Monday, September 21, 2009

Advisors are people too

Over the weekend I sent my dissertation director what I think of as my semi-annual email message; since getting a tenure-track job, I've rarely gone more than nine months without dropping her a note. Sometimes it's because I need something; sometimes I want to thank her for something; sometimes I'm giving her a heads-up that I'll be coming through town. And when none of those conditions has applied, it's simply seemed politic to stay in touch: sooner or later I would need something from her.

The subtext of these messages used to be, "look how well I'm doing! how on the ball I am! please be proud of me, or at least remember I exist." It's not that I didn't think she cared about how I was doing, and it's not that I didn't wish to have a genuine relationship with her; the desire for such a relationship may in fact be the primary reason I kept writing. But telling myself that it was strategic to keep in touch made it easier to contact this woman I'd never had a personal relationship with, and who was bound up in so many ways with my generally brutalizing experience of graduate school.

Seeing her one-on-one this past winter and even two summers ago, however, made me feel that we were getting closer to an adult relationship. It's not that I got to know more about her, really, for if there's one thing graduate students make it their business to know, it's every last scrap of gossip about their professors' lives; I've been thinking about my advisor as a person and a personality for a very long time. But that day in January I felt a sudden, intense emotion for her--something more than just admiration and the desperate need for her approval. It's the difference, I guess, between knowing that someone is a complicated person and not caring that they're complicated; at a certain point you realize or decide that someone is in your life, and matters to you in ways that aren't just about you.

So the message I sent was a strange hybrid. The bulk of it still foregrounded the important things that have happened in my professional life (i.e., how amazingly I'm doing, and how deserving of head-patting), but I added a few lines about my personal life and people we know in common before concluding by asking after several specific matters in her life. The combination felt awkward. I'm not sure it's a message I'd want to receive, or would know quite what to do with if I did. But it seemed like a good start.


medieval woman said...

It's so great that you post o this now - I just got finished sending my advisor almost the same email! Just a semi-annual update with a little more personal stuff thrown in. I've always been slightly more personal with my advisor than it sounds like you have (only slightly), but this was the first time I wasn't asking also asking for something obliquely. In fact, I was telling her that one of my students is applying to my program for grad school and that I wanted to give a heads up that his app was coming through. She said to email her when he applied and that she'd be sure to read it - how grown up is that??

Shane in SLC said...

I was fairly close to my advisor all through grad school and the job seeking process. He was always very good to me. Then, a couple of years after I got my first tenure-track job, he died. I miss him terribly.

Flavia said...

MW: yes, I got a very sweet note back myself, including being told that I'm "so together!" (exclamation mark hers); I understand that as a high compliment.

And Shane: my advisor is aging, too; I think that's not unrelated to the sudden intensity of my feelings for her.

(But I'm fanatical, generally, about preserving, maintaining, or reestablishing relationships--it's hard for me to feel that I don't have access to the people who mattered in some way in my past, or to the selves I was then. I don't think it's nostalgia so much as the desire to preserve a sense of continuity between who I am now and who I was then.)

What Now? said...

Just this weekend I was thinking about a couple of grad professors I should be in contact with; your post now gives me an extra impetus to write and send those letters/emails!

(My word verification is "nations" -- how cool is that?)

Renaissance Girl said...

Ummm....your post reminded me to write my advisor, too. I adore him. And I want so desperately to do him proud. We've had a nonscholarly relationship for many years, but I don't think I'll ever shake my desire to be head-patted by him.