#1282: “I want to support my friend without helping him with all his class assignments.”

Hi Captain,

I am trying to figure out how to still be supportive of my friend continuing on to grad school when I recently had to dropout of my own program due to a lot of different reasons (COVID striking my family, online course-work not being a good avenue for me, extra course-work due to transferring that I didn’t know about due to poor advising, my own mental health struggles). My friend (let’s go with Matt), frequently taps me to look over his assignments, 99% of the time, these assignments are always fine and any input I have is not useful to him — but he needs someone to check his work to feel okay. Or wants the validation over something that might be more personal.

I never asked him for much of the same while I was in school. I’m more one to lean on my classmates, but his classmates aren’t on the same level as him so he doesn’t trust them much. I don’t mind helping him with the odd important assignment but I feel like it’s too much for every single one and he gets put out when I say no (understandably). Is it wrong not wanting to help with every assignment? I do want him to succeed but at the same time I’m bitter and probably just…jealous.

Things seem so much easier for him. His teachers go out of their way to support him. He gets help from me and his other close friends. His papers are perfect most of the time and get high praise he always tells me about. When I was struggling under the term paper that led me to drop out, I mentioned how I didn’t have anything written and I was struggling and he didn’t have much of a reaction at all. When I did share the occasional paper after he asked, he seemed pretty unimpressed.

While I don’t think it explains everything I do believe it matters that he’s white and I am black.

I’m not sure what to do. Every time school gets brought up I get cagey around it. I’m dreading his classes starting up again because it means having to field him asking over and over again for help on his assignments. I’m still trying to figure out what to do now that the path I thought I was heading down is probably not going to happen. But I don’t want my grieving and searching overshadow being a supportive friend through the challenges of getting through school, especially now.

Grad School Dropout (they/them)

Hi there, Grad School Dropout!

Your question is about how to be a supportive friend to Matt, and field his expectations that you will continue looking over his schoolwork and giving him encouragement, and whether it’s wrong to not want to help with every single assignment, especially right now when you’re nursing an academia grief hangover.

Not only is it “not wrong” to want to put an end to this unwilling tutoring relationship, my question for you is, what if you made the new default setting “Sorry bud, I don’t want to double-check your homework anymore”?

Matt didn’t give you support with your work when you really needed it, he’s “unimpressed” with your work and the work of his classmates (but can’t seem to turn in his own without tons of your input), he gets “put out” when you say no even though you do give him a ton of your time and assistance, so again, what if you stopped routinely helping your insecure white friend feel awesome about his (apparently already awesome) homework at the expense of your own well-being?

What else do you have in common and enjoy doing together? Maybe this is a good time to find out?

Are you afraid that he won’t want to be your friend anymore if the free on-demand tutoring stops?

It’s understandable you’d be sensitive about how much you even want to talk about school while you’re still grieving for all you’ve gone through, so is Matt sensitive to that like, at all?

If Matt’s not aware of what’s been going on with you, and if you’ve mostly said “yes” to helping in the past and buckled whenever he got “put out,” Matt might legitimately be oblivious to how long and how big a deal this has been between you, but you 100% definitely get to say “Dude, I am not ready to even think about school right now, sorry” and expect to be heard and respected in a way that clears up any future oblivion.

Honest, friendly-but-firm scripts for next time he asks for your help with an assignment:

  • “Oh Matt, thanks for asking, but I’m officially grad-schooled out.” Then change the subject and/or suggest another hangout instead. “What else is new with you?”
  • “Matt, I gotta level with you: I need to take a long break from even thinking about anybody’s schoolwork or writing except my own, so I need you to stop asking me to look over your assignments from now on.”
  • “Oh, I can’t.” “Sorry, nope.” “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.”
  • Follow-up when he expresses surprise or dismay: “Hey, you had no way of knowing, but I’m telling you now, this is what I need from you as a friend.”
  • If this is a really close, beloved friend, and he does respect your “not right now, friend” boundary, maybe you can talk about insecurity and jealousy?
    • “Matt, why do you keep asking me to double-check your work, especially when it’s usually fine? You don’t need me to do all your homework with you to know that I think you’re smart and capable. What’s going on?”
    • “Matt, you know I’m usually happy to help you, but with what happened with me and school, it’s just too raw right now and I can’t.”
  • Maybe. You don’t have to dig into his feelings or answer the “why” question to get to ask him to just stop.

What happens when you say some version of those scripts is going to tell you a lot about the future of your friendship.

A real friend, even a friend who may have been oblivious in the past but who does really value you and not just what he thinks you can provide for him, is going to feel bad that he was overburdening you with this, glad that you told him and gave him a chance to fix it, and possibly even apologize for stressing you out and taking you for granted. He’s going to want to know how you’re feeling, what he can do to help, and more importantly, he’s gonna take your word for it when you tell him that you’d prefer not to.

Sadly, I don’t have to tell you that white cis guys who feel entitled to other people’s time and attention can be…unpredictable…in their responses when they hear the word “no.” If the conversation slides into that place where suddenly you feel pressured to apologize to him and reassure him about a thing he did to piss you off, ABORT, get to an emotionally & physically safe distance, and start to mourn loss of this friendship along with everything else that sucks right now.

If that happens, I’m so sorry, I promise you that it was not your fault that that it happened, you didn’t say it wrong, and you didn’t owe him reading his class assignments forever with a smile on your face to deserve his friendship. Friends get to say “no” to each other, if that’s not allowed then what’s going on isn’t exactly a friendship.

Before we go I want to say that I am intimately familiar with the grad school phenomenon of white guy colleagues who wanted my feedback, time, and help for their work and then were suddenly nowhere to be found when I needed help with mine, and I think the fact that you’re black and he’s white does absolutely matter here, and you’re not imagining the thing where the whole world seems to just…invest…in the success of your white friend Matt the way it hasn’t invested in you. You’re not unfairly irrational for being irritated at his carefree sense of entitlement, and you’re allowed to be even more irritated if he sees you as part of the scaffolding for his brilliant career instead of a friend with one of your own who could use some support after what sounds like a pretty dire spring.

I wrote some more about race, gender, academia, and risk and then it was turning into a whole Thing, so I’m going to put it up at Patreon this weekend and link back here (free to read) so it doesn’t overwhelm your initial question about how to talk to your friend, which, tl;dr, you’re allowed to just say “No, can’t help you out with that anymore, but I’m sure you’ll do great!” and still count yourself among the world’s good & supportive friends.