What Role Does Intimacy Play in Mentorship?

In my last post, I introduced the concept of mentorship and intimacy. I’m talking about the type of intimacy that emerges from a relationship characterized by trust, honesty, risk, and safety. For both participants.

Looking back at this previous sentence, it occurs to me (“I write to know what I’m thinking”) that my own ideas of mentorship are tied to an only-one-on-one type of relationship. I’m not sure why that is. I  guess that has to do with my own ideas about intimacy and trust. Maybe I’m working on the idea that there’s some sort of continuum between teacher and mentor. And that spectrum varies according to number. For each teacher, one student or many students. If a teacher works at establishing a relationship with one student, I see that as mentorship. If several students, I see it as a classroom. But that’s over-simplified. Can a teacher be a mentor, say, to a relatively small group of students in the journalism club? Or the wrestling team? I guess so. But I have a pretty serious impulse to call that something other than mentorship. But now I feel like I’ve digressed. Back to the idea of intimacy.

So here’s the basic idea: in order for a relationship to be a mentorship to happen, there needs to be an intimacy. (Really, I’m just working through this idea as provisional, so bear with me.) There seems to me to be something “off the record” about mentorship. Looking through several books about mentorship and apprenticeships in different fields, one of the most common components of each of the different descriptions of “apprenticeship” or “mentorship” is that there’s a body of knowledge specific to a particular discipline, and these two institutions have evolved to facilitate the transmission of that information from an experienced participant to one who is entering the discipline. Inside/outside. In the know, clueless. This sort of cultural mechanism makes a lot of sense. It seems sort of inevitable, in fact. It seems to serve some sort of “passing of the torch” utility.

To this extent, it would seem that handbooks or advice books about how to act within the discipline should be useful. And they are, I think. But there’s something missing: full disclosure. There are certain parts of our discipline, of any discipline probably, which are ugly and frustrating. The things professionals work against, maybe. And new professionals need to know how to cope with them.

For instance, who’s going to give me advice about working for a WPA whose policies are at odds with my own? I know. The party line is that you need to find a way to have an honest and direct conversation with that person about how to get along together. But that doesn’t always work. In a lot of cases, it’s not even an option. So who’s going to give me advice? Is there someone who has written an account of working of a WPA that just didn’t seem interested in getting along? How can you talk about someone else, especially a fellow professional, as a case that’s very difficult to navigate? It’s really hard to do that sort of thing without burning some bridges. And I want to make it clear here that I’m not even suggesting that this administrator might be ineffective or a bad person. Not at all. Everyone, all of us, have our good days and bad. With varying levels of patience, consideration, and generosity. What I’m trying to get at is that our jobs are not always easy. Not always enjoyable. And we often fail. We often see our peers, even those we respect the most, fail. But’s not polite to write about this sort of stuff. And really, this is just one of the aspects of mentoring that I’m talking about.

There are plenty of aspects of working productively within our discipline that have nothing to do with scholarship. How do you know when it’s time to take a break? What do you do when you’re at the end of your rope? What are the dangers of dating someone within the discipline? Are there any shortcuts on the way to tenure? … And these sorts of questions are really just the general questions. Anyone might be interested in these conversations, and they really are most productively engaged with a mentor who is honest and trusts whoever might be listening.

And then there are the aspects of mentorship which are defined and shaped by the particular people engaged in the mentorship. I have certain hangups and habits that a good mentor will address. But not in front of a group, either. I can trust them. I can be myself. I can take risks with the things I say and the projects I propose. And they can honestly respond to me. For instance, when I was studying creative writing at CU Boulder, I was taking a class from Ed Dorn. He spent the first week explaining to us that almost all contemporary poetry was awful. Self-indulgent. Non-intellectual. Empty. Formless. Undisciplined. Historically unaware of itself. I was a little crushed. Thank god he told that to the whole class. But he really became a mentor when he asked me to make an appointment later in the week so we could talk about my project. I was terrified. He wanted what he called “documentary poems.” So I proposed a project on the history of anatomical theory and dissection practices. He was excited about my project. So much so, that for the few days since I had proposed my project, he’d kept thinking of grave robbers in 19th century England. “To bury your dead and keep them buried. Now that was something!” he said more than once. So I followed up. The grave robbers were called resurrection men. And they were in Scotland, mostly, not England. So here was probably the smartest man I’d ever met who was excited about knowledge and creative work he wanted me to produce. And I ended up seeing things I knew he’d be excited to learn. The specificity of his interest in my project, and the details he and I poured over as he helped my think through how to shape the project, couldn’t possibly have been borne out of a public discussion. It’s not that our interaction necessitated privacy; rather it needed a space that was irrelevant to the rest of the world. Not secret; just obscure.

So maybe it’s obscurity that’s important to mentorship, just as much as it is privacy. But both, I would argue, are born out of place of intimacy.

(I also want to point out that for the very reasons I’m working through above, I haven’t offered much in the way of details regarding my relationships with current or recent mentors. Certainly my relationships with Debra Journet, Tony O’Keeffe, Cheryl Ball, Cindy Selfe, Scott Dewitt, and others are really important to me. They are all so generous with me an many other of their students. But there is a certain intimacy within then that I don’t want to betray publicly. So I’ll just say a simple “thank you” to them, and focus on other aspects of “mentorship.”)