Trust is a gift I choose to give

August 10, 2012, 12:16 pm

I read the Chronicle essay by “Edwina Martin” with a sense of recognition and sadness. A friend that Martin trusted secretly applied for the full-time position where Martin was currently serving in a one-year role. Both women actively discussed their search processes, though the friend didn’t reveal her plan to apply, and Martin’s friend pumped her for information about the institution, the students, the department, etc. Of course, the friend ultimately got the job. It was a very unfortunate situation, and Edwina notes that they aren’t friends any longer. She concludes her essay endorsing silence and cynicism:

In the end, I will simply chalk it up to a live-and-learn experience. If I had to do it all over again, I would have kept my mouth shut and said nothing to anyone about the position. I wouldn’t have been so blindly trusting and naive either.

There are so many problems with this essay, that I am not sure where to start. First, just because you don’t talk about a position doesn’t mean that people won’t know about it. Our disciplines tend to be fairly small, and we only use a few venues to advertise. There is no such thing as a quiet position opening, especially in the humanities, where applicants outnumber positions by a large margin.

Now, do I think that Edwina Martin had to advertise her institution as a great place to work? Maybe not. Some people might quote the old blues song, “Women be wise. Keep your mouth shut. Don’t advertise your man [read: job].”  But I don’t think that works for those of us who process out loud, whose world becomes more real when we talk about it. Perhaps Martin needed to talk about the institution so she could be excited about the prospect of the job.

I would argue that Martin did nothing wrong, besides being a little self-centered and ignoring the realities of her friend’s situation. She notes that her friend is just like her, which means the friend can fill the same curricular and scholarly shoes Martin fills. Further, the friend wants to live in the area of the institution, which is close to the friend’s family; she isn’t happy at her current city; and she is on the market. Given these factors, Martin should have assumed that her friend might apply. I started to wonder, as I read the piece, if Martin recognizes her own solipsistic thinking and how it might have impacted the relationship as much as her friend’s betrayal.

I have had several situations like this. In graduate school, my best friend asked me to review her proposal for a university grant. When I read through the grant, I realized that I could also apply for the funding, which I needed just as badly as she did. Unlike Martin’s friend, I talked to my friend and told her that I planned to apply for the grant as well. She became very upset, noting that I wouldn’t even know about the grant opportunity had she not asked me for help. I also got upset, noting that the information about the grant should have been shared with all of the graduate students, and that she should have taken the initiative to share the info.

I vividly remember a senior faculty member I trusted talking to both of us about the situation. She explained that we should probably learn to compete nicely with one another, as we would be doing it for the rest of our professional lives. “If you value your friendship, you are going to have to figure out how to maintain it even when you are both up for the same award, grant, or position. That’s the way it works in academe.” And I know she was right. Looking back at the situation now, I can see both sides of our argument have some value to them. But the long and short of it is that no one can lay claim to a job, a grant, or an award.

My friend and I still remain friends to this day, and we have had other hard moments. But we followed our mentor’s advice and talked about the situations in the moment. We also empathized with each other when we faced losses, and shared in the other person’s successes.

Lest you think that I am trying to act like some “fully actualized person” here, one who never struggles with anger, disappointment, and jealousy, I can confirm that this is far from the truth. I had a situation very similar to Edwina Martin, except the person who applied for the job was my best (workplace) friend. He hadn’t talked to me about his decision to apply for a job–one I had been informally promised, but that is another story–so it was a shock when I found out, followed by a double betrayal by both my friend and my Dean when I was told that he had been awarded the position. Unlike Martin, my friend and I had it out. He explained his reasoning, and I shared my anger and disappointment. We likely won’t be friends again like we were, but we will at least be cordial. (As I said, it is a VERY small discipline.)

And now that I look back on the whole process from my comfortable new job, I can even see some possible reasons for the Dean’s decision, which is a good thing, since I have to see her at meetings several times a year. I wish she had been able to share them with me, but I am not sure she could even articulate them at the time. But the long and short of that is that I am still aggravated by the whole process, and I have yet to fully move beyond my feelings about it.

That said, these situations made me idealistic cynic that I am today. I go into new situations with a better sense of who I can trust and why such trust is necessary to my life and my professional well-being. And, not to be a bit of a pollyanna, perhaps things do work out–if not for the best, in a way we can learn and grow. I have learned that I can be okay, even if I don’t get what I want, and even if people I trust disappoint me. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, but I refuse to stop trusting people. I hope Martin gets to that place.

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