• August 1, 2014

Should a Mentor Be a Friend?

I am trying very hard not to screw up a relationship that feels like the most substantial and professionally important of my career to this point. That relationship also feels like one of the most satisfying personal connections I have made in the past several years, and I find myself not knowing how to be a friend and a mentor at the same time.

The literature on serving as a mentor to junior colleagues is extensive, and departments and universities use a number of official means to encourage professional guidance for new faculty members. Official programs can help but even when done well, they aren't enough.

And so new assistant professors, searching for the key to professional success, often make informal appeals to slightly older colleagues. Or newcomers turn to the distance-education form of mentoring, consulting Web sites like this one on academic careers. And, of course, the new faculty member can always turn to his or her dissertation director for advice, but those of us who have experienced the natural, if disappointing, postgraduate lapse of intimacy with our advisers know that it's not a good idea to go to that well too often.

Having recently received tenure -- and having participated on a search committee in my department last year -- I am in a good position to be a mentor for at least one of my new junior colleagues. I am professionally secure, still ambitious, and still myself interested in negotiating our various institutional structures.

And since my own experience as a new assistant professor benefited more than I can say from the guidance of two recently tenured colleagues, I have felt all along that helping new faculty members adjust to the campus and to the larger pressures of academic life was a duty that came along with tenure.

My career as teacher, scholar, and administrator is a direct result of the care that my two mentors took to introduce me to faculty life. Their efforts ranged from the formal (introducing me to important colleagues and administrators, putting me in touch with relevant librarians, reading my scholarly work, observing my teaching, providing advice on publication venues, writing me letters of recommendation for fellowships) to the informal (mostly involving long conversations facilitated by substances like coffee, beer, and tobacco).

I have moved on to another job, but my two mentors are now cherished friends and professional collaborators. I miss their daily presence in my life. I wouldn't be successful -- I wouldn't even be tenured -- without the time, care, and love they offered me, and I'm proud to think of myself as their protégé, even if they would (probably) pooh-pooh the extent of their contribution.

Wishing to emulate my own mentors, I have become a mentor, but I find myself stumbling badly and I fear that I won't be able to help my new colleague.

I have no sinister motives, but unfortunately our relationship has been complicated by the friendly affection I feel for her. Wanting her to like me as a friend, I find myself violating the structure of a good mentoring relationship. Instead of presenting a consistent, strong, and confident manner, I find myself lapsing into confession and gossip -- two of the fatal Cleopatras of any professional relationship.

My new colleague is fresh out of graduate school. We had chosen Karen over a number of highly experienced and well-published assistant professors at other institutions. We weren't the only ones interested in her, and I attribute some of her decision to accept our offer to a flurry of e-mail messages I sent to her last spring explaining some of the great things for junior faculty members at our university and extolling the high quality of life in Midwestern college towns.

At the same time, I committed myself to spending the time and energy to help her gain full access to the resources of our university. Even though our fields are not identical, they're close enough for us to talk about scholarship. I resolved to do for my new colleague what my own mentors had done for me. Although I knew my time this year would be threatened by administrative duties, I would be on the campus daily and therefore would be available to provide advice and listen to concerns.

A kink emerged in my grand scheme when I took an immediate liking to Karen and her husband, Bill. They had been here a mere two weeks when my wife and I decided they would be our best friends in town. Even when our conversation focused on professional issues, it felt fully personal. And when our families got together, I forgot that there was anything institutional about our relationship.

I desperately wanted Karen and Bill to like us as much as we liked them, and at the same time I felt a pit growing in my stomach as I contemplated a time -- three or four years down the line, maybe -- when the two East Coasters would ride early scholarly success to another university, probably one in a "blue" state.

Trying not to think too deeply about it, I went on a charm offensive. Unfortunately, my self-perceived "charm" became immediately "offensive." I told Karen all about myself. And the more I felt myself overreaching, the more I pulled out everything in my arsenal: Within a month, my new colleague knew more about me than any colleague should be obliged to know.

Even worse, I told her what I think -- what I really think -- about many of our colleagues in the department.

I answered her e-mail messages immediately, ignoring more important communications from students and editors, and I practically brimmed over with enthusiasm when she ducked her head into my office.

I'm sure that some of my efforts have been useful: Karen hasn't hesitated to ask me about how our institution works, and I have been able to steer her toward reliable administrators as well as inform her of the written and unwritten rules of teaching here.

But I turned our relationship upside down, too. Karen and Bill have a son a year older than ours, and I began to go to her for child-rearing advice, putting myself in the role of protégé to her parental mentor.

My wife looked on with sympathy, registering the disappointment on my face when I would learn that Karen and Bill were spending Friday night with some of her fellow first-year assistant professors and their partners rather than with us. I think you get the picture: I was pathetic.

I knew all along that my behavior was wrong. The protégé owes the mentor nothing in a personal sense. Furthermore, it is crucial for the life of a department that all new faculty members develop independent lives in town and across campus. I didn't really mean to interfere, but my own insecurities -- and perhaps my envy of her youth, her fresh intelligence, and the long, unpredictably open future she will have as scholar and teacher -- drove me to butt in when I should have made myself back off.

A few weeks ago, I took them a small housewarming gift. Karen and Bill met us in the doorway. "We wanted to talk to both of you," Bill said, going on to deliver a bombshell.

When I got home, I said to my wife, "Karen and Bill wanted to talk to us. They have some news. Guess."

"They're leaving!" she said, in a horrified tone. I had been hoping that would be my wife's response, since it revealed I was not the only one besotted with our new friends.

"Nope," I said, "Karen's pregnant."

The joy I feel for my new colleague is a bit too much. I really do believe this is a good time in her career for her to have a second child, as she'll be able to spend a solid stretch of years doing the work required to get tenure without further interruption and with a steady (if action-packed) home situation. I also feel good that I can help her negotiate our university's Byzantine procedures for dealing with parental leave.

But it's neither morally right nor psychologically healthy for me to be as emotionally invested in our relationship as I am.

I can't help myself! Despite repeated promises to reform my behavior, I continue to provide way too much information, compounding the problem by delivering extensive apologies after dropping especially juicy bits of inappropriate opinion. "It's OK," Karen said to me wearily over lunch last week. "I figure that's just Frank."

Becoming a truly good mentor will require me to divest myself of emotion -- or at least to separate friendship from the dispassionate role of a mentor. A good mentor should talk little and listen lots, providing an example of professionalism while dispensing useful information. I'm not sure I could be accused of malpractice, but neither have I done the job properly.

Frank Midler is the pseudonym of a newly tenured associate professor at a large Midwestern research university. He writes an occasional column on life as a newly tenured faculty member.

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