In her recent article for the Chronicle Review, titled “Not Here to Make Friends,” Katie Fitzpatrick shares her personal trajectory from self-described “reality show villain” whose “few close friendships…[in her] first and second year were largely built around the ritual of transmuting our own anxieties into criticism of others” to a person who, as she began to “treat others more gently,… had more confidence in [her] own abilities…[and] began reading the work of others in a spirit of generosity,” and finally managed to expose herself “to collaboration and critique.”
In her narrative of self-discovery, Fitzpatrick paints a picture of the ruthless and competitive nature of graduate school at Brown, one where she and her colleagues tried to forecast success in the cut-throat humanities job market through a series of small victories and hard-won external praise. Fitzpatrick gives the example of being “on a committee” to illustrate “a shred of positive affirmation, [which] cost me the esteem of my peers.”
And yet this was not the turning point in Fitzpatrick’s transformation away from “reality show villain” to a kinder, more generous person. It took until her “third year” of graduate school, when she was preparing for a session where she would present her work to the “entire departmental student body.” Suddenly, she was worried that her peers would treat her as she had treated them: that they would use any chink in her academic armor to disqualify her as a competitor in the search for the elusive tenure-track position. Only when her progress stripped her of—to continue the reality show theme—immunity did she worry about the consequences of such unforgiving peer critique.
Fitzpatrick ends her letter calling for others to emulate her own transformation: rather than participating in the ruthless “neoliberal meritocracy” and give in to “social perfectionism,” academics should form social relationships, since “friendship seems like a more reliable outcome of a humanities Ph.D. than a career in the professoriate.”
It seems clear to me that this change in Fitzpatrick is positive; as she says, she has battled back some of her “psychological demons” and absorbed the lessons of the political theorists she read in what was clearly a very difficult graduate school environment. Further, Fitzpatrick’s educational background grants her a certain privilege and a platform that certainly reflects some people’s experiences of graduate school; the comments on her article thank her for her articulation of their experiences.
But I have to object to Fitzpatrick’s universalizing assumptions that her experience allows her to claim that “making friends” is the best outcome of a PhD. For others, it’s a job that pays a living wage, or just a job without a living wage that they still pursue out of love. There are other experiences of graduate school where people don’t need to be treated as they have treated others in order to regret cruelties, or where it was “only friendship that made the concept of solidarity feel real.” Tellingly, only when Fitzpatrick herself could no longer avoid being vulnerable did she realize her behavior had contributed to a toxic environment. I applaud Fitzpatrick for her self-awareness, up to a point: but the fact remains that there are other people, perhaps in similar positions of academic privilege, who did not choose cruelty as their way to cope with insecurity; who do not necessarily need the same redemptive arc; who have already made friends.
Can’t we as academics aim higher than telling our colleagues that the most feasible outcome of their graduate education is friendship? If not, shouldn’t we at least treat as important and interesting the experiences of those people who didn’t need the redemptive arc to realize it is better to be kind and generous to their peers?
There are other people in academia who have never had the luxury of waiting to feel vulnerable, who in fact have breathed vulnerability for their entire lived experience. Whether it’s the academics I know who are queer or trans or POC or disabled or neurodivergent or poor or single parents or any myriad combination of marginal identities, some of us have hoped for many more things out of our years in graduate school than friends. Personally, what I’m looking for is a career that allows me to pursue my passion and pay my rent, that fulfills me intellectually and emotionally, where I can make friends if I want to, but I don’t have to think of it as the only feasible outcome.
But what concerns me most about her plea to “make friends” as a form of solidarity in a competitive academic environment is this: women and people of color are disproportionately expected to be nice, to make friends, to get along.
These racial and gendered histories lie unacknowledged behind Fitzpatrick’s examples, drawn from her own experiences of reality television. Her early refrain –and the title of her letter—is “I’m not here to make friends”: a cliché drawn from The Bachelor franchise. This particular media property has a history of casting only white contestants as its leads and has come under fire for the lack of diversity among suitors.
The Bachelor’s history of racialized casting came to a head in The Bachelorette season 13, a season billed as “historic” since it featured the first black Bachelorette, Rachel. The season quickly devolved into a racist and epic melodrama involving Lee Garrett and a series of tweets made before he was cast, his gaslighting of a black contestant, and the veiled racist taunts he leveled at the men of color who were his competitors.
Neither Lee Garrett nor Fitzpatrick were “there to make friends.” This is absolutely not to compare Fitzpatrick’s cruelties to her fellow graduate students to the race-baiting antics of a reality show contestant; but it does to me suggest the problems of Fitzpatrick calling for a certain kind of niceness that forgets the racist and sexist pressures put on women and people of color to be “nice,” to “get along,” to cooperate with others to their own detriment. (Joe Biden famously called then-senator Barack Obama the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”) Again, Fitzpatrick uses a play on a phrase from a show that has discriminated against people of color to call for an increase in emotional labor, which already falls more heavily on people of color and women.
I’ll say again: I am genuinely happy that Fitzpatrick is in a better emotional place. But my plea is that we aim higher, both in the message that friends are a worthy condolence prize for a job market that drains the emotional and economic resources of its participants, and aim higher in the messages we celebrate and distribute among our peers. Our peers are a wide and diverse pool; checking and correcting our reality show models might allow some of those struggling and transformational voices to surface