Friday, October 19, 2007

Advising 2: How to love, but not REALLY love, your students

Highly Eccentric wrote in about my last post and asked me a question about the appropriate student-teacher relationship, saying:

the weird thing about our department here is that the usual undergrad/postgrad/ academic boundaries get eroded pretty quickly. Awesome Mentor takes a motherly interest in my life, to a certain extent... several of my teachers read my blog... some of us undergrads tag along to the departmental functions and end up off eating and drinking with our teachers. Which is great. I'd like to think i'm friends with some of them, including A.M.

[...] On the other hand, in the flurry of comments which have sprung up in the academic blogosphere since that First Person entry, it seems one of the common problems with supervision is students who are looking to be friends with their supervisors. I'd like to be friends with A.M. (althought that might not be feasible until i get over my hero-worshipping thing). Is that a bad way to start out on a thesis?

I may be the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe very strongly in the boundaries between student and instructor. I also think there is a vast difference between being friendly with students and being students' friends. I am certainly friendly with my students. I take an interest in their lives, their goals, their struggles, their learning, and their overall success. I make jokes with them and talk with them at school gatherings, parties, or when I am out to eat. But what my students would notice, if they really thought about it, is how little I share with them.

While I occasionally share tidbits about things that are affecting my life, like my goddaughter's hospitalization, I leave out a lot. They do not know about my relationship with my partner, who I like or don't like on faculty, my struggles to get pregnant and my decision to stop trying, my occasional forays into the job market, or my frustration with a recent article that I cannot get to work. I save these goodies for my friends, my peers, the people with whom I can and should be vulnerable. I may also flirt with my friends, get intoxicated with them, or say things I absolutely should not say publicly. I would not do these things with students.

(Okay, a caveat. I do share personal information if and only if I think the information will be useful to the student. I have told a student about my infertility when she was describing her own fertility struggles. That said, I tell it less in depth and less emotionally than I would with a friend, and I am not looking for support or help from my students.)

I draw these boundaries because I think students need to be protected and respected, and that the focus should be on them when I work with or talk to them. Students are in a vulnerable spot, and I am someone with power in their lives. I need to use my power responsibly. And as Highly says about her mentor, "I think she's the most fantastic thing since sliced bread,...And she seems to be unpertubed by my hero-worshipping at her feet, which is also good." That is not a peer friendship relationship in any way. While I have great respect and even occasional (platonic) crushes on my friends, I do not worship them in any way and we see one another's flaws and eccentricities in a more realistic light. The power balance is there, also, and that makes a huge difference.

One reason I have drawn this line is that I have seen unfortunate things happen when faculty don't draw the line very clearly. The students young Dr. A went drinking with will talk about the drunken episode with her colleagues (who later will evaluate her for tenure). (Hell, nowadays, it might end up with drunken pics on Facebook.) The student who finds herself with reknowned Dr. T who, after a few drinks, starts complaining about the problems in his marriage, how misunderstood he is, and how smart and attractive the student is. The student who hugs Dr. C when he finds her crying about how she can't get an article accepted, and soon hears that the other students are whispering about him in the halls. The student who regularly housesits for august Professor N, forgets to turn off the sprinklers, and has to face N's wrath when he returns, not only at the key exchange but during a required class that N teaches.

I am okay with advisees who want to be my friend. I take it as my role to set appropriate boundaries: friendly but not friends. And ultimately, once the student has graduated and gone on to become a professional, and our relationship has shifted out of the temporary power imbalance, we can become friends. That approach has certainly worked in my life. Many of my mentors are now friends, and some of my student mentees/advisees have become friends as well. We share more personally, and we get to know each other on a more level playing field.

So, I would tell Highly to enjoy her mentoring relationship as it is: friendly, supportive, and helpful. I am sure that the hero-worshipping is kinda fun for your mentor, and it will get even better as you become less worshipping and more comfortable with her. And perhaps, when you are done with your thesis, it will move from mentoring/maternal to a deeper and more lasting friendship.


highlyeccentric said...

Thanks Lesboprof :) that is actually quite reassuring.

It's worth noting that i have noticed that the Friends-With-Your-Teachers thing which happens so easily in our department here is usually quite separate from Normal Friends.
The worrying part is being able to tell when and where that boundary comes in. I know a few teachers who can't. I don't want to be the student who can't. (that might shoot down any chance i have of being Normal Friends with said teachers later on...)

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