Once in a while, I interact with student wingmen. Or academic twinsies. At least, that’s those are the monikers I’ve had in mind when I work with such a pair of students.
Who are these dyads? Pairs of students like these are more inseparable than any romantic partnership. They enroll in many of the same classes, do their assignments together, visit office hours as a unit, and if you happen to come upon them somewhere around campus, you’ll inevitably see them together.
How tight is a wingman relationship? When one half of the pair has an academic advising appointment with me, the other student accompanies the student, and just waits outside the office while I have the appointment with the wingman. Before I figure out the wingman situation, I ask, “Are you waiting to see me?” And they respond, “No, I’m just waiting for my friend.” For a half-hour meeting.
Since I started on the tenure-track in 1999, I have gotten to know about five such wingman pairs, including one pair that did research in my lab. From what I can tell, these are fast friendships that formed between two students who were both new to the university, and they found a security in one another while negotiating the challenges of being independent. I suspect that students with highly supportive families and perhaps limited interactions outside from home and school are more likely to end up in this kind of academic and social wingmanship.
I’ve heard some faculty refer to this kind of partnership as a bad thing, as a social crutch, and something that constrains personal development. But if you have a condition that requires a crutch, then shouldn’t you be using a crutch?
When I worked with my first pair of twinsies, I was a little concerned. But, over the years, I’ve seen these pairs evolve over time. In all cases, the students remained close friends, but throughout their undergraduate careers, they slowly grew to be more independent, and clearly this kind of partnership didn’t stick beyond graduation. And they had friends in a broader social group. I just spent about ten minutes searching up some of my former students who were academic wingmen with one another. They’ve turned out great, as far as I can tell.
So when a new pair shows up by my office, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I try to support my students as individuals, and it’s not my place to evaluate their friendships. If I need to manage the group dynamic of my research lab, I want to make sure that there is a healthy dynamic that ensures a safe and productive environment. Beyond that, my students’ business is their business. It takes a village, and every village is unique. If two students find a partnership that helps them negotiate the transition into an independent life, more power to them. It’s quite possible that students need their wingmen because they’re intimidated by the daily interactions with authority figures like myself. Whatever I can do to make reduce the stress of personal interactions can only help my students’ health and improve the learning environment.