notes on mentors

Academics all have stories about their mentors/advisors, and those stories (good and bad) are rich with lessons for the aspiring grad student.

You need mentors: Your relationship to your mentors/advisors is central to your development as an academic. Consider the following from Shay Welch, professor of philosophy at Spelman College, writing in Hypatia:

The importance of an involved mentor to a young academic’s career is inestimable. The mentoring that occurs between a student and her mentor spans the professional domain and spills over into the personal. The introduction to female writers whose voice sounds something like one’s own, the warnings about predatory colleagues, the long lunches spent sharing insecurities, and the warm, prideful smiles and winks returned for delivered, brilliant work are all personal touches needed to enhance the lessons on professional writing, reviewing, and mock interviews. A strong mentoring relationship, and all the practices it assumes, can bring about a genuine feeling of ‘‘fit’’ and can open opportunities for a young scholar. Although some may argue that this list of personal touches is overstated and that philosophy is largely a solitary practice, they simply fail to notice that they’ve had such mentoring from the outset.

These are the people who teach you how to be academics and scholars and (if you’re lucky) generally cool and upstanding people. If you’re an advanced undergrad interested in grad school, you should be looking for a mentor. Ideally someone who isn’t afraid to tell you in detail what a shitty, unpleasant, exploitative, soul-crushing career path the academy is, and also why it can still be worth pursuing. A mentor can help you survive the day-to-day, week-to-week, semester-to-semester issues of schooling, as well as advise you on classes to take, things to read, and opportunities to take advantage of.

A lot of students worry about being a drain on professors’ time and resources, like their own need for mentorship if outweighed by the professors’ need not to be burdened with mentoring them. Consider this:

Mentors need you: For tenure-track professors mentoring is an expected/required part of their job. You may not have known this, but it’s true. Professors at research universities are paid to research (this is actually the bulk of what they’re paid to do), to teach, and to do service work (helping run programs, serving on various committees, and, you guessed it, mentoring). Frieda Ekotto (Michigan), writing in PMLA, describes some of the ‘countless hours’ that make up mentoring:

Like so many other sectors of the world economy, the production of knowledge has changed, which means that the way we advise our students is taking new forms, particularly in the humanities.  There are the specic tasks we all know well. For undergraduates, we clarify grades, explain an assignment, and develop an idea we presented in class. For graduate students, we supervise dissertations, advise on the job search, give tips on how to write an article well, and encourage them to attend conferences. Given the job situation in the
humanities, we advise them to consider exploring other venues.

But there’s also a veil of silence that surrounds the actual work of mentoring, which is why so often the mentor/mentee relationship is left unremarked upon and unexamined. Ekotto adds:

The work of a mentor in the academy is silenced by a process embedded in networks of signifiers that are already socially coded, an institutional discourse that prevents discussion of this work: one is supposed to do it and yet not document the countless hours it involves. Just do it! is is part of your workload as a professor! ere is  no need to talk about it. Because of this institutional discourse, mentoring is rarely mentioned in the academy.

It’s a tricky and underdiscussed part of the academic life, but it’s there nonetheless. Professors understand (or they should) the importance of mentoring and have the desire to give to young scholars what was given to them by their own mentors.

Be Careful with your Mentors: There are two very different ways of looking at your relationship to your mentors, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a more holistic view and a more instrumental view. You have to be able to hold these two views in a productive tension without going too far in either direction.

The instrumental view is that mentors are there to help you in the process of professionalization and are central to you developing the formal and informal networks that are central to professional advancement. The holistic view is that mentors are friends and confidantes who help you out of the goodness of their hearts and with whom you develop a very special, lifelong bond. Both are true. A mentor fulfills a function in your academic and professional advancement and they’re also a person with whom you have a long-standing and powerful relationship. Finding an ethical balance in this situation mostly requires that you follow the golden rule (treat them like you want to be treated) or the Kantian categorical imperative (treating them as an end unto itself rather than a means to an end) or following Audre Lorde’s insight that ‘use without consent of the used is abuse.’

With that said, there is a racialized/gendered component to maintaining an ethical relationship with your mentors. That is, specifically, the demands made on Black women professors are often substantially greater than those made on other professors. In a recent interview at The Feminist Wire, Kaila Adia Story (University of Louisville) described some of the pressures as follows:

The tenure track process is hard enough to navigate as an assistant professor. For Black women who hold this position the task is even harder, particularly for those who embody multiple axes of “difference” such as race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Representing diversity within one’s embodiment often times represses one’s productivity. The pressure to publish at institutions of higher learning is paramount, but the most grueling and exhaustive work does not come from one’s attempt to publish. Indeed, the service aspect of our jobs has proven to be the most arduous, and at the same time, is not given the same weight in terms of promotion or tenure. Working with students, being at events, and serving on boards in the larger community does not matter to our institutions as much as it does to our students and/or to the communities that are Universities are a part of.

“Other mothering” refers to the care for a child not biologically our own. As Black women in the academy, we engage in “other mothering” through giving our time, mentorship, and visibility – and these efforts magnify the internalized pressure for Black women faculty to be the all and everything at their Universities. Black women’s hypervisibility/invisibility, embodied diversity and “other mothering” intersect to create work-life strain and this has direct relevance to the recent debates surrounding tenure and promotion for Black women at Universities.

Different mentors are under different amounts of pressure, but you have to balance the mutual and institutionally enshrined need for mentors/mentees against the fact that professors are human beings with needs of their own that don’t always coincide with yours (this is really advice for whites who don’t always have a conception of non-white people as being also human).

Watch out for your Mentors: The fact is, the relationship you have with your mentor is a type of intimacy. You’re two people under a lot of stress in a hostile environment and you both need things from the other. Also, there’s a dramatic power imbalance between students and professors. It’s easy under these circumstances for good relationships to become toxic relationships. But it is completely possible for folks acting in good faith to navigate these pressures. And sometimes you need to take a break from each other–that’s fine too. Your relationship with a good mentor is complex.

Another very real possibility is that your mentor is already an asshole and your relationship will simply get worse and worse until you find yourself packing your things for good–out of the program, school, or academy.  The best resource for weeding out who is or isn’t poison to work with is current grad students. Current grad students are the best resource for all information regarding programs/schools. They know who isn’t as smart as they seem, who isn’t radical-friendly, who is sexist/homophobic/racist, or who will try to completely take advantage of you.

Finding a Mentor: I’ve said all this and I haven’t said anything about how to find a mentor in the first place! There are a lot of things to consider as an undergraduate or master’s student looking for a mentor (who have a different set of concerns when looking for a mentor than PhD students). Here are some things to consider:

Know what you’re looking for: Do you need someone who will guide you step-by-step throughout the research and writing process? Or do you just need someone who will proofread the finished paper and give it a close and insightful reading? Do you need them to help you with research as your advisor? Or do you just want to talk about your ideas and see if they have ideas for what to read? If you have an idea what you need, you’re in a better position to weed out potential mentors who won’t meet your needs.

Don’t (necessarily) insist on working with the local rock star: professors with big names also have big commitments that have nothing to do with you. You may find that working for a celebrity comes at the expense of them engaging deeply with your work, and at the expense of you feeling like you can disagree with them. It’s much better to work with someone who will meet your needs than to hope that the local star academic won’t screw you.

Just go to office hours already: they’re there, in the office, door ajar, waiting for students to come in and talk to them. I’m not saying to waste their time if you have nothing to say, I’m saying that you need to think of something to say and go in and talk to them. They’re trained to sit and talk at people about things, and if they’re not friendly enough to do that then you know they’re not the mentor for you. But you have to meet with them, face to face, and more than once. This is how you build a relationship.

Own your ignorance: Don’t be afraid to not know something. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Being an academic doesn’t mean having all the answers, it means knowing how to find answers and being willing to do the work to find them. You’re in a new and confusing situation and you should own that. Show that you have the desire to learn. Once again, someone who doesn’t have the patience to explain what the ASA is (the American Studies Association) or what a Fulbright is (a fellowship program to work or study outside of the US) might not be the person for you.

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3 comments
  1. i appreciate this piece. i’m at a high-falootin’ university & mentorship is hard to find. i’m not entirely sure it’s scarce, per se (race aside), but perspectives/orientations are my issue. unfortunately here, mentoring is NOT a consideration in tenure applications, so there are several professors who don’t engage. we have one or two who are already tenured and known for not wanting to mentor students.

    i got to meet celeste watkins-hayes several weeks ago & she told me this:
    the big name folks are highly sought-after so you need to come to them with something to offer. the relationship needs to be mutually beneficial for the both of you.

    she recommended that i build my village, but suggested i work on getting some publications out there before i really start gunning the engines. i appreciated her advice, but of course i’m even more nervous now, lol!

    • Thank you for your comment, it brings up a really great point that I meant to mention but forgot to write. Namely, that a great mentor/mentee relationship is one in which both people are learning from each other. Which is also to say one in which the mentor realizes what s/he has to learn from the mentee and respects them for it. So, of course, part of that bargain is that you have something to bring to the table.

      It also points to the importance of building up support systems of folks from inside and outside of your institution and at every level of the academy (and beyond).

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