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Help! My Girlfriend Is the Worst Kind of Professor.

Slate 1/24/2023 Jenée Desmond-Harris
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus. © Provided by Slate Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers on Mondays at noon ET. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Shocked Girlfriend: My girlfriend is “that professor”: the one who loves her research in a highly technical field, but sees teaching differently. She’ll often complain about students who need accommodation, or recently, students who were in a legitimate house fire and unable to take the exam due to being hospitalized. If a student comes to her for help, she’ll grouse “that’s what teaching assistants are for” and has blandly remarked on more than one occasion that a certain percentage of every class is not going to get the subject, and it’s not her job to try and change the fail rate.

I wouldn’t tell her how to do her job any more than she’d tell me how to do mine (totally separate field—I’d probably lose my license, or at least my job, if I treated clients the way she treats students) but it makes me a little sick to hear her mentally discard students in an academic area I personally struggled with in my undergraduate years. I definitely only passed because one very patient professor took the time to break down topics for me in a way that worked for my weird brain, and was invested in my success.

But her approach is working for her—tenure track is going well, she’s one of the very few women in her all-male field, and maybe this is how you have to be to combat sexism? How do I roll with this seemingly icy side of her when normally she prides herself on being a compassionate and thoughtful person? It just doesn’t seem to apply to her students! She lives for her research and is totally happy to mentor Ph.D. students in the field, but undergrads are an annoyance at best.

A: She might very well be behaving in a way that’s allowed, and even helpful in her professional life, but at odds with being the kind of person you respect. I think when you are really a match with someone, you enjoy who they are not just when they’re dealing with you but when they’re talking to a customer service representative from the cable company who is reading from an infuriating script, or a person at a dinner party who is telling a long boring story, or a child who might be a smidge annoying. You don’t like who your partner is when she’s interacting with her students, which means you don’t like part of her. She’s dismissive of less powerful people who can’t help her career. There’s no part of her that says, “I would love to help a young person succeed!” And it’s healthy that that rubs you the wrong way. Again, she’s allowed to be that way—she might in fact think she has to be that way professionally—and shouldn’t change for you. But I don’t think your goal should be to “roll with” this ugly side of her. It should be to date someone who doesn’t make you sick.

Q. I Just Want My Sister Back: A few years ago, my older sister “Lucy” took up a new hobby that judgmental people tend to roll their eyes at (think writing Star Trek fan fiction or the like). She took up this hobby during a particularly stressful period of her life, and it genuinely seemed to bring her a lot of joy, so everyone was very encouraging at first, even if it wasn’t our thing. But over the years, she’s become increasingly obsessed with it. I don’t think the hobby itself is the core issue, but she seems to have completely lost herself in it. She claims to be “the happiest she’s ever been” but I’ve seen her become more and more isolated, angry, and depressed as she has spent more of her time on this hobby. Her grown children have also expressed their concern about her mental state and find it very hard to be around her right now.

She is in counseling but I know she doesn’t tell her therapist about the negative side of her hobby, so I’m sure her therapist is continuing to encourage her. I tried to (very gently) suggest that she talk to her therapist about what was really going on, but she took it as a personal attack and accused me of not being supportive. If she were showing signs of improvement, I would not be so worried, but she seems to only be getting worse. At this point, I am at a complete loss. Help!

A: I guess the thing about being a grown-up and not a 10-year-old is that you can make bad choices about how you use your time and take bad care of yourself and nobody can turn off the wifi or tell you to go play outside. As a general rule, if an adult says she’s happy and she isn’t about to harm herself or anyone else, you kind of have to let her be. That doesn’t make it easy for you to watch someone you love become isolated and depressed, I know.

So what can you do to feel a little less helpless? The obvious things: Invite her out to do non-hobby stuff with you. Call to check in on her a lot. Let her know that you know she has dealt with a lot of stress in her life, and if she ever wants to talk you’re there. Probably apologize for meddling in her therapy sessions. And make sure you’re not skipping your own! Helping people live with not being able to save loved ones from themselves is something many counselors are really good at.

And then, I have a more unconventional idea, too. Find a little problem in your life, and get creative turning it into a slightly bigger problem. Then ask her to help you with it. Often. It might be the nudge she needs to get outside of her obsession and spend at least some time focused on something in the real world. That something can be you.

Q. Lost: I have recently had a strong desire to leave my partner. We have been together for 12 years with about a year break when my partner was working away. We fostered children for three and a half years but the placement broke down earlier this year. This was quite a traumatic event for us as it was very sudden and it felt like our children had been taken away. During the summer I met someone else and we ended up developing feelings for each other. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave my partner at that point and it was too painful for the guy I met to keep seeing me if there was no future, so we ended it and haven’t spoken since.

I have told my partner how I am feeling and he is devastated. I really don’t want to hurt my partner like that based on feelings that may be temporary or based on something which wouldn’t be fixed by leaving. On the other hand, I really miss the guy I was seeing in the summer and have a gut feeling that I would be happier with him. I just feel so down all the time and anxious about what I want my future to be. I really don’t know what I should do.

A: “Strong desire” and “gut feeling” about leaving? Say no more. You lied in the last sentence. You know what you should do.

Q. Is French-American a Thing?: What determines nationality and cultural heritage? A little background: My husband, 10-year-old son, and I have lived in France since our son was 10 months old. My husband works for an American company with offices in France and I teach at a school here. Recently we met the parents of one of our son’s friends and they were surprised we were American, as they couldn’t tell from being around my son. We casually asked our son later why he didn’t mention we were American ex-pats and he replied that he isn’t American, he is French. This brought up the topic of what determines nationality and cultural heritage. Our son has spent more of his life here than in the U.S. We are not close to our families so we don’t visit (twice in the 9 years we’ve lived here) and we have no plans to leave in the foreseeable future. We have immersed ourselves into life here so our traditions and way of life are more French than American.

Is our son French since he grew up here? At which point, if any, can my husband and I consider ourselves French-American? Should we emphasize to our child that he is also American, even though he has never spent any significant amount of time there and our way of life is less American?

A: The good news is, you can tell him whatever you want, and whatever reflects your worldview and your values as a family. The bad news is, everyone sees stuff related to identity their own way and nobody—including your own son—has to agree with you.

This reminds me of the story of the celebrity who insisted that she was Spanish and created a whole life (and an accent!) around that because she went to Spain on vacation as a child and had some relatives who lived there. Everyone laughed about it. But nobody could convince her of anything different. (“Who is to say what you’re allowed to absorb and not absorb growing up?” she said. “This has been a part of my whole life, and I can’t make it go away just because some people don’t understand it.”) And there is no rule saying she has to admit that she knows how to say cucumber. It’s not a battle worth fighting.

You can tell your son “You’re also American” every day before he leaves for school in the morning and he can be like “Sure whatever, mom” and then go through life telling everyone he’s French. And then he can change his mind. So the best plan, probably, is to let go of the hope that the story of the different countries and cultures that play a role in his life can be described in one word or phrase. “I grew up in France but my parents are American and I visited a few times over the years” is more interesting than “I’m French-American” anyway.

I also want to suggest that your struggle with having a son who only identifies as French might be standing in for a larger issue about having become totally detached from America, and what that means for you, your husband, and your families. Give it some thought.

Q. Unhappy Traveler: I’ve traveled extensively throughout my life, in a way that most people don’t. I’m very active in online communities and read about travel a lot. It really is my passion and I’ve had some people offer to pay me for different services related to travel. It has me considering starting a business. One of my motivations for starting a business is to give people a realistic expectation of different types of travel advice. I’ve read a lot of different pieces of advice over the years and tried out most of them, and there are certain pieces of advice that I just think are bad. They romanticize, possibly dangerous, types of travel without discussing the dangers. There is one particular travel writer who gave this type of advice throughout his career. He also died by suicide and just never seemed like a very happy person. I now have a friend who has started eating up this person’s content. My friend has very little experience traveling (or really doing anything difficult) and I feel like she’s getting sucked into the dangerous, romanticized, types of travel.

I don’t say this as someone whose level of safety is just different, I say this as someone who tried some of those types of travel and feels very lucky that I didn’t get into some very dangerous situations. I feel like I was lied to a little bit about the dangers of certain types of travel, especially as a woman. I’ve tried to subtly steer her towards other travel options by saying things like, “Yes, that’s one way of traveling, but X can be exhausting and dangerous.” I try not to be very overbearing about it.

Until this weekend. My friend started talking about actually booking a trip and doing a lot of things about which she is uninformed about the dangers. I tried to have a discussion about this and she blew up on me saying I didn’t know more than the travel influencer she’s infatuated with. I got unusually mad and lashed out saying that not only was she following a man, who has a different ability to stay safe, but that he always seemed unhappy and ended up dying by suicide and that the type of travel he always recommends is not the type of travel I thought she would like or even be able to handle. She took great offense to talking that way about someone who died by suicide and so did some of my friends. I realize my opinion may be unpopular, but the way he recommended travel is exactly the type of travel that made me miserable. Is it so bad to point out that someone who seemed unhappy would give advice that might make someone unhappy as well? It’s not like I would say anything like that to the face of anybody who knew him or broadcast that particular opinion anywhere public.

A: I want to gently suggest that giving people advice about travel is not your calling. Please apologize to your friend and tell her that your passion for this topic caused you to forget that she’s capable of making her own choices.

Then redirect your energy back to your own adventures. You sound like you need a (safe) vacation.

Re: Q. Shocked Girlfriend: My father was a renowned physicist. He was required to teach 101 classes. The students generally weren’t interested in physics—they had to do it because they were pre-med. They also generally weren’t equipped to do the things he was supposed to teach them.

He did find it difficult sometimes but he didn’t blame the students in general (some particular students of course). He said it wasn’t their fault, they hadn’t been properly prepared in high school for concepts on the 101 syllabus that he was supposed to teach. He was gifted at explaining things in different ways (he did that with me) and he did his best to find a way of framing things for the students to understand.

Your girlfriend’s attitude to teaching is presumptuous and unkind. Prudie’s right, that says a lot! If I’m being kind, this might be a reaction to not knowing how to teach beginning concepts. That’s a skill in and of itself. But if that’s the case, her reaction is still presumptuous and unkind.

A: Yeah, it would be one thing if the girlfriend had said “I really prefer to work with graduate students who are passionate about the subject and take it seriously.” But she’s being mean to a kid who had a house fire! And if she loved her area of expertise so much, you’d think she would welcome students asking for help. Isn’t that what every professor wants? For people to actually take advantage of office hours?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, that’s all for today. Make sure you read all of our special Advice Week content, including some unsolicited advice on friend breakups, columnist swaps (I’ll be doing Care & Feeding tomorrow, bringing my nine months of parenting experience to our readers’ tough questions), and special guest Dear Prudence columnist Melanie Lynskey from Yellowjackets!

Our family of three lives in the top floor of a two-unit building in a busy urban neighborhood. Before we had a kid, we knew our downstairs neighbors were noise-sensitive: They kindly let us know how hard the front door closed, when the garage was opening too early, and that our indoor workouts bothered them. But in the past three years, it’s gone to a whole new level.

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