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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

APD and Me

One of my professional mentors was APD. He was very helpful to me politically, in having a powerful person in my corner. I had several problems with him as well. Now, thinking back, I think this can be inevitable in a mentoring relationship of this type.

People adored (adore) him. He gave several NEH seminars for College Students and single-handedly jump started several careers. Others were able to publish when they hadn't before.

I was in a somewhat different position. I never studied with him, and I was a whole lot stronger than the typical student in his seminars. I was chosen to replace him at the University where I teach, with his overt approval. We got along very well for several years, but somewhat less so toward the end. When he got sick, I had to teach his class for half a semester for no extra money.

My problem was that I could not say what I really thought about his work. I had to keep writing about him, because I was asked, and I had to use a kind of double-voiced discourse, saying that, of course, he was great, but that there were a few little problems. Reading carefully, everyone astute enough could see that these little problems were huge. It took a toll on me to be so rhetorically cute. I even had to organize an homage for him, with his prize students coming. I had to try to be intellectually honest while not seeming a total ingrate and jerk. I didn't want the stigma of being his disciple, because the smartest people knew his work was rather weak, but I still wanted to benefit from my political connection to him. It was rather difficult.I think those years were my biggest period of depression.

On the one hand, he seemed to be having a positive influence by making people in our field more theoretical. On the other hand, what these people were doing was a kind of "theory-lite." It wasn't actually good work (with a few exceptions), and his own work was not either. I'm sure his other students resented me because I was his chosen successor even though, some of them might have realized, I was a bit skeptical about the value of his own work and influence.

Of course, I'll never the adored mentor that he was, because I cannot encourage people to do inferior work, or get excited about their lamest ideas. I think he helped a lot of people do what they wanted to do, including me, although his mentorship of me was never intellectual.


profacero said...

"My problem was that I could not say what I really thought about his work."

It is a terrible position to be in. I have a version of this with a family member and it uncomfortable to say the least.

Clarissa said...

I really love the way you write, Jonathan. "Rhetorically cute" sounds beautiful.

And some people (khm, khm) already consider you their adored mentor whether you want it or not. :-)

Clarissa said...

I have a somewhat similar relationship with the scholar who was my very first and crucially important mentor. He is a brilliant scholar and a great inspiration as a teacher. But he requires a complete wide-eyed admiration that only an undergrad can give him. A person who is on her way to become a scholar in her own right will eventually start asking questions and advancing her own research ideas. And this is something this mentor could never accept. So that was the end of that beautiful mentoring relationship. :-(