Friday, October 25, 2013

Janice from Jacksonville on the End of a Mentorship.

I remember the mini reunion like it was yesterday. It was 5 years after we'd finished grad school. I and three grad school girlfriends got a house in Myrtle Beach for a weekend to catch up. 2 were married, three had little ones, but it was just the girls.

We all loved grad school, but had only loosely been in touch since leaving.

My mentor there, a man I'll call Adam, was my hero in every way. I worshiped him. He was smart, funny, and kind, and he was the best teacher I'd ever known. Idolatry is no good, of course, but he helped me after my degree, and is someone I always turn to for advice.

Only one of us girls stayed in the area of the grad school, Susan, and she told us a number of great stories of all of our favorite and less-than-favorite professors. She ended up working at the college as a digital humanist, not actually our grad school field, but a little jump that she was made for.

It was late on the first night when I was coming back from the bathroom and heard her say to the others, "Of course Adam's got a new 'friend.' He's been with this first year blonde from Chicago since the first week of school."

Adam was married, then and still. I knew his wife. I'd been to their home for dinner on my last week in town. They had two great boys who were excited to know that I loved hockey, even though I was a girl.

Susan and the others were shocked I didn't know.

"How could you not know?" one of them said. "Someone once asked me if you were sleeping with him."

And I felt sick. I feel sick now just remembering it.

Nothing was different about what he'd done for me as a teacher and a friend. He was just as smart and funny, and I still owed him for whatever kind of academic I was going to be.

But I've never called him again, and when he sent a couple of emails earlier this year I just deleted them.

I don't know what I expected of him, or what he owed me with his personal life, but everything has changed since that night in Myrtle Beach.


  1. Wow, that's always a shock: to realize people we idolize are human beings after all. Since you have refused to talk to him, I'm guessing you have never talked with him about his behavior and that you believe the friend who told you was telling the truth and wasn't just jealous of your and Adam's close-ish mentor-ish relationship and trying to "break you up." I've had that happen: where a friend lied about my mentor because he was jealous of us. We confronted him together when I went to her with the info.

    Not talking to him seems like a wasted opportunity to me, but my instinct is to confront rather than withdraw from a friendship I value without at least gaining closure. If I respected someone that much, I probably wouldn't have cut off contact completely, and would have talked to him about what you'd heard. That said, I don't know all the details of your relationship and expectations between the two of you.

    I'm sorry you lost that relationship: any support we can get in academia is so hard to come by.

  2. You have the right attitude. Appreciate the ways he helped you to the extent that you can be a good mentor to students when it's your turn. Cut off the relationship because you don't want to associate with low-quality people. It doesn't sound like you need his help to advance your career so you can just move on.

    I guess that I take a different view than CC though confronting this jerk does sound appealing. Maybe you'll enjoy tearing him a new one and if so, then go for it. If it will make you sick just talking to him, don't waste your time. How much worse would you feel if he responds that he doesn't think it's a big deal or if he turns vindictive towards you because you confronted you. A confrontation seems like it could be much more trouble than it's worth.A

  3. A few years ago, a major literary figure who was also a longtime part-time proffie at my undergrad institution (and part-time resident in the dorm complex where I spent my last 3 years of college), died. The accolades for his work, which is, indeed, brilliant, were well-deserved, but I couldn't help remembering that he had a reputation for sleeping with undergrads (whether deserved or not, I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing that there was some truth to the very persistent rumors, sometimes passed on as titillating gossip, but also sometimes passed on, in a more serious spirit by more serious types, in the form of gentle warnings to enjoy his unquestionably charming company in the common areas, but to resist invitations to go back to his rooms). There was none of the feeling of personal betrayal you report, Janice, since I never really interacted with him at all, but there's no question that, whether it makes sense or not, I can't help thinking less of him for his abuse of power (which is, after all, a professional issue; we were just on the cusp of such behavior becoming officially unacceptable; I don't know whether he cleaned up his act once the rules got stricter).

  4. @Janice: Why not write to Adam and tell him what you have heard, identify the girlfriend who made the indictment, repeat what she said, share your emotional reaction to it, and so on? Where is it written that the mentee cannot become the mentor, that the child cannot become the parent, that the student cannot become the teacher? Why cannot you speak truth to power with love? Why are you so goddamned meek? Why are you hiding from the adventures of life?

    @Leslie K: I'm assuming Janice from Jacksonville is not Janice P. Lord help us if they're the same person.

    1. Bubba, it was just an unfortunate naming accident. They are different folks.

  5. In my discipline, there's been some serious discussion about whether we should strike the work of people who do that from the canon, because in our discipline, the personal moral compass is one important form of epistemology. I think that is silly, only because most of the premodern people in the canon may well have done the same and worse, but we have know way of knowing. But teaching about someone's private crimes along with hir work, I find very appropriate.

    Here's how I might handle this, ideally in person or at least on a phone call where you can hear his reactions:
    "I'm sorry I've been MIA. I heard something awful from one of my previous cohort members, and I had to step back from our friendship for a bit. Did you know that when I studied with you, the department gossip was that we were sleeping together? They are even saying that you're having relationships with undergrads now! I'm so sorry to even repeat something so awful, but I just wanted you to know why I've been cool. Just the idea that you or I could be involved in something like that was so upsetting I needed to step back for some time."

    I think this approach gives him juuust enough cover not to have to mess with your career if the worst is true, but still, his in-person reaction should let you know the truth. And if it's the case that your cohortees are lying, you won't have suspected him of doing this awful thing.

    1. @Kate, you are so right! There is often much talk about who is sleeping with whom. Occasionally, it is correct. But often it is not true. People do not understand that there can be close relationships between people that are not sexual. And even if you visited him and everything seemed cool between him and his wife, you have no idea what goes on when you close the door behind you. Just keep your connection to him as professional as it has always been.

      Gossip hurts, both when it is true and when it is not. But what happens between other people is just none of your beeswax, as my grandmother used to say. Of course, getting intimate with a student is highly unprofessional. Wait until graduation - then all's fair in love.

  6. I guess it all depends on how trustworthy your grad school pals are. It sounds as if they ALL knew of his rep, but I sort of agree with others who suggest you not just let it go. It would be a nice "surprise" to discover your pal is a creep, and not your mentor.

  7. " our discipline, the personal moral compass is one important form of epistemology." Well, yes, and that did gays and lesbians in the academy no favors when homosexuality was viewed as immoral. I feel about this the way I felt about Bill Clinton: the abuse of professional power is disturbing, but the "adultery" is none of my business. How do you know that he and his wife don't have an understanding? That she doesn't sleep around too? I'd take this up with my mentor, assuming he couldn't hurt my career, as a purely professional issue -- using the words Kate wrote, because they're about sleeping with undergrads. Adultery is a private issue; sleeping with people over whom you have institutional power is a public one.

  8. I hope you contact him at some point. I lost contact with a good friend a few years ago, I never knew why, and it bothers me still. We were friends in grad school, kept in close touch afterwards, went to ball games together, complained about our love lives after breakups, etc. I would have asked her to be my Best Man when I got married, but my bride thought it'd be weird to have a woman "best man" so we settled for her being a bridesmaid. She was, basically (and aside from my bride) my best friend. then, a few years ago, I called her, she said "I'm busy, I'll call you back" and I never heard from her again. She ignored emails, calls, etc. Eventually I took the hint and stopped trying, But I really wish I knew what happened. At least if I offended her I could apologize. Or maybe she thinks I did something I didn't actually do. At any rate, I hope you can explain to your mentor what happened.

  9. Janice writes:
    Just to clarify, the first year blonde is a first year grad student, not an undergrad. I was 25 as a first year and certainly an adult. It doesn't change everything, but I wanted to clarify.

    Also I've been in touch with a couple of male friends from grad school and both assured me that Adam's "reputation" was well known among them. I am so grateful for all the advice.

  10. Place a cloud-camera in the right spot and make it go viral. I think I'm turning into Strelli.

  11. @Kate, your advice is Solomonic wisdom.

    @ Kate and Suzy, I've read in a feminist book about the academy (can't remember which one) that it's not rare for male professors to foster a reputation for such affairs without actually conducting any. The game is to flirt with female students and have apparently private conversations with them, in front of other male professors. It was said to be part of the competition within the hierarchy.

    Not that this still doesn't treat female students as objects, but it's a bit less heinous than actual serial affairs.

    Any men familiar with this?