What role does gratitude pay in feminist mentoring?

In the universe of feminist pedagogy, I support approaches that de-center mentors in favor of prioritizing students and junior faculty. The decks are so stacked for the tenured faculty vis-a-vis more junior people that you have to think about mentoring here as an exercise of using power ethically. Groveling for whatever crumbs you get thrown from the great I Am is bad for both student and mentor (who is trading a real, gratifying relationship for cheap power trips).

That said, I’ve been encountering a lot of drive-by Twitter proclamations that dictate what your students are entitled to and how you are scumbag, unprofessional faculty member if you don’t do them. I recently found a very snippy Tweet about not answering emails in a timely manner, about how that’s “unprofessional” and students deserve better.

I am guilty of this one. In my defense, I get 100+ emails a day, and those are not spam. I try to get the ones from students as fast as I can, but I try to limit the hours I spend on email, and I have to admit, sometimes I put it off.

What struck me about the tweet was the tone. Now, Twitter is what it is, and nobody needs me to tone police, but I also kinda wondered about all of it: so many of these smell of a) faculty sending out “how you should be” messages that are essentially virtue signaling that these actions are the Right Way To Care About Students because they do them that way and b) projected anger from graduate students who feel like their needs aren’t being met and can’t direct that anger safely at the faculty who aren’t helping them. Neither are all bad, but neither are exactly speaking to truth to power in the manner I suspect their authors think.

To wit: no, I often don’t answer emails right away. But my students–all of them, including my undergrads–have my cell phone number. If a student needs something, they can call or text. If they prefer not to do those, then I hold between 8 to 10 office hours a week. If they don’t want to do these, then I guess they have to wait until I get my lazy ass around to answering emails, which is usually about once a week, on Friday afternoons. Sorry. A better person would think about student needs 24/7, but I got old and sick and couldn’t do that anymore. Does it help that I feel guilty?

I think all this is reasonable. I am sorry that I am not great at emails, but I’m not, and I’m pretty damn stretched most of the time. And moreover, I am not willing to accept “professional” as the behavioral standard I am expected to work to. “Professional” has always been a way to reinforce hierarchies in my experience, and I find the fetishization of the concept in the academy to be a worry. My university–like most–are puh-lenty corporate and willing to treat students like customers and me like retail salesperson vending shirts (btw, I don’t’ think retail salespeople should be expected to endure the emotional abuse of being happy clappy all the time, either.)

Too much of this “customer”/professional business reduces everything about my relationships with students. If we want to be nasty about it, ‘professional’ may mean you as a student are entitled to a timely email response to class-related questions, but then I get to kick you out of my office if you start telling me about your life if it doesn’t strictly pertain to the class? Your hopes and dreams? Screw that, I’m not a guidance counselor, and every second I spend with you smiling and nodding and supporting is a second out of my hide. I could be researching or relaxing.

I don’t listen to hopes and dreams or, conversely, dreads and worries because it’s my *professional role.” I do it because it’s what I think the old owe the young in payback for all the ways we were supported when we were young and trying to get where we were going when we were coming up. It’s human, not professional per se. I do it for students because I happen to be in a university, but I also listen to people on the bus and at the farmer’s market, and lots of other places because it’s good to support aspirations.

I do this not because it’s my job but honestly, out of gratitude to professors like Professor Jackson at the University of Iowa who listened to my prattle when I was 18 and wanted to be a classics professor. There strikes me as a great deal about being a mentor that is about paying back by paying forward. I will never, ever be able to repay Randy Crane for the faith he demonstrated in me as a wounded, fucked-up, social disaster of a PhD student. So I did my best by trying to be a credit to him, saying thank you (awkward though it was for both of us), and doing for younger people what he so sweetly did for me. Was he perfect? Nope. Am I blind to his flaws? Nope. But he saw all my flaws and stood with me anyway. And to me, that’s about as good as anything gets, ever. Ever.

It leaves me wondering about what all this “hey tenured professor shithead, do your job and attend to us with less power” stuff does to gratitude. Nobless obliges stinks, but I have to say, ingratitude stinks, too. Maybe institutions that run off noblesse oblige poison things like gratitude. But for me, I feel better in all this call-out culture of progressivism being grateful, too, even as we demand better from people who have power. At some point, we are all just limited, broken things making out way in the world, and gratitude and grace strike me as pretty important in all this.

Note: I should probably add that if you haven’t been a student of mine, you don’t get to have opinions on how I treat students.