I Told My Mentor I Was a Dominatrix

Mistress Snow in The Chronicle Review:

Something seemed off when I signed into Interfolio one late September morning, during the break between two classes I was teaching. I scanned the dossier a few times, wondering if it could be a glitch, and then it hit me: My mentor had withdrawn her letter of recommendation. In fact, she had withdrawn all of her letters, from 2016 to now. The revelation rang in my ears, like crystal shattering on the floor.

My mentor — let’s call her Anne — was the sole reason I finished my dissertation. While she wasn’t my adviser or even in my primary field, she was my cheerleader and confidante. We had become quite close. She said she felt in loco parentis; I called her my “dissertation mom.” But things fell apart when, desperate to quell her fears after a summer teaching gig fell through, I outed myself to her as a sex worker.

“You will lose all credibility,” she told me in a long, difficult email. As it turned out, in Anne’s eyes, I already had.

The power dynamics that structure mentorship in academia are nebulous at best. In my own department, the only formalized mentor-mentee relationship was the somewhat-arbitrary pairing of graduate students at varying stages of their degrees. Mentorship between students and faculty members was, by contrast, an entirely informal, ad hoc alliance. Boundaries within these relationships are similarly opaque. Mentors can resemble friends, collaborators, parents, and even, occasionally, lovers. But these relationships are never fully severed from the institutional power a mentor has over their mentee — an imbalance that mentors prefer to overlook, even if mentees never really can. Your mentee may be your friend. Your mentor is not.

More here.

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