Knowing When to Defriend

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

December 06, 2010

You gather at least once a month with a group of fellow tenure-track faculty members. At first the conclave is a relief and a release. You find that your troubles and frustrations are not unique; you enjoy the frisson of guilty satisfaction when others mock the same senior professors and students who irritate you.

After a few semesters, however, you begin to question the utility of membership in a group of people who do little but complain. You wonder whether your time would be better spent finding solutions and offering encouragement than airing grievances and predicting doom. But can you really just walk away from your friends?

The word "friend" is a loose one in the early 21st century. A friend on Facebook, for instance, may be someone you met once at a conference. In academe, friendship is rarely stated outright. In my 20 years in the trade, I've never had one professor introduce another to me as "my friend, Vito, chair of the Hittite-studies department." But obviously strong friendships exist in higher education, and constructive friendliness is a lubricant of faculty culture.

Successfully navigating the promotion-and-tenure track also requires friends of all kinds. But the essential question is: Are they friends indeed? That is, do they contribute to your happiness, success, feelings of fulfillment? Or are they dead weights, negatives, dispensers of bad advice, draggers down of your conscience, and saboteurs of your labors?

Here, as part of a series of columns on faculty conflicts, I offer a checklist of questions that assistant professors should ask about their academic friendships.

Is your friend a counselor or an enabler? Almost by definition, we look to our friends for validation. Just as research has found that people read political blogs, in part, to confirm their own opinions, not challenge them, we tend to seek out friends who build us up, not put us down. Obviously, then, don't hang out with people who belittle you or make you feel bad.

Harder to accept is that the opposite extreme can be just as dysfunctional for the probationary faculty member.

More than 400 years ago, the French philosopher Jean de La Bruyère commented how "bizarre" it was that we "seek our happiness outside of ourselves, and in the opinions of men, whom we know to be insincere, inequitable, capricious, flatterers, full of envy and preconceived notions about us." You are not helped by someone confirming your self-delusions or buttering you up.

In contrast, I have a friend who is also a shrewd critic of my work. I like to send him ideas, research articles, and essays in gestation because I know his reaction will be smart, knowledgeable, and, above all, frank. I know he will unreservedly tell me, "This is bad, and here's why."

In other words, you are probably just as hurt by someone whose praise is unstinting, unalloyed, and automatic as someone who heaps on the negatives. Good friends care about your interests, and you, enough to be, in private at least, rigorous in their evaluation of you, your words, and your actions. They are doing you a favor that the sycophant and the glad-hander aren't: helping you avoid mistakes and faulty moves. The young tenure tracker should cultivate friends who value honesty as a bedrock of friendship.

Is your friend a negativist? Life on the tenure track has its bumps and frustrations. This column certainly tries to identify threats and problems, and suggest ways to deal with them. But I've met few assistant professors whose work lives truly are unending vales of tears.

On the other hand, more than a few probationary faculty members seem to relish expressing woe and dismay at every turn. They are a minority, but they tend to seek out audiences of other novice faculty members to share the drama. You should question whether relentless downers can ever help you climb the career ladder.

If you find yourself spending considerable time being an emotional giving-tree to people who seem to have some new crisis every week, maybe you should consider cutting off the friendship, or at least cutting it back. Ruthless, perhaps, but on the tenure track you can't afford to stop for a dip in pools of quicksand.

Friends should be there for one another in times of trouble. But if someone seems hellbent on sinking his or her own career, it won't help you to join in on the downslide.

Are your friends different enough from you to help widen your perspective? Years ago, I read a book about parenting that argued that peers had as strong or stronger effect on the success of children in school as did parents and upbringing. In an academic department, you can't pick your peers (save through participating in hiring decisions). But you can pick who you will be friends with from among your colleagues.

There is nothing wrong with having a group of friends who, like you, are just starting out on the tenure track. But consider cultivating friendships across the divides of rank and generation.

For example, an assistant professor described a long-term friendship she had established with a senior scholar in another discipline. On things like food and entertainment, they shared few tastes. But the older professor was a great sounding board for the younger one's work, in concept if not in methodology. The senior also had many years of experience as a pioneering woman in a mostly male field and was able to offer solid advice on university politics.

Is it all about them? Does your academic buddy sustain a one-track monologue? Friends don't keep chess clocks nearby during conversations to time who gets the longer say, but there needs to be some sort of balance in the relationship.

A simple sign of the ego-centered quasi-friend is that, when you bring up your predicament, he usually responds with some version of, "You think that's a problem, wait until you hear what happened to me."

Do your friends drag you into battles? In my previous essays on faculty conflicts I noted that while you sometimes need allies in a battle, they can also be a liability. The latter is true when you find your so-called friend extorting your cooperation in battles not of your choosing.

An assistant professor was flattered when a senior faculty member struck up what seemed like a chummy relationship. She gradually caught on that her new pal was trolling for an ally in a decade-long feud with another senior colleague. Like Cato the Elder ending every speech with "Carthage must be destroyed!," the elder professor concluded every "chat" with a suggestion of ways to strike at his nemesis at the next faculty meeting.

That particular case brings up the issue of how, exactly, to withdraw from a dysfunctional friendship. In the online world, Facebook allows you to discreetly drop friends. On e-mail, you can just take a long time to reply, and do so with "really busy, let me get back to you later."

But how do you defriend the guy in the next office? Years ago I suffered the ripped-band-aid approach myself: A new colleague with whom I enjoyed talking told me, "Sorry, I already have enough friends." I don't recommend that level of curtness, but he certainly made his point. A more polite if indirect expedient is to be busy. Look harried when asked to meet up. That should not have to be an act because if you are a graduate student or on the tenure track, you should be busy.

Alternately, try being polite but unresponsive. Let conversations be one way, and make the downtime a moment of Zen reflection. Tune out the verbiage and imagine an azure beach, or rethink the data analysis in your latest experiment. In one such situation myself I learned some visualization skills and let my faux friend grind on until he ran out of things to say. The outcome: He praised my "listening skills" but also moved on to others who were livelier in conversation. And I didn't make an enemy by needlessly hurting his feelings.

Good friends can be crucial to career success in academe, so choose people who are worth the investment of your time and energy. Friendship should not be valued only as a means to a career end—but neither should you hold true friendship so lightly that you take it on without estimating whether it is worth it.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the P&T Confidential advice column for "The Chronicle." His book on promotion and tenure was just published by Harvard University Press.