The Intimacy of Mentoring – The Feminist Wire

The Intimacy of Mentoring

Let me be clear: As a daughter of the working class and a first-generation college student, I would not be where I am today without the love, support, and encouragement of many people, most profoundly my parents. Whatever innate drive and intelligence I possess might have been channeled in entirely different directions (e.g., race car driver), or maybe even no direction (e.g., slacker), if my mom and stepdad, grandfather, sister, friends, teachers from K through Ph.D., classmates, partners past and present (well, some of them), and occasionally complete strangers had not recognized a spark of creativity and promise in me and offered their hearts, hands, minds, and wallets. While the list of people who have influenced and shaped me is long—especially if we go all the way back to my lovely first grade teacher, Miss Moore—not everyone who has provided help can usefully be considered a mentor.

The most obvious mentors, of course, have been my many dedicated and excellent, largely public school teachers: Mrs. Clesceri in 4th grade, for whom I composed a poem about pie; Miss Ripp in 6th grade and Mrs. Anderson in 7th grade, both of whom promoted my spelling bee aspirations (I went to regionals); Mr. Devine in high school, who nurtured my love of literature and writing; Wendy Griswold, Mary Brinton, and Edward Laumann in college (my only private school experience), who all taught me to think like a sociologist; Adele Clarke, Virginia Olesen, Donna Haraway, and Anselm Strauss in graduate school, who showed me the way; Barbara Koenig during my postdoc, from whom I discovered that bioethics could be fun. From all of these people, at radically different ages and stages of my life, I learned how to read and write, how to be a scholar and a professional in the world, and how to craft a meaningful work life. I also learned, most especially from Adele, Ginnie, and Donna, how to be a feminist mentor, the kind who lifts you up so you can soar.

Since receiving my Ph.D. more than fifteen years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor hundreds of students, from first-year college students to seniors writing theses to MA students to those receiving their doctorates. I’ve done this with varying degrees of confidence and success, but always (I hope) with humor, passion, and integrity. Some mentoring experiences have been among the most gratifying relationships in my life, and many of these are ongoing. Indeed, one of the perks of Facebook (and I do not mean to suggest that social networking is all benefit, all the time) is that I get to see how and what many of my former students are doing. It’s a little bit like Romper Room: I look into my magic mirror and see Haley and Hadley, John and Barb, Becky and Dan, Tamura and Heather, and so many others. They really are changing the world, each in their own way, and I’m outrageously, insanely proud of them. Yet other mentoring experiences have been colossal failures, in part because of divergent expectations and subpar communication, sometimes but not always on my end.

To this day I would be hard pressed to offer an ideal definition of mentoring, given that the role is a weird, beautiful, shape-shifting blend of parent, friend, colleague, expert, and generic authority figure. But one constant in all of my mentoring relationships, regardless of which side of the Starbucks table I’m sitting on, is that mentoring involves an exchange between two people. Mentees typically receive the benefit of the mentor’s experience, expertise, and encouragement, or what we might call the three E’s. The mentors typically receive the benefits of informing, inspiring, and influencing their mentees; we might call these the three I’s. While there may be other gains, such as building wider networks or gaining specific knowledge or basking in the adoration that a few mentors seem to crave (me, not so much), the E’s and the I’s noted here constitute, in my view, the fundamental building blocks of valuable mentoring.

I want to talk about another I-word, too, one central to my own mentoring: intimacy. In most professional settings, we tend to shy away from any whiff of intimacy, much less erotics or desire. (And there are brilliant reasons for avoiding these sandpits in professional settings, although I did meet my wonderful partner Bill at work.) Close personal and/or physical relationships, it is widely held, are better confined to the private sphere. Yet particularly among feminist mentors in the academy, myself included, there may be a high level of emotional attachment between mentors and mentees. Here, gender socialization meets the urgent need for feminist sociality meets individual personalities. It’s possible, of course, to be a feminist mentor without being warm and cuddly; not everyone exudes empathy and connection, nor should they. Through word and deed, feminists frequently challenge the imperative that women always maintain a friendly and accommodating affect.

In my experience, feminist mentoring and especially that between women is also embodied to a greater degree than standard office mentoring. There is, for example, frequent hugging among women rather than the usual manly handshake-with-elbow-clutch or shoulder slap. Bodily matters, such as sex and pregnancy, are more frequently discussed between women (although I have no empirical evidence for this, just anecdotes). For example, there aren’t terribly many of us in the academy who are tenured professors as well as mothers, attempting to achieve work-life balance while also climbing the academic ladder. Just as Lynn Morgan (thank you, dear friend!) has been my guiding star on this front, I’ve mentored many students who follow various life paths and trajectories in and out of the classroom. This doesn’t just mean that I help students who become mothers figure out how to “balance” their increasingly hectic lives, but also that I may mentor them on parenting or negotiating with partners or how to prepare a meal in less than 15 minutes while also breastfeeding a newborn.

It’s astonishing, really, when I reflect back on the past fifteen years, how many students I’ve mentored and advised through circumstances that have nothing (and perhaps everything) to do with their academic studies: health crises, new relationships, break-ups, pregnancies wanted and unwanted, births, deaths, decisions to leave academia, violence in their lives, family troubles, poverty, geographic moves, ugly experiences with bad mentors, and so on. Yet with this level of mentoring and emotional involvement comes risk, not just for the mentees but also for me as a mentor. To open your heart to a mentee means the risk of potential hurt or loss; no longer is somebody just your student, a person who will move on with their life after school.  Now they become a more multi-faceted individual with whom you have a deeper connection, an emotional awareness, a relationship. You have, in fact, an emotional and ethical investment in the mentee figuring her life out: learning to mother successfully, getting back on her feet financially, smoothing out tensions at home, getting that tenure-track job. This sort of connection clearly subverts the classic paradigm of apprenticeship and 1950s-style academic mentoring.

While not all or even most of my mentors and mentees become friends or people with whom I’ve remained in touch, some precious few I consider akin to family members, intimates with whom I will interact throughout my life in contexts beyond our original encounters. This possibility of intensely intimate connections between mentors and mentees is both a blessing and a curse; at the very least, intimacy requires considerable negotiation of boundaries throughout the relationship. Some aspects of mentoring are called on more often than others, and across different circumstances. When, for example, does a mentee need you to offer expertise and when does she need a friend? And what happens when the boundaries become blurred, and a student expecting a friend is instead met with a more detached, professional level of engagement? What happens when neither party is fully aware of what mixture of roles is in play? How do we navigate these tricky emotional shoals, recognizing always that with differences in status, no matter how close the friend, power sneaks in with its creeping tendrils. And of course, race, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, ability, and other structural locations profoundly influence these dynamics.

As a relentlessly social being who has spent a lifetime collecting people, I cannot imagine mentoring without some degree of intimacy. (I also fully acknowledge that being white, heterosexual, female, middle-class, and tenured makes some of this intimacy vastly more possible for me.) This is not to say that I’m incapable of relating to students and junior colleagues on a strictly professional basis; I am, and I do. I can make a serious face when it’s necessary. However, I believe that intimate mentoring—that is, mentoring infused with warmth, connection, and even love alongside expertise and experience—is preferable to a more generic, impersonal style. To fully engage our hearts, hands, and minds necessarily invokes emotion, embodiment, and investment. For me, despite the potential risks, intimacy is deeply intertwined with my commitment to change people’s lives for the better. While this certainly happens in the realm of ideas and knowledge, it cannot and does not happen just there. My students and colleagues, like me, like all of us, are fully complex human beings. This is precisely what makes mentoring so gratifying.

Happy holidays, dear reader, from my heart to yours.