Crossing the Border

We share a draft of this chapter with Ann Dixon, an alum and IT consultant at the college. Her many years of work on Serendip have provided an online ecosystem for our teaching and, more recently, for our drafting of this book; we live and work in a technological place she has built. Ann pushes us to look more closely at our focus here on friendships among faculty, who may be marginal in some ways, but in many others not nearly as much as staff members, those she calls “the ‘doers’ who keep the place running.”1

Describing herself as a “borderland person,” Ann is an exception in this narrative: a good friend, colleague and co-worker who is not a member of the Bryn Mawr faculty.  Recognizing how our friendship with her marks some of the limits of our account, we are troubled by the ways in which our stories reprise the hierarchies of value inscribed at the college. We recognize the relative rarity of friendships among faculty and staff members, of relationships that go beyond exchanges at work, that might entail meals, movies, walks off campus, lead to other kinds of understandings, actions, possibilities.

We recognize too that the assignment of institutional roles may constrain the development of any relationship that exceeds such roles: structured expectations guide where we put our time and energy, calling us into some friendships while inhibiting others. the assignment of institutional roles may constrain the development of any relationship that exceeds such roles: structured expectations guide where we put our time and energy, calling us into some friendships while inhibiting others. Our friend Michael Tratner observes that befriending is not simply an open-ended encounter between two people, but shaped—both enabled and constrained–by the identities and experiences each of us brings to the exchange. Friendship is itself a structure: in large part a reaction to, and expression of, surrounding social structures, including institutional positions. Friendships may interrupt such structures; contrary-wise, the formal structures of classrooms and institutions may break into, and break through, the existing structure of friendships.

You befriend a colleague, take walks in the woods near campus, get together for a meal with both your families. Enjoy driving together into the city, for a meeting with colleagues who live downtown. Work together in a summer program for K-12 teachers; write together about your pedagogical experiments; celebrate the publication of the article that emerges. You are on sabbatical, selecting small carvings to bring back for her; she knits you a scarf. As she moves up through a series of administrative positions at the college, it slowly becomes harder for you to find time to hook up. One summer morning, snatching a conversation on campus, you hear yourself sharing a new idea about how this place might run differently, also hear her musing about how much effort it takes just to keep things going around here. You realize that the sort of brainstorming you used to do together has become more difficult, the stretch between your roles hard to overcome.

Befriending may be insurgent, a potential place of connection and instigation, of possibility and change. It may also raise difficulties, as personal differences, tensions between work and life commitments, or alterations in institutional status interrupt emerging relationships.

Possibilities and problematics emerge, too, in your close working relationships with students. The discussions of the assessment “posse” turn quickly to students’ growth and development; you invite students to present with you at conferences; develop your prison teaching program with students. While they are here, students help you carry the energy of collaborative work both inside and outside the college. You are continually investing in people who are buoyant, open, courageous….

And this too is complicated: what does it mean when you collaborate, over years, to design a program with students, and yet have to enter their final grades; when you find yourselves negotiating with colleagues to help a student make it through; when relationships with some become markedly distinct from relationships with all?

You work closely with a young woman during her years at the college–as your student, yes, and also over time as your teacher, then friend. A woman of color serving as your TLI consultant, she coaches you to bring your white identity explicitly to your classroom discussions of urban education, as an invitation, no an insistence, that white students fully engage, rather than just listening—which she sees as a way of putting students of color onstage. After she graduates, you stay in touch, meet for coffee when she’s in town, co-present at conferences. She returns to work in the Admissions Office, arriving just as the college—again–rejects applicants from a local urban partner school. 1Cf. Chapter 3, “Haunting.” In follow-up meetings with her supervisor, in which she is positioned to represent the college’s policies, you worry about how to challenge such practices while also respecting the delicacy of her position, and honoring your friendship. It’s a long time before you can talk together about this.

As you call out and tangle with the details that exemplify the larger issues that make up our current campus culture–strategies for diversifying hiring and curriculum, changing policies on student financial support and staff wage equity–you appreciate the aptness of Grace Pusey’s description of her own work, excavating the hidden history of the college:

Grace Pusey

It’s like the proverbial village where everyone who drinks water from the well gets terribly sick–we can either develop treatments for people’s symptoms, quarantine people we think are infected/who we think are spreading the disease, do our best to manage the epidemic and minimize its harm, or we can all walk over to the well and ask “what the heck is in this water???”2

Working not in the proverbial village, but in the space of “surveillance, control, and dehumanization”–also love, possibility and challenge–that is American higher education today, you are not alone in wanting to inspect “the water” closely, and also not alone in calling on friendship to rejuvenate what feels like an “impoverished relational fabric.”3 Hunt and Holmes highlight “the intimate and everyday practices of allyship” that are exemplified at “the level of interpersonal relationships.”4 You join them in acknowledging the already-knit-togetherness of the intimate, the collaborative, the public, the political.

The passion that fuels befriending can not only survive, but incite, multiple other forms of institutional work. As one of the interlocutors of Derrida’s politics of friendship observes, this dynamic “functions across the border separating private from public.”5 Its complex, intersecting quality—simultaneously liminal and central–renders befriending always in motion, dialectical, never complete.  Co-teaching, collaborating at project sites, co-presenting at conferences, reassessing, envisioning–such activities embody the intimate and institutional dimensions of border-crossing that is the ongoing, variable practice of friendship.

Unlike Harney and Moton, who claim that the “only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one”6, you see friendship as opening alternative relationships to the academy. Centered in desire, commitment, and a willingness to risk,you see friendship as opening alternative relationships to the academy. Centered in desire, commitment, and a willingness to risk, friends can navigate “the way out…in the wall against which we are living,”7 rendering porous the boundaries between love and politics, private and public, what is personal and what is institutional.

You celebrate–and want to extend opportunities for–threading friendship from the edges into and through the college where you work. Befriending itself is fragile, unstable: when you make friends, you open yourselves to love and support; also make yourselves vulnerable. Befriending winds itself in and through the commonplace of campus, conference site, prison, hospital, museum, park, café, where “every point in the local, every event of ordinary life, bubbles with deep flows that may take us into undiscovered worlds of promise, into hopeful futures.”8

Befriending has an intransigent power, is resilient even in damaged and damaging circumstances. It’s also very, very complicated. Animating this chapter are many stories of friendships, of many sorts of friendships, which flourish, stumble, fail, sometimes re-gather.

You befriend multiple co-teachers in your cross-disciplinary endeavors. They bring into your conversations excitement about teaching and learning, insight from other disciplines, tantalizing questions about art, politics, power. You are differently positioned–in life and at the college–which impacts how able each of you feels to take up and challenge structures at the college, prisons, museums, gardens, school programs…

A friend adept at prison education is located uneasily at the college, where she is finishing her doctorate and co-teaching with you. A long-time friend and colleague with whom you share valued life affiliations diverges from you in pedagogical practice. A friend whose deliciously barbed cynicism buoys you at lunch has very different commitments about the direction of the college. A friend who shares your pedagogies and political commitments is ensnared in the demands of their department; and then free.

In this border zone, neither this nor that, the structures of both relationship and institution are malleable. Working in friendship is living in an ecotone, on the edge that Rachel Carson calls

a strange and beautiful place….an area of unrest…an elusive and indefinable boundary….changing with the swing of the tides, belonging now to the land, now to the sea….it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of …that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings.9

 

  1. Cf. Chapter 2, “Haunting.”
  2. Grace Pusey, “Response to ‘Slippage’ Essays,” January 1, 2016 (4:42 p.m.), accessed April 30, 2016.
  3. Foucault, quoted in Kingston, “Subversive Friendships,”13.
  4. Sarah Hunt and Cindy Holmes, “Everyday Decolonization: Living a Decolonizing Queer Politics,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 19, 2 (March 2015), 156, accessed July 2, 2016, doi:10.1080/10894160.2015.970975
  5. David Wills, “Full Dorsal: Derrida’s Politics of Friendship,” 2005, accessed March 1, 2016.
  6. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 26
  7. Albert Camus. “Create Dangerously,” lecture at the University of Uppsala, Sweden (December 14, 1957), accessed March 1, 2016.
  8. Villegas and Rust, “Fugitive Democracy.”
  9. Rachel Carson, “The Marginal World,” in The Edge of the Sea, 1955, posted on-line 2016, accessed June 20, 2016.

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