One evening last month, I met up with a small group of young women, and went home feeling uplifted, happy and inspired. These are women I have known for many years, and they are more than dear to me. They are funny, smart, witty and adventurous. We have traveled together, had countless dinner parties together, gossiped, and learned together. The common bond between us (aside from a mutual affinity) is that I was once their professor and they were once my students.
I have been teaching in my university long enough that I have witnessed the development of several classes of students from young, naïve, bright-eyed 18-year-olds to savvy, confident and sometimes cynical young men and women. And over the years, long after they have graduated, many of these students still see me as a mentor, but many see me as a friend. They are not afraid to come to me for advice, nor are they afraid to offer their own.
I have felt so enriched by these relationships that I am always surprised by fellow faculty members who never see beyond professor/student roles, and those who are very clear that they want no other role (except, perhaps to write letters of recommendation for grad school). I understand the need to keep a student at arm’s length when one is directly supervising the student. As a feminist, however, I believe in the vital importance of the mentoring relationship, particularly between women. I also appreciate that women often relate to each other in non-hierarchical ways that offer the possibility of fostering deeper relationships—not mentorship, but friendship.
I think of the long friendships I have with many of my former students in terms of academic generations, in which my experience of growth is joined with theirs. Among the relationships that I cherish most, for example, represent my first and second years of teaching–I was younger when I met them, and, in a sense, grew up with them. They were looking to me for guidance and advice when I was in the process of figuring out my own life—navigating the unfamiliar territory of a new career and a new university, going through the growing pains of intimate relationships, and for all intents and purposes, becoming an adult. Each one of those friends/former students from that time buoyed me up with her wit, her curiosity and her creativity, without actually knowing she was helping me learn as well.
Our profession is inherently social and personal—we are, after all, engaged in shaping minds and fostering learning. As women academics, we are, by nature of our gender, role models to countless young women, and I take that as a serious responsibility. Our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes and our failures can always be material for teaching and mentoring—in the true feminist sense of the personal being political.
Yes, being an academic and being a teacher are intellectual pursuits, and worthy of the respect that many professors demand from their students. But the satisfaction of our jobs may actually lie elsewhere. When, someday, I look back at my career, I’ll think of the books and articles I’ve written, of course. But, I will see those as artifacts of a former me who explored ephemeral puzzles and was fascinated by esoteric theories. The “real” me, the lived me, will be traced in different ways: those that I have loved, those that I have cherished, and the academic generations of women who have or will have taught me so much, even as I was teaching them.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed