Monday, November 2, 2020

What Grief Taught Me about Conflicts of Interest

By Kai Chan

Two and a half weeks ago, I heard the devastating news that my former student Adrian Semmelink had died in his sleep over Thanksgiving weekend. Connected in unexpected ways, I had just renewed my conflict-of-interest declaration at UBC.
Adrian Semmelink, a great student, person, 
... and friend

Here's how it went. Renewing my declaration, I found to my chagrin that I had made a statement that I really couldn't stand by. In response to the question about close personal relationships at the workplace, including students, I had written that I seek to be friendly with all my students, but I didn't consider them to be close personal relationships according to their examples (partner, child, close personal friend).

Except that the bit about "according to their examples" was only implicit. Even then it didn't sit right. I can't help but feel close to my students, and like they're not just my mentees but also friends (defined as sharing a mutual bond of affection). I certainly feel affection for my students. I can hope they feel the same for me.

I remember struggling with this passage the previous year. I remember not knowing what to do. Did the friendships I had with my students constitute close personal ones?

What are the tests of this? Sometimes I share details about my life that go beyond work, including ones that I might otherwise keep guarded. That seems to indicate a closeness, of a personal nature.

I changed the text to indicate simply that I am friends with all my students, and I can't help but become close.

Turns out another test of 'close personal' is hearing that someone died. (What a lousy test.) That feeling of my heart dropping out of my chest, the rage against the universe, the overwhelming sadness about the truncation of life and its relationships, the lost moments of confusion—including right in the middle of class—when memories of Adrian came flooding to front of mind. "Friendship, but not close or personal"?

And how could we not become close? How could we go to the lengths that we go to as supervisors to make our students lives better, to advance their goals, and their visions for themselves and the world—how could we do that without becoming invested in them? That is, in an affectionate rather than instrumental way?

I remember having senior colleagues tell me on several occasions many years ago that our students are not our friends, and that it's crucial to keep a distance. The logic seemed indisputable at the time: we are occasionally put in positions of having to make students do things they don't want to do; occasionally we even have to fail them.

But the logic falls down. Neither of those tasks precludes friendships. At least not for me. I've pulled rank on students a couple of times, and told them that a task was not negotiable. And although I've never had to fail one of my grad students, I've certainly had to indicate that failure was on the horizon, conditional on big changes. (That student left my mentorship).

All of those experiences felt like crap—they all invoked a strong cognitive dissonance because friends don't act like that to friends. But we deal with cognitive dissonance all the time. In this case, it's straightforward although not simple: we have layered relationships. Sometimes I've got to put the friend hat down and wear the supervisor hat exclusively.

So I disagree with those senior colleagues. I will continue to be friends with my students. Acknowledging, of course, that it might be a whole lot harder for my students to let down their guard with me (knowing that I may have to pull rank on them) than for me to let down my guard with them.

So yes, I do have conflicts of interest involving my students—all of them. Grief has clarified what I should already have known: I'm emotionally invested. I can't imagine it being any other way.

I a. person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection

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