NWSA Graduate Caucus Reception Remarks

On the evening of November 13, 2015 I gave remarks at the National Women’s Studies Association Graduate Caucus Reception. The Facebook event invite noted:

Header for the Facebook invite re: the NWSA Graduate CaucusA common refrain among graduate students, particularly those who scholarship is in Women’s and Gender Studies, is the need for more mentorship. Decrypting the unspoken language and conventions of the academy presents a structural obstacle to our achievements. As many of us are first-generation students, gender minorities, students of color, we are traditionally underrepresented and multiply marginalized with/in graduate school, and we realize a difficult journey can be made easier by someone who can show the way forward. And so we find ourselves searching for that “perfect” mentor: an advisor, faculty member, or senior scholar that can lead us to our success. When finding mentors and engaging in productive, empowering mentoring relationships proves elusive, what should we do?

For more information regarding my thoughts on mentoring and the tenure-track, please view the following posts and pages on this website:

NWSA Graduate Caucus Reception Remarks

Thank you to the Graduate Caucus co-chairs for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. The focus of my remarks this evening will be on mentoring, and hopefully, you will find them brief, but interesting.

Often we’re told to find multiple mentors and establish a mentoring circle since one mentor will not fit your various needs. If you have not been proactive about finding and establishing relationships with mentors, I encourage you to do so. As a graduate student, I took advantage of the Preparing Future Faculty program offered by the graduate school. I also sought out additional professional development opportunities. I hope many of you signed up for the NWSA Mentoring program offered this year. I recognize that not all disciplines and interdisciplinary fields have these built in mentoring components, which is why I encourage you to take advantage of the fact that NWSA supports graduate students and junior faculty. All too often academia may seem isolating, especially when you are the only one doing ethnic studies, for example, at an institution. As someone whose research intersects with the fields of Women’s Studies, Asian American Studies, and Adoption Studies, I am extremely grateful that I work in fields that include mentoring components into their conferences.

Photo Credit: Krista Benson
Photo Credit: Krista Benson

Remember that many mentors come from unexpected places. As you consider your mentoring needs, I suggest that you develop a list of questions concerning research, teaching, service, the job market, etc. and contemplate who would be the best person out of your network to ask. And remember, mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be shocked when some of your best mentors come from unlikely places and that those who you think will be kickass mentors end up not being interested in the job.

I should emphasize that mentors also do not solely exist in formal mentoring spaces. I have met countless mentors along the way as I transitioned from my status as a master’s student to PhD student/candidate to postdoc to tenure track faculty member. These individuals and I crossed paths at conference, via introductions through other colleagues/friends, and because I just asked for their advice.

I also continue to forge friendships with colleagues across disciplines. These relationships are critical when seeking feedback from perspectives outside of one’s own field. They bring a wealth of experience and new teaching strategies. It’s refreshing to hear about how they facilitate discussion or deploy active learning in the classroom because someone in modern languages or chemistry will use methods that may benefit me in my humanities classroom. Moreover, once you transition from graduate student to junior faculty member, forging relationships with colleagues across the university will strengthen your ability to get to know your institution.

My mentors range from senior scholars (full professors and associate professors) to junior scholars (those further along the tenure-track than myself) and peers (members of my tenure-track cohort, postdocs, and folks I knew from graduate school). It’s the last type of mentoring that I will focus more deeply on in my remarks this evening. Peer-to-peer mentoring is critical. Remember the people you’re in graduate school with in your departments, programs, and even across the university are your future colleagues. The way you treat your peers today will inform how you treat your colleagues tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the low stakes of the academy are not necessarily conducive to supporting collaboration, mentoring, and even sharing information. Yet academia should not be a bizarre version of The Hunger Games. Peer-to-peer mentoring is one of the first steps in changing this culture and creating supportive and encouraging networks. Once you realize that people are not out to get you personally, it changes how we understand how the academy works. This is not to say that the academy is perfect. Yes, sometimes spaces are toxic. But don’t let that toxicity consume you and infiltrate your interactions with other colleagues. Making that distinction is key. Don’t fall into the cyclical trap where this competitive environment looks like a version of academic Mean Girls. On Wednesdays we can wear pink, but we don’t need to all be like Regina.

Here are seven tips that I found to be helpful as I transitioned from graduate student to tenure track faculty member.

  1. Be comfortable with sharing your writing early and often. Too frequently, the writing experience is isolating. We are concerned with perfect chapter or essay. It also creates anxiety and fuels imposter syndrome. What if someone thinks X, Y, or Z? This question holds us back. Sharing early drafts will only strengthen our work. A draft will never be exactly where you want it. Embrace the imperfections. This is what the revision process is for. This is also why feedback at all stages is important.
  2. Writing groups are critical. In graduate school my advisor convened a dissertation writing group with her advisees. This allowed us to build a culture of peer review. Since then, I have started online writing with friends at different institutions and locations. We also share our writing. And, it’s also a way to keep yourself accountable. When writing gets isolating and you’re about to shame spiral because X number of words need to get done, a writing partner is helpful. Let’s not pretend we don’t need someone from time to time to remind us that we kick ass. Because for real, sometimes we need a trusted colleague to give us a little push.
  3. External funding is not you against the world. Rather, it’s about “how does your project fit with a particular call for funding.” This also means that you’re not in competition with friends or colleagues applying for the same grant. It’s about your project, the call for papers, and whether or not you clearly make the case for the funding. It also means that just because one friend’s research interest is being funded by an organization focusing on their topic that it’s not an indictment on your field. It’s also not a competition if your research interests do not overlap. Don’t ever forget that. Yes funding is competitive, but very rarely are your topics so similar that funding bodies will compare them with one another.
  4. The job market is not for the faint of heart. It can be demoralizing. As someone with friends currently on the market who have been at various visiting positions and knowing folks who previously were visiting or on postdocs, I’m aware that the supply and demand of the market favors departments and programs. Often we’re hearing of one position garnering more than 150 applications. From there the pool is narrowed to ten or so for interviews and then down to the top three for on campus interviews. Rejection is common. Rejection is also slow. Bearing all of this in mind, keep a cheerleader in your corner to remind you of why you are qualified. If you’re also nervous about the market, ask your mentors for feedback on your materials. If you ask someone recently hired in a TT position, they will tell you that not only did they receive feedback from at least one other person, but that they also revised their materials more than once.
  5. Collegiality is key. Remember at the end of the day when one person succeeds, we all succeed. Supporting the successes of our friends and colleagues means that when we all get into our future positions we will have someone to celebrate with. Success isn’t fun if we’re alone. At the same time, you are capable of doing the same thing even as a peer. As you join the ranks of faculty and start working on your book proposal and meeting with presses, highlight the work of your colleagues. Sometimes a series may not fit with your project, but it does with a peer. When I know a friend is talking with the same acquiring editor, I also make sure to highlight their work.
  6. Building networks with one another is critical. I have seen how these initial friendship and relationships in graduate school blossom throughout one’s career. My mentors continue to see these friends from their early days at conferences. These are the names you see listed in the acknowledgements, connections forged and reconstituted as series editors on a university press series, and individuals open doors for one another’s mentees. Our sub-fields are often small worlds. Think six degrees of Kevin Bacon. We’re all interconnected. Let’s make sure the first thing a person can say about you, is oh they’re great! Not, oh they’re terrible with email.
  7. Don’t be afraid to discuss rejection. And here, I mean rejection from funding opportunities, conferences, journal articles, the job market, and even, once you get there, academic presses. Recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education published Devoney Looser’s article, “Me and my Shadow CV.” Looser writes,

Rejection is something you’re supposed to learn by experience, and then keep entirely quiet about. Among academics, the scientists seem to handle rejection best: They list on their CVs the grants they applied for but didn’t get — as if to say, ‘Hey, give me credit for sticking my neck out on this unfunded proposal. You better bet I’ll try again.’ Humanists — my people — hide our rejections from our CVs as skillfully as we can. Entirely, if possible. That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection. The sheer scope of it over the course of a career may be stunning to a newcomer. I began to think of my history of rejection as my shadow CV — the one I’d have if I’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone. 

I quote Dr. Looser at length because all too often we keep quiet. If we actually discussed what we were rejected from we would see that we’re not the only ones. It’s from that openness that I learned of colleagues both junior and senior who experienced rejection in all stages of academic publishing. If I were not open about my own experiences, I would never have learned that information.

I hope that these tips are helpful as you consider what type of person you seek to be and become in graduate school and as a junior faculty member. Keeping your eye on the long game of academia is important. Don’t be short-sighted and think of what’s happening right now. Also keep in mind the fact that what’s going on today may inform your opportunities tomorrow and thereafter.

Again, the successes of your friends and colleagues are your successes. If we want to change the academy we cannot step one another to get to the top. So how do we do that?

First, we need to have open and honest conversations about the job market and professionalization. Mentor a first or second year graduate student if you’re ABD. Teach them the ropes about preparing for conference, networking, how to effectively work with faculty, etc. Offer workshops on what to expect when sitting candidacy exams. When you all get ready to apply for postdocs, fellowships, or tenure-track and visiting positions, crowd source for feedback. Ask your close friends to review your letters, CV, teaching and research statements for clarity and readability. If you know folks more senior who are in the early days of their career, ask if they would be willing to share their job materials. You won’t know they will say no until you ask.

Second, ask yourself how are you presenting yourself to your colleagues. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics. Are you using Facebook, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, and Twitter effectively? What do people find when they Google you? While this at first may not seem related to peer-to-peer mentoring, remember that a good friend and colleague will want you to put your best foot forward. Also, remember that networking depending on your field may occur in spaces such as Facebook where the personal meets professional. Figure out how you will use social media.

Finally, remember that it’s important to tell people that they are making a great impact. If you ask my colleagues, they often will say I’m a good cheerleader. You’re here in this room today because you deserve to be here. Don’t forget that no matter how demoralizing the job market can be. Or how toxic others spaces in the academy may be – depending on where you are. Remember that there are people who believe in you. Never forget that. At the end of the day, after a bad teaching day or a bad day of writing you need to be able to rely on your close and trusted colleagues and friends to get you out of your funk and remember that you belong here.

Last month at the Minority Scholars Breakfast at the American Studies Association, Mark Anthony Neal said, “Mentors mentor because they were mentored.” I took this message to heart. And it’s not just mentoring relationships between senior and junior faculty or between faculty and graduate students. It’s also peer mentoring. A good peer mentor has already been mentored by their peers. They’ve witnessed the effectiveness. They’ve seen what happens when you get support from one another.

Perhaps at the end of the day, you walk away thinking I’m an academic Pollyanna. But please know that I’ve witnessed the gamut of successful and unsuccessful mentoring relationships. The rough starts and the fantastic ones. Cultivating a network of mentors including from yours peers will only benefit you in the long run. I am continuously amazed at the generosity of my colleagues once you demonstrate your willingness to share and build community.

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