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My point is not that the contemporary university is becoming, in the guise of a progressive secular morality organized around care for and affirmation of “identities,” its own sort of church. But the university’s occasionally churchy tone does reveal the common participation of ecclesiastical, pedagogical, and other American institutions in a new way of managing the self. “Mentorship,” following “leadership,” “values,” “mission,” and other such terms suggesting an affective, ethical supplement to institutions otherwise lacking human warmth, became an important concept in academic and corporate circles in the 1990s. Since then it has only increased in significance. It is now an object of considerable scholarly investigation, both from researchers who, imagining that “mentorship” is desirable and quantifiable, seek to refine techniques for increasing it, and from others of a more Foucauldian bent who wonder what kinds of “governmentality” are being exercised, and to what ends, through “mentoring.”
Queer mentees participating in the University of Chicago’s program are imagined, at least in its own discourse, as engaged in a process of supervised self-construction — a process at once utterly intimate and folded unproblematically into the university’s institutional workings and academic agendas. Chicago’s program, which matches queer university employees with students seeking “mentorship,” operates similarly to nearly 175 (counted in a recent report) other such LGBT+ mentorship programs at universities across the country — and countless more programs organized on the basis of sex, race, etc. At Chicago, “mentorship” is defined according to the program’s website as providing “support” to students as they learn how to articulate themselves publicly as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc. and “connecting” them to “community” sites and resources off-campus.
“Coming out” is presented here as a difficult self-questioning, which can be steered toward its correct conclusion by an authoritatively deputized adult imagined as a bridge both to the student’s queer future and to a community. The vision of gay life awaiting students beyond the university is a sanitized one; the website specifies that “LGBT establishments” consist of “coffee shops, LGBTQ centers … comedy nights, educational talks [and] LGBTQ media awards.” No bars, no clubs. One would never suspect from the program’s literature that the identities with which this sort of mentoring is concerned have anything to do with sex.
It may be that I lack what are described as the qualities of “Queer Mentors” (capital M), who are said to be “mature, caring, responsible, and altruistic.” Or it may be that, in an age when intimate relations between faculty members and students, and among students themselves, are increasingly policed by university administrators, the idea of identifying with students, in a manner formalized by and visible to my employer, on the basis of our shared sexual desire (however silenced in the university’s official narrative), seems like inviting trouble.
Beyond the academy, in all domains of white-collar employment, employees are at once warned against the dangers of unsanctioned intimacy with one another and solicited to blur the boundaries of the personal and professional by bringing their “whole selves to work.” In a cogent analysis of how universities and corporations use “mentorship” to shape employees, Catherine Manathunga has noted that mentoring allows institutions to frame as a “collegial and equal relationship” a “pedagogy” by which designated agents inculcate “desired subjectivities” in mentees. The latter are charged, on the one hand, to be self-directed and success-oriented, but also to demonstrate their receptivity to guidance that goes beyond the professional toward a form of “acculturation.”
In programs targeted to marginalized groups, mentors acculturate mentees to see themselves as able to reconcile their “identities” (female, gay, Black, etc.) with norms of academic and professional success — which assumes, of course, that taking up one’s Blackness, gayness, womanhood, etc., will not interfere with one’s ability to internalize and maintain expectations about oneself as a “professional,” “competent,” autonomous, and ambitious neoliberal subject. In the academic literature on LGBT mentoring programs, students from the targeted demographic groups are imagined, on the one hand, as exposed to “risk” that will interfere with their success unless remedied through special interventions, but also as bearers of higher degrees of traits associated with success such as “resiliency.” Potential mentees are both specially disadvantaged and specially capacitated by their experiences as minorities (a combination of traits that might suggest they are, all things considered, normal). After passing through such programs, students who see, and have learned to speak of themselves, as members of historically oppressed groups in the rhetoric appropriate for upper-class cultural contexts, will indeed likely have increased their value in the eyes of potential employers looking both to increase their companies’ “diversity” and to assure that “diverse” new employees can adhere to their corporate culture and performance standards.
In this respect, demographically-specific mentorship programs are an instance of a broader cultural pedagogy, one that solicits our future elites to see themselves both as bearers of group-based oppressions and as achievers who demonstrate their merit not least in their ability to narrate how they have overcome the identity-based injustice. I have described this newly hegemonic self-understanding elsewhere as the basis of “woke meritocracy,” in which students use the language of group identity not to resist the atomizing competitions of the contemporary academy and post-college professional life, but to demonstrate their good standing within it and to sharpen their edge against rivals.
We are encouraged to think, by the proliferation of such programs, that being a high-performing academic and economic subject and identifying strongly with one’s gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc., are not only perfectly compatible but mutually reinforcing. A line of anti-capitalist critique from the socialist left and heterodox right suggests that, in fact, such institutions encourage our thinking of ourselves primarily as bearers of these identities — as women, queer, racial minorities, etc. — in order to disrupt the possibility of our building solidarity with other people who share our material conditions but not our curated self-narratives. Insofar as an identity can be constructed and maintained only in opposition to others (a fact we tend to elide when celebrating the growing “visibility” and salience of increasingly numerous and complex identities), the proliferation of identities may offer evermore possibilities for conflict among smaller and smaller groups whose members find themselves unable to recognize common interests.
My closest friend in college had never thought with any particular intensity about being a woman until, as a sophomore, she took a class in 20th-century feminist art. Toward the end of the semester, as she began to consider what she might write for a final paper, she began to think and — bodily, wrenchingly — to feel the enormity of women’s massive, historical, ongoing suffering — rape, abuse, murder, exclusion, poverty, silencing. In a few weeks, in 15 pages, how was she supposed to master even her initial terror and stupor faced with the chasm that had suddenly opened out from under what had seemed to be the clichés of a too-familiar feminism? How can a woman love a man, given everything men have done and still do to women? How can she make her way in a culture that, for thousands of years, reduced real women to chattel and made imagined women the symbols of a femininity defined as the inferior derivative of maleness? The paper was a disaster, earning her a C in the course and sending her to therapy.
One response to such failures is to valorize them as a kind of resistance to dominant norms. This is what, for example, Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure (2011), figuring queerness as a “failure” to conform to heterosexuality that opens up radical possibilities for alternative lives. The problem is that this is almost indistinguishable from the TED-talk ethic that celebrates entrepreneurial risk-taking as a kind of “failure” that is, in fact, able to “succeed” better than conventional success. On the contrary, anyone who begins to think about what it means to belong to a group, to have unchosen ties to other people, to have been oneself constituted by histories of violence, to bear and to bear witness to the weight of past and present injustice, should be expected to be shaken, unsteadied, and less able either to compete with her peers or, at some future date, to transmute the trauma that such thinking reveals and inflicts into an eventual narrative of triumph and insight. Thinking about the irreparable may undo us, irreparably.
Thinking of my friend (who did, in the end, devote her life to feminist art), I have often felt in my classroom how perverse it is to confront students with the fraught questions posed by the “great books” while assigning work to be graded. I find myself hoping both that they will recognize the urgent, intimate relevance of these texts to their own lives and at the same time acquire the skills of verbal self-expression to write technically correct papers about them. Perhaps this double injunction really commands students to learn how to feign encounters with ideas that might wreck them, temporarily or permanently, and wrest them away from their status as high-achievers. They would not want, surely, what happened to my friend to befall them, and I can hardly say that I myself want to send them to therapy. But, if that risk — the risk of a real failure that will not be recuperable in some future tale of overcoming hardship — is not present, then why are we reading these books?
In recent years, administrators I have talked with at the universities I am most familiar with (Northwestern University, where I received my Ph.D., and the University of Chicago, where I am a postdoctoral instructor) have told me that an assortment of stakeholders — including students, their parents, fellow administrators, and the media — are increasingly concerned about the university’s responsibility for student “wellness” and “mental health.” These are, they point out, to some extent euphemisms for fears about students dropping out, failing out — or even committing suicide. Mentors form an additional link in a chain of residence heads, academic advisers, instructors, and other mental-health monitors charged with reporting on students who seem “unwell.” Keeping students alive and succeeding in the classroom is, obviously, a basic function of the university. But the forms of surveillance, oriented towards “wellness” and organized through apparently “personal” relationships, can appear cruelly ironic in the context of actual lives.
Some years ago a male student emailed me one morning to say that he had been raped some time before and was feeling too sad to get to class. This was, at a minimum, a request to be excused for that day, and, probably, a plea for help. I do not think that he knew I was contractually obligated to report this information both to the Title IX office (regardless of whether the rape had involved another member of the university community) and the “wellness” office. Both of these apparatuses performed a “check-in” through which one of their agents contacted my student to ask if he was all right, which I imagine is understood by the university’s lawyers to constitute having done due diligence.
I waited until the end of the day to contact the administrators I had to contact. I thought, hard, about saying nothing. I thought about myself at his age — when my parents had cut off contact with me for being gay, when the only adults I felt I could trust were two history professors who, without ever saying a word to me about what I must be feeling, assured my financial and emotional “wellness” by getting me summer grants and into a Ph.D. program — and how humiliated and miserable I would feel to know my worst moments of vulnerability were the subject of a file passed among bureaucrats. I thought about how much I was letting him down, how little I lived up to the standard set by my own college professors.
Of course, he wasn’t me, or on the way to becoming me. I had no particularly close relationship with him before receiving his email, and I hadn’t attempted to build one. My usual intuition with gay male students is to be a bit more distant than I otherwise would, since rather than uniting us on the basis of our shared histories of marginalization, the sexuality I share with some of my students unfortunately makes me sometimes experience them as a source of danger from which I must protect myself, the way my straight male colleagues do, from any possibility of an ambiguous — and thus perhaps legally actionable — degree of closeness. While my employer periodically enjoins me to connect to students on the basis of our “identity,” it also insists that such connections are perilous.
I didn’t feel safe risking, as some of my female colleagues told me they had risked with female students who had been similarly victimized, an intimate conversation with my student about how he felt and what he wanted, much less of warning him that the university might not be the safest venue to seek help or justice. I worried, to what is now my shame but then seemed elementary prudence, that any specially personal expression of compassion might come off somehow inappropriate, prurient. But because, like me, he was gay — in the effeminate, involuntarily public, and vulnerable way that incites comment, derision, violence — passing his case off to university officials struck me as a despicable act of disloyalty.
Administrators hope that students and faculty will find in the university’s ostentatious celebration of their shared “identities” a means of connecting with each other that secures their mutual commitment to the institution itself and the set of values it serves. In that moment, though, it seemed I had to choose between doing the decent thing for another gay man — allowing him, in a furtive and humane suspension of the imperative to visibility to choose for himself how to make sense of his ordeal — and serving the university. The latter claims that my identity is a resource for relating to students, and thus for helping them to succeed on the university’s terms — terms increasingly shaped by the corporate world outside. But the university also charges me with monitoring my students, and my own relationships with them, as part of a system of surveillance to which genuine connections, based on common identities or otherwise, are disruptive, even dangerous.
In the end I did what I was, by the terms of my employment, supposed to do. But it felt, and still feels, like a betrayal. Instead of offering, as my teachers had, a sheltering opacity in which my student could get the material resources he needed to build his own gay life on his own terms, I exposed him to the surveillance network of “care” workers that has become increasingly central to universities’ functioning, and of which “mentorship” programs are another node. This may have been what my student would have preferred — and even what was, from the soberest vantage, the best thing for him. But, while universities celebrate their own tolerance of diversity and encourage their “diverse” students and staff to be visible members of the campus “community,” I remember with bitterness how our shared gayness made me feel that I had to keep my distance from this student.
In academia and throughout our society, elite institutions are interpellating their members as bearers of minoritized identities. They are eroding the distinctions between a private realm of intimacy and the public, visible, norm-bound realms of institutional life (work, school, etc.). And they ask us to see these hailings and conflations as liberatory. Such summons constrain and deny the way in which thinking about one’s identity is, at least always potentially, a call to begin a perilous intellectual adventure that may put one’s academic and professional “success,” and even one’s identity itself, at risk — and the way that our identities, by connecting us to other people, inspire forms of intimacy and sympathy that urge us to exceed, evade, or otherwise not conform to the responsibilities assigned to us in our professional roles. Real mentoring, perhaps, is what we offer students most in those necessarily unprofessional, unmanageable, almost unbearable moments when they see, in our agonizing uncertainty about what to do, what it means to care about ideas and about each other.