What’s love got to do with academia?

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

In All about Love, bell hooks

“Graduate school should be hard,” a faculty member said bluntly in the summer of 2020 during a meeting of an ad hoc committee I participated in on graduate student mental health. While this committee had been convened before the COVID-19 pandemic to develop university-level recommendations to address the long-existing crisis in graduate student mental health, the urgency of its charge escalated during the pandemic. I probed the faculty member’s meaning of “hard.” Should graduate school be intellectually challenging? Absolutely. Should it traumatize and crush the spirits and souls of scholars-in-training, leading to disproportionate incidences of depression and anxiety? I strongly disagree. Should we be standing by while toxic mentor-mentee relationships perpetuate through academic generations? I will not. 

Love isn’t a visible, valued part of our academic culture

I don’t believe the mental health concerns of graduate students are due in general to a lack of students’ poor coping skills. I think many graduate students’ struggles with mental wellbeing are a reflection and artifact of the “conditions that shape and define that illness” (Cushman 1996). I think what we see in the disproportionately high incidence of anxiety and depression among graduate students is an artifact of academic culture. I believe these graduate students exhibit signs of emotional neglect or even abuse experienced during their training – a lack of being loved. We don’t help them develop a sense of their strengths, character, values, preferences, and higher purpose. We encourage their striving to be accepted while they become burnt out with over-performing. We implicitly teach them that love is transactional – they complete benchmarks so that the mentor will take care of them and keep them as a mentee. Their actions reflect fears of being abandoned, rejected, or “dropped” as they express gratitude for the temporary comfort from the fleeting attention from their mentor. They feel isolated, insecure, overwhelmed, and bitter; they question daily their choices to pursue advanced studies.

I think we in academia fail to love people adequately, as a verb. I know some readers will cringe that I have written the words ‘academia’ and ‘love’ in the same sentence. To love people in academia is not objective, rational work of the academy, they might say. To love people is inappropriate and unprincipled, they might say. Whispers of Title IX violations might go through their heads. Legitimized love in academia is the long-accepted, devotional love of the cognitive domain: knowledge, books, reading, researching, learning, cultural norms, and habits of mind of our institution, whether that be our research group, our program, our school, our field, or academia itself. 

I think people in academia need to learn to love our people, but we don’t know how to do it, speak about it, or teach it as a core practice of our work. There are terms to describe love based on who is in the relationship (see Table 1, for example). While the academic mentor-mentee relationship in academia isn’t explicitly on that list, I might argue that it includes several of these types of love: friendship, familial, universal, practical, self. But this differential naming about the relationships of love doesn’t tell us about the function of love. With love as a verb, what actions are involved in being loving and being loved? What role is it serving for individuals and the collective? What is the “input” and what is the “output?”


Table 1. Naming different types of love relationships. From “These are 7 Types of Love,” Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201606/these-are-the-7-types-love

Love supports growth, change, and development

While there is an abundance of academic, secular, spiritual, religious, and popular writing on this topic, I want to highlight the function of love from a combination of feminist theory and adult developmental psychology, strands of thought that have been consistent with my values and employment in graduate student identity development. As our psycho-social development continues through adulthood, we continue to expand our notions of our Self (capital S) and our relation to others (Kegan 1982). Robert Kegan, in The Evolving Self (1982), speaks of observing another not as a human in stasis but a person in process. That developmental journey may also be liberatory of oppressive structures both within ourselves and in our interactions with others. Returning to the quotation from bell hooks in All About Love, to love is to “extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” My therapist talks about the therapeutic relationship as providing both support and challenge. Judith Jordan, in “Validating Vulnerability: New Definitions of Courage” (2008) writes of this encouragement as “tend and befriend,” the loving alternative to the fear-based fight/flight/freeze responses. 

Holding spaces, as Kegan writes, are crucial elements to this love that simultaneously encourages the differentiation while nurturing the integration and personal meaning-making. A holding environment provides “recognition, confirmation of who the person has become (p. 162).” Kegan further explains that a holding environment has “three primary functions: it must hold securely (confirmation and recognition); it must let go in a timely fashion (assist in differentiation, contradiction); and it must remain for recovery during that delicate period when the [individual] is leaving behind what seems still like itself and which the [individual] must recover as part of its new organization (p. 138).” To love is to be in tension in both “confirming and contradicting, nurturing and limit-setting” (Kegan p. 153). In Fig 1 (a downloadable infographic if you want it at your desk as a reminder), I’ve summarized action words that reflect this tension of protective/holding-onto behaviors and nurturing/letting-go behaviors.

Figure 1. Expressions of love as the integration of protective behaviors and nurturing behaviors.

The role of mentors in providing love

When mentors love us, they help us individualize, realize our potential (self-actualize), find our voice (self-authorship; Baxter Magolda 2008), live into our purpose, and be our higher and best selves. Brene Brown reminds us that mentors provide encouragement, literally “to give heart;” we need both courage and vulnerability, not as opposites but as complements, as we take down our armor and open our hearts to ourselves and others. Loving mentors know where you are in your zone of proximal development (Vygotzky, 1978) in providing just the right combination of support and challenge; they know when to relinquish the wheel to you to let you learn to drive your own car. My sister-in-law asked me once to consider how I am being kind, present, and compassionate for another person, supporting them as I am able on their journey. Loving mentors honor our yearning for integration of both our agency/independence and our inclusion/connection (Kegan p. 193). Loving relationships help us make meaning of our experiences as we differentiate and understand ourselves as both separate from and connected with others. 

Academic mentors love their mentees in ways that are specific and appropriate to the graduate education context. They can provide:

  • Resources, funding, training, equipment, time, space
  • Encouragement, cheerleading
  • Feedback, challenge, benchmarks, accountability
  • Protection, safety, security

The role of a loving mentor is not to make big feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment go away nor to bear the uncomfortable or inconvenient feelings for you that you want to offload. Loving mentors won’t inauthentically inflate or deflate the ego; rather, they guide and support your increasing discernment of Self and other in your journey through consolation – “the uprush of energy and heightened awareness” – and desolation – “the retreat into the unconscious in order to discover or retrieve hidden potential” (Koenig 2010). To love means to be in company with hard feelings: to help you name the feelings and validate their reality for you; to help you make meaning of the feelings and how they are associated with both an event and a real need you have for both action and developmental growth of your Self; and to help you clarify a next smallest step to take that will bring you closer to meeting the need.

Call to loving action

  • Get clarity about your emotions and what they tell you about your needs for love (McLaren 2010). Be clear on what you need from yourself or your mentor(s).
  • Learn how to love yourself unconditionally and abundantly in your own spiritual journey. Identify your needs for protection and nurturing and consider what of those needs you can provide to yourself (sometimes called “self-care,” but I think it’s much deeper work than taking a long bath or watching a favorite show). 
  • Develop a mentor network that is broad and deep so that you can find the protection and nurturing you need and deserve. A deep and wide bench of mentors will be embedded in many different resource and cultural contexts that enable them to offer you an abundance of perspectives, wisdom, and support. It is unlikely that any one person will be able to provide all of those different types of protection and nurturing all of the time. 
  • Give grace and acceptance for our mentors’ limits of time, skill, capacity, and perspective in their ability to love you on your developmental journeys. You will find limits and be disappointed sometimes by a mentor’s unavailability, for whatever reason. You are similar in your own human limitations.
  • Maintain good boundaries around yourself. Surround yourself with people who love you. At the same time, keep a firm, mindful, intentional circle around yourself to keep people who don’t show love for you at a distance.
  • Notice how you love: students in the classes you teach, newer peers joining your research group, colleagues in your program, and your mentors. You are carrying forward a legacy of love and leading by example.
  • Remind yourself that love is not a destination but an action, a practice, and a process.


Baxter Magolda, Marcia B. (2008). “Three Elements of Self-Authorship”. Journal of College Student Development. 49 (4): 269–284. doi:10.1353/csd.0.0016.

Cushman, P. (1996).  Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy. DeCapo Press.

hooks, b. (2001). All about love: New visions. New York, New York: William Morrow.

Jordan, J.V. (2008). Valuing Vulnerability: New Definitions of Courage, Women & Therapy, 31:2-4, 209-233, DOI: 10.1080/02703140802146399

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Koenig E. (2010) Discernment. In: Leeming D.A., Madden K., Marlan S. (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-71802-6_171.

McLaren, K. (2010). The Language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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