Saturday, October 08, 2016

Asymmetrical relationships

I've always been interested in the emotional attachments we develop in this profession--attachments to people we know, people we don't know, and people we'll never know. For the most part I'm not talking about those we would identify as friends; professional friendships, like all friendships, may have their ups and downs and misunderstandings, but they're basically mutual: both people have roughly the same stakes in and understanding of the relationship.

The kind of attachments I'm interested in are the asymmetrical ones. Whatever your actual relationship to the person in question, the psychic real estate they occupy is disproportionate. Mentors, grad school professors, and dissertation directors are one obvious category, and in years past I've written a lot about those. Colleagues are another. I admit, to my chagrin, that I've been known to conjure up much more elaborate relationships--she hates me! he resents me! what if I accidentally offended her and we can never work together again?--than there is any evidence for in the phenomenal world.

But lately I've been thinking about the relationships we have not with our seniors or peers, but with those who are, in at least a limited or temporary sense, our juniors. I'm thinking about the people I've written fellowship or tenure letters for, or the awesome job candidates we didn't hire, or scholars whose work I've recommended for publication. Occasionally these are indeed friends, but the act of reading and thinking about someone else's work and qualifications is an intense and intimate thing, quite unlike the ordinary business of friendship.

There are people who have never met me whose careers I now follow with attention, as well as people who do know me but who probably have no idea how deeply I've thought about their work or how invested in their success I've become. The degree of my investment varies, ranging from sunny goodwill to a more aggressively sororal or maternal advocacy, but it always strikes me as a little peculiar and a little out of proportion. I don't know these people! But I believe in them.

And of course, feeling this intense attachment to people I don't really know has made me reflect on how others might feel about me. With rare exceptions, I don't know the names of any of the reviewers who have taken the time to give me detailed and encouraging feedback on my work--and though I do know the names of those who have written me job or fellowship or tenure letters, in those cases I don't have access to the letters themselves. So my experience of those relationships involves a certain amount of distance: I may feel grateful and indebted, but either I don't have a specific person to tie those feelings to or I don't have a clear sense of exactly what opinions and evaluations I'm feeling grateful for.

So I've never thought too hard about who might have what investments in me: I've imagined my referees as just doing their jobs in a dispassionate or dutiful way. But lately I've been wondering, and every once in a while my antennae will twitch: maybe someone I've always suspected was a reviewer on that essay of mine makes a point of introducing herself at a conference, or someone whose work I admire but have never met starts following me on Twitter. These might just be people who like other things I've written, or who've noticed that our social circles overlap (or who read my blog). But I wonder, sometimes: do we have another kind of relationship? Do I mean something to him or her that's not apparent?

It's disorienting and a little vertiginous to think about all the unacknowledged and asymmetrical relationships we might be a part of. But there's also something nice about it: I like the idea that one of the sustaining forces of the profession might be an invisible web made up of attachments like my own--investments to the work and careers of others that we don't cop to or talk about, but feel deeply all the same.

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