on (not) mentoring

The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.
Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the plaint of ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions. The very fantasy of a subject bound to itself as a solid structure is itself material for a combover. —Lauren Berlant, Supervalent Thought
Thinking with Lauren Berlant, I want to use this occasion to reflect on the meaning and meaningfulness of mentoring, conceived as a form of pedagogy and as a way of conceptualizing being in the academic world.  My frame of reference is graduate education in English, the area in which I have most deeply been embedded for the last decade or so, and I am especially interested in mentoring in relation to the subjects and practitioners of minority discourse.
Thinking about mentoring can tell us something about the cluster of promises, the attachments and fantasies, and generally, the double-bind that defines the place of minority discourse in the academy.  Doing so also helps us to remember that the university was never a utopian institution, that the current potent rhetoric of its “defense” might unintentionally but deeply be linked to a fantasy of it as harboring its potentiality as such, a fantasy that can render it more difficult to negotiate contemporary conditions, to navigate the academic world and understand the constructs and conditions that privilege certain fantasies and attachments and refuse others.  Acknowledgement of the ways that minority discourse sometimes refers to field-practices driven by an attachment to institutionalization per se — to what Roderick Ferguson has referred to as the “will to institutionality”[1] — rather than something like broad-based socio-political transformation toward greater equality and justice, clarifies the importance of sussing out the conditions (structural, affective, epistemological, economic, political, aesthetic) within which the university itself takes priority as object of discourse.  Why this attachment?  How, in this context, do we relate to aspirations to academia?  How do we relate to or apprehend our own aspirations of and to academia?
This essay will not turn out to be a guide to mentoring, or a discussion of the ethics of mentorship, or even an adequate account of all of the different forms of mentoring one might encounter and inhabit.  Rather, what follows is an invitation to proliferate ideas about how, as part of our work, it is possible to acknowledge at once the un-willed nature and historical embeddedness of desires, and to create space for living both because and in spite of them.  What follows is also acceptance of an invitation issued by Berlant in a 1997 essay, “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy,”[2] to attend to the production of precarity for feminist academics by reflecting precisely on such matters as pedagogy and structure.  In that essay, Berlant wrote of the “intimacy expectation that accompanies much politically engaged work in the academy, both among colleagues and in pedagogical contexts” (43).  Focused particularly on reflecting on the identifications, demands, and obligations of and on feminist academics, the essay enjoins our attention to the fantasies that frame and condition our expectations of ourselves, each other, and academic work.  In it, Berlant describes an environment that feels very familiar: the increasing institutional reliance on empirically measurable productivity; the decreasing availability of resources with the corollary exacerbation of inter-unit competitiveness; the conceptualization of the student as client or consumer; the instrumental conceptualization of higher education; and the proliferation of what Berlant calls “voluntary obligations” related to genuinely important/political-intellectual issues, that characterize the lives of politically-engaged academics.  What she describes is a scene of attenuation, of the feeling of inadequacy that can accompany the identification of selfhood with politicized institutional definition, and of the difficulty of taking seriously the problematic itself — i.e., the potential ease with which such matters may be cast (and thus dismissed) as difficulties of “managing privilege,” as complaints of the privileged, unsuitable for serious consideration.  Berlant reflects with her characteristic combination of incisiveness and kindness, on “the limits…to the charismatic mentorship model of pedagogical practice, which focuses on what one individual can do for another, even when this model is reimagined in the name of collective intellectual and political ambition” (43).
What Berlant was writing in that earlier essay is an iteration of cruel optimism.  I don’t mean that literally as a claim that the earlier work was intentionally part of the theorization of cruel optimism; rather, I draw the connection here to suggest that cruel optimism helps us to go further in apprehending our place — the place of politically-engaged academics, or those I will call minority discourse practitioners — in the university at this time.  I want, in short, to continue Berlant’s work of inviting us to think collectively about mentorship, pedagogy, and intimacy — to consider what it means to the ways in which we practice (which of course includes the ways we think) to be mindful of how the good academic life is imagined and structured for the politically-engaged.
In Cruel Optimism, Berlant stands neither for nor against optimism.  For her, the appropriate response to the double-bind of cruel optimism — a defining attachment to an object(ive) that actively impedes even as it is the condition of the ability to secure “the good life” — is not to disavow optimism nor to castigate our desires.  Rather, it is to prompt us to identify the conditions of attrition and the modes by which the historical present is manufactured and endured.  In other words, the problem with cruel optimism is neither the optimism nor, really, its cruelty insofar as it is a condition of possibility of being.  Instead, the issue is that the dissolution of the assurances promised by the fantasy of the good life means that we must generate ways of apprehending precarity and survivability appropriate to the double-bind itself.  This means, as Berlant elaborates in the book, rethinking everything from trauma (theorized as simultaneously generative and destructive) to the ideas of ordinariness and the political.
In broad strokes, we may note that key elements of the good academic life for (aspiring) politically-engaged/minority discourse practitioners includes the belief that knowledge work is related to and can transform the world at large.  So clearly and so long has education participated in social stratification, and so formative to the contemporary have been the legacies of the activist-scholars of the middle-late 20th century, that the university as a site of the socio-political and route of transformation is, I think, by now axiomatic.  But in addition to this outward orientation, it seems to me that the idea of the university as a kind of refuge for non-normativity — a place that might accommodate unconventional desires and ways of being and perhaps even allow them to flourish — quietly operates.  Coupled with the cultural capital assigned to academia and the very conventional material needs of housing, food, and so on, the fantasy that academia is the good life for the unconventional or counterhegemonic (anti-racist, queer, feminist, and so on) subject is powerful.
In recognizing these elements as part of the cluster of promises held out by the fantasy of the good academic life, we may also acknowledge how actively we shape optimistic attachments to it.  As one example, how better to understand the function of the personal statement required of applicants?  We in effect compel the narrativizing of an optimistic attachment, thus either ratifying an existing fantasy or inducing one.  We might understand as well that our responses to reading such statements index our own fantastic attachments: to what extent does identification with our own desire for well-being condition our responses?  The act of applying is itself optimistic, an intentional act that cannot but be driven by fantasy and the wishfulness of the temporality of the what-will-have-been.  The kinds of attempts in which I have been involved, to expand the pool of people of color to graduate programs, might along these lines be seen as efforts to materialize optimistic relationships to the fantasy of the academic good life among racialized populations.  The distribution and availability of certain imaginaries, certain fantasies, along the axis of race serves in this regard as a measure of the continuing material effectivity of racialization.  Consciously and not, I harbor a strong attachment to the idea of a deeply and thoroughly diversified — racially and otherwise — academic scene, in significant part because a massive transformation in and beyond the university would have to have taken place for such a reality to have materialized.  Surely it is the case that the applicant narratives that are most compelling to me are those that somehow seem to share this orientation.  The relationality suggested by the idea of mentoring begins in this sense well before the arrival of and in fact has nothing to do with an actual person/student.  This gets us to the politics of reproduction not of subjects, but of fantasies.
If we pay attention to the ways that our own attachments condition the selection not of a student but instead of a particular fantasy of the good life, the ways in which the ordinary practices of the university (re)produce the privileging, the mattering, of some attachments over others come into relief.  Berlant’s analyses regarding the “overvaluation of a certain mode of virtuously intentional, self-reflective personhood” (124) resonate here.  The genre of the personal statement requires the applicant to cast her — or himself as the heroic protagonist for whom thinking is both a constitutive characteristic and the reward for overcoming the obstacles to its pursuit.  The non-alignment between the heroic story and the absence of guarantees that continuing investment in it — in the idea that the virtuously intentional, self-reflective person will in fact be rewarded with the good life — will come to fruition, strikes me as an ideal condition for inducing precarity.  It does no good simply to advise that the fantasy is fantasy; as Berlant reminds us, “attachments are not made by will, after all” (125).
For minority discourse practitioners, a specific version of this virtuous person is familiar.  At least in part, what it means to be politically engaged is a belief in (an attachment to) the idea that intellectual and pedagogical work participates in world-making within but also beyond the academy.  It is this that conditions the sense of inadequacy about which Berlant wrote in the “Feminist” essay.  Articulated in and to the demands of the university, virtuousness can mean over-extending such that it is impossible to stay apace, to be sufficiently responsive, available, intimate, politicized.  Minority discourse can in this way turn in against itself, serving as a scene of disappointment while intending the proliferation of attachments that might allow for greater flourishing.  This is the double-bind of minority discourse’s affective structure.  What Berlant notes in Cruel Optimism in writing about Eve Sedgwick’s optimism (chapter 4), is suggestive as to how critical practice (pedagogy/mentoring, scholarly activities, service work) might cushion the cruelty of the double-bind vis-à-vis impersonality. “The state of interruption of the personal, and the work of normativity to create conventions of the personal” (159), impersonality defined in this way, de-narrativizes virtuous personhood. It absents the self; there is no hero, no story, no salvation.  Instead, there can be intimacy without expectation of obligation, a being together of incoherencies rendered insignificant, or relief from the self-consciousness of the combover subject.  Instead of striving (and failing) to be enough (feminist enough, radical enough), we can in the space of impersonality emphasize not the inadequacy of the self but rather that of the fantasy of the good academic life.  Impersonality can, following Berlant, allow for less attenuating and more generative forms of intimacy.
I think disinterestedness is a practical attitude akin to impersonality.  This disinterestedness is different from that which claims neutral objectivity and universal personhood.  Instead, it is a disinterestedness that disaggregates the (idea of a coherent) self from the presumption of success or failure, of the goodness or badness of an act.  In various advisory capacities, I habitually tell students to “get your ego out of the way” and “keep your head down and do your work” — imperatives around which I try to organize my own relationship to academic life.  I know these are in some sense impossible enjoinders; what I am trying to get at is something akin to the optimism Berlant finds in impersonality — in living and working as if it’s not about you, and being wary of casting yourself in a melodrama that is the affective environment of academia.  What appear/feel to be, and sometimes are, life and death matters (Am I smart enough? Will I pass my exams? Will I get a job? Will I be tenured?) are unforgiving personalizations that individualize conditions far beyond one’s control.  Disinterestedness reminds me that neither is it about me, the advisor; actively and explicitly bracketing self-interest models, I think, how to avoid conceiving of academia as melodrama.
It is undoubtedly because impersonality works, as it does for Berlant, to protect my optimistic attachments that I have never been comfortable with the idea of mentoring.  Again, as Berlant writes, “There is no romance of the impersonal, no love plot for it.  But there can be optimism, a space across which to move” (126).  It is that space that makes best sense (feels like truth, is apprehensible as true) to me as the space of engagement between students and teachers, colleagues of different ranks.  The heavily hierarchical connotations of mentorship give way in that space to the possibility of intimacies that may be instrumental (advising) and social (community-building) without novelization or idealization.  I have learned most about how to navigate the academic environment from those who, I believe, sought not to be mentors as such, but who were instead interested and embedded in the same or aligned projects much bigger than any individual (feminism, anti-racism — minority discourse); who through the impersonality of intimacy helped me understand what was possible, and why; who were at times painfully honest but never with judgment that felt or was, I believe, personal.  At least consciously, neither do I offer or give help to students “for” them but simply because it is part of my work, my privilege, my politics.  For me, impersonality is a condition of honesty insofar as mentoring is concerned.
If there is a claim embedded in this discussion, it is finally that in lieu of the personality of mentoring, perhaps the more generic and impersonal category of advising makes sense as a way of conceptualizing the relationality between students and faculty.  I think for people of color, for minoritized subjects more broadly, there are so many ways in which misrecognition feels personal that it can be difficult, perhaps impossible, to remember that it really isn’t about you.  The work of retraining the viscera, to use Berlant’s words, might be supported by modeling disinterestedness.  Acknowledge fantasy and identify its conditions of (im)possibility; proliferate others and the conditions that might induce them.  There is work to be done, to advance anti-racism and feminism and realize their materializing potential.  Get the person, the mentor, out of the way to endure, attach, fantasize, continue.
Top image courtesy of Flickr user Punchyy.


  • [1] Ferguson, Roderick, The Reorder of Things. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • [2] Berlant, Lauren. “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy.” The Politics of Research, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine (New Brunswick, NJ, 1997).