evidence of unprofessional disengagement that needs correcting for the student’s own sake. We have to be mindful of how personal affinity or ideological commitments can affect our judgments of whose work is interesting, or worth promoting. We have to be mindful that who we like spending time with can influence whom we invite. We have to be mindful that people are different and like different things, so that a lot of people finding value in academic closeness doesn’t drift in the direction of compulsory participation. And yes, we have to be mindful that the informal pressure to go along with certain activities, or laugh at certain jokes, or accept a certain department’s climate, or tolerate a certain level of closeness are the kinds of pressures that disproportionately affect women, and exacerbate the other exclusive tendencies of our field in dramatically impermissible ways.

Count me among those who find tremendous value in academic closeness (except when it comes to undergrads—that probably shouldn’t happen). But the price of that good is mindfulness and occasional, maybe even frequent, course corrections. Why? Because what or who we like shouldn’t determine professional success. We’re also supposed to be selecting for merit and ability, here. While I suspect that very, very few of you would endorse the idea that talking about personal relationships is a necessary condition of your support, academics are no better than anyone else when it comes to avoiding favoring people they personally like. Be sure about what’s grounding your support, or what’s justifying its absence. Be mindful, if only so that grads don’t have to face impossible situations when they’re just trying to learn about Habermas. That shit’s impossible enough as it is.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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