As a graduate student/adjunct, I ask for a lot of favors. I ask for recommendation letters, I ask for comments on my writing, I ask that my class be scheduled at a particular time — gimme, gimme, gimme. And when I don’t get what I ask for, I get upset. Case in point: two months ago, I asked a colleague to write a recommendation letter for a job that I’d really like to land. That letter has not yet arrived, which is pretty damned frustrating. But I started thinking about this from my colleague’s perspective, and all he sees is demands: write me a letter, get me a course to teach, send me your syllabi, etc.. Same thing goes for my adviser, whom I constantly assail with requests for advice, letters, chapter critiques, and so on and so forth. It must be exhausting.
But here’s the thing: at this point in my career, I have absolutely nothing to offer these people. I have no influence, no power, no nothing. I’m not smart or witty enough to keep around for interesting conversation, and I bring no ancillary benefits, like knowing how to fix plumbing problems or something. You scratch my back, and I’ll…ask you scratch it again in a few days. And so I constantly rely on the kindness of others, hoping two things. First, that the people of whom I ask favors understand this situation. Surely they’ve been in it before, and now it’s their turn to pass it forward. Second, I hope they feel like me when someone asks me for a favor: a little bit flattered. When an undergraduate asks me to write a letter, I usually blush a little — “Aww, shucks, you want help from li’l ol’ me?” It not only feels good to help someone out, but there’s a certain realization of power; the request for a favor reminds me that I do have some influence, however small. And that sensation — of power? — can go a long way, at least for me.