Graduate mentoring and textually mediated intellectual passion

“After you take classes, you mostly stop having a relationship with the department, and your main relationship is with your committee,” a friend of mine said last year.

So the relationship with one’s advisors is the institutionalized moment of semi-autonomy from the institution, a moment in which one’s academic situation is governed by the contingencies of evolving personal and intellectual relations, and only more distantly by the bureaucratic requirements of the graduate program.

This can evoke all kinds of intricate psychosocial dynamics between student and advisors. Being in the middle of them, I can’t really speak from experience here, but let’s look at Janice Radway’s post facto description of her advising relationship, from a 2006 interview in the Minnesota Review with Jeff Williams:

“I first studied with Russ during my sophomore year. I had come out of a very middlebrow background and loved books and reading. I thought of myself as an English major, but didn’t aspire to a professional identity or position. I thought I was going to write as a journalist. In that sophomore year, I took Russ’s class on realism and naturalism, which met three days a week. He was working on The Unembarrassed Muse at that time and offered a special session that you could attend on Thursdays, where he would talk about the popular culture contemporaneous with literary realism and naturalism. I attended those sessions and was transfixed; I was not just transfixed by the subject matter but by his investment in the subject matter. I remember thinking, “This is a job, you can actually aspire to this as a job. You might think of yourself as a teacher, as a professor even.” It sounds silly and naïve, but that really was the moment when I thought about a different future.”

Williams interjects: “My saying is, you don’t get born knowing it.”

Radway continues: “Yes. That was the moment when I realized you could really desire to do this. He became a kind of mentor to me even as an undergraduate. Eventually, I wrote a senior honors thesis that developed out of that class… In that case, I was interested in class and class mobility, though I didn’t have a sophisticated enough vocabulary to discuss it.

“So I went back to work with Russ because he was very encouraging. He was quite driven by ideas, but he wasn’t self-consciously training us to take up research positions in top-tier institutions. He was training people to be teachers who loved the material they were teaching. He was a voracious reader himself and passed on everything he knew. He was legendary for leaving notes, clippings, and citations in his colleagues’ and students’ mailboxes almost every other day. In that way, he literally passed on his passion to all of us.”

Williams: “Do you do that for your students?”

Radway: “No, I don’t know how he had the time to do what he did. It was a different historical moment perhaps, in terms of the life of the university. He certainly didn’t have to contend with email or with endless amounts of administrative tasks.”

The relation with Russ begins in a moment of transfixion. A mimetic moment in which Radway learns to embody her professor’s passion even as it amazes and almost stuns her. A moment in which Radway feels her professor’s feelings and, in that moment, begins to see his present as her potential future. A moment in which an academic future becomes concrete, an academic aspiration becomes “actual,” a desire becomes “real.”

If this is really the beginning of the formation of a professorial habitus, an academic state of mind and being, then it’s interesting that it takes form all at once in a memorable event. As if the habitus were formed event by event, not only through a slow and unconscious process of accretion.

Then when it comes to Radway’s work in graduate school, what’s striking is that intellectual passion was transmitted through textual circulation. The measure of Russ’s dedication was the massive amount of “notes, clippings and citations” that he passed on. If texts are epistemic mediators in academic life, then here we observe the social effects of small texts in circulation, not huge things but merely clippings and citations, working as the media of daily sociability and solidarity.

Russ’s intellectual intimacy with his students was realized as he read voraciously and then “passed on everything he knew.” As if total sharing with one’s students were the true mark of intellectual dedication. As if students were offered all their professor’s knowledge. (A fantasy, that.)

But then in a weird moment of self-negation, Radway says that she doesn’t do that for her students. Times have changed. There isn’t time to share everything anymore. Oddly, she cites email as a reason for the diminishment of intellectual exchange. (I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would hardly have relations with anyone without electronic communication.) Here Radway repeats an academic figure I’ve seen other professors say: one’s charismatic teacher incarnated a form of total intellectual engagement, but one will never live up to that, never equal that.

We see here intense identification with one’s advisor (Russ offered Radway a future as he prefigured it) coupled to definite disidentification (I’m not like that!); we see humanization (advisors share their passions with their students) but also a fair bit of mythicization (“he was legendary”: hence he was not typical).

Here we can see that not all contradictions are bad. Here, contradiction worked as the medium for encouragement, maybe even for happiness. Here, the unrealizable fantasy of total sharing fails productively in the form of an intense (even if not total) circulation of texts and ideas.

This image of intense intellectual exchange appears as an extremely happy medium between the neurosis of total domination by one’s advisors (and this certainly happens to many people) and the anomie of benign neglect (which also occurs too often). I can’t help but notice, though, that intellectual exchange is described as total but also represented as very unidirectional here: it sounds like Russ was sharing everything while Radway didn’t give back much to him. Advising relations are after all based on an institutional hierarchy which one can, at best, try to evade and dampen. They are bound to be asymmetrical. The question then is simply what one can do, or do to with this asymmetry.