The Mentoring Compact

Faculty mentoring of graduate students is one of those things that is rightly the subject of recurrent conversation; there are good mentors and bad, lack of clarity in faculty expectations and student responses, sustainable and deeply-broken models of graduate student training, all of which seem to perpetuate themselves (often unreflexively). The faculty who are best at mentoring recognize that it is a dynamic process, and that not one model works for all students, and, moreover, that the process of mentoring students leads to new techniques and understandings of the process. Sometimes it takes graduate students to precipitate some faculty growth. That all said, this is what I’ve learned in my eight years of graduate study and eleven years of working with graduate students, which I offer as a two-sided compact, what students should do, and what faculty should provide:

That’s Yoda on Luke’s back — maybe as a metaphor of the interdependency of mentor and mentee?

Students: Keep lines of communication open with your adviser and committee. If you’re a graduate student, don’t wait for your adviser or committee to contact you. Instead, make a regular practice of keeping people up to date about what you’re doing and how things are going. I make this suggestion because I’ve found that when things start to go poorly for graduate students (during grant writing, dissertation research, dissertation writing, job seeking, etc.), many students take to not communicating with their committee, often, it seems, out of fear of communicating that things are going poorly. If you send your adviser a monthly email keeping them abreast of what’s happening, it keeps lines of communication open and ensures that when difficulties arise, there’s already a channel open. (Other committee members might receive email every four or six months.) Just answer these three questions: 1) what have you been working on?, 2) what problems have you faced?, 3) how have you addressed those problems? (#3 is a good place to ask for help, if needed.)

Students might worry that sending advisers and committee members emails obliges them to respond, thereby creating unnecessary work for faculty, but it’s okay to preface emails like this with something along the lines of “There’s no need to respond to this email; I’m just writing to keep you in the loop.” Most faculty, I’m sure, will take the opportunity to not respond, but know that faculty are keeping students in mind when they receive emails like this.

(I’ve thought about writing a contract with graduate students, part of which would give them an automatic out of the advising relationship. For example, if you’re my advisee and I don’t hear from you for six months, then I assume I’m no long your adviser. I’ve watched students struggle with taking faculty off their committees, often because the lines of communication between faculty and student are troubled. But I’ve not gotten to an actual contract yet…)

Faculty: Have guidelines for responding to student emails. I tell my advisees that I’ll always respond to an email within 24 hours (unless it’s the weekend or I’m traveling); if I’m a committee member, it’s no more than 72 hours; if I’m just some random faculty member, it can be up to a week. If it’s an actual emergency — and I can do something about it — I’ll break these guidelines. If I’m going to be running late because I want to be thorough in my response, I always make sure to send an email to that effect. That said, I try and abide by a minimalist email policy and send as few emails as possible (if only to have a very clear and direct chain of communication). Only when students start working on their dissertations do I give them my phone number, since I assume that before that the kind of help I can provide is largely bureaucratic (i.e. email and meeting based).

Students: Do what faculty ask you to do. One of the recurrent sources of frustration voiced by faculty who work with graduate students is that students come seeking advice, faculty do a lot of work in making suggestions and providing feedback and resources, and then students don’t follow through by doing what faculty ask them to do. Even if you think the suggestion is off base, it’s better to do the work than to avoid it; showing a faculty member that you did the work and proving that the suggestion was insufficient or off base is a clearer demonstration of the paucity of a suggestion than not taking the suggestion seriously. If you can’t do something, it’s so much better to explain why you can’t than to just not do it (which open lines of communication can facilitate). If an assignment (or job task, like grading) has a clear set of instructions, follow the instructions as provided. Again, it’s better to show the paucity of the instructions by following them than to let faculty think you’re just lazy and trying to find workarounds.

Faculty: Be clear in your expectations and provide instructive guidelines. When I have teaching assistants grading for me, I provide them with very clear rubrics to use; when I am helping students generate reading lists, I’m very clear about how many items should be on it, and what kinds of things those readings should be (e.g. books, chapters, articles, etc.). I find that being very clear in my expectations helps students immensely, and that when they don’t follow the instructions I’ve provided, I can point to the instructions as the basis of our next interaction (see below). I try and take notes of my conversations with students and provide them with a copy of those notes after the meeting (either in writing or via email) so that I know we’re on the same page.

Students: Give faculty lead time to prepare themselves for what you need. There’s very little I find as frustrating as someone else’s deadline being imposed on my work schedule. Having students give me something they’re seeking feedback on shortly before the due date is a case in point: if you want careful reading and generative feedback, I probably need a week to fit it into my schedule and make sure I give it the time it needs. Preparing faculty for upcoming deadlines and the prospect that you’re going to send them something ensures that you get the attention you want. This might be something to communicate in a monthly email (e.g. “I have a fellowship deadline at the end of the month and plan to send you the application in two weeks.”), and is definitely something to give people at least a week or more to prepare for. If it’s big — like a dissertation draft — give them a month or more to prepare for it.

Faculty: Tell students what their windows of opportunity are. I’m pretty regimented in my work planning, and I imagine most faculty are. Because of that, I know — roughly — when I’m going to have more or less time to give students feedback, set up meetings, etc. At the beginning of the semester, I try and give my students a sense of when these windows will be, and try and set up deadlines around them. For example, when I know a student is going to be sending me a dissertation draft, I let that student know when I’ll have a week to dedicate to reading it and commenting on it. If they miss the window, I’ll still get the work done, but I’m clear that it will take me a little longer than if I have it in the window.

Students: Plan to educate faculty on standards and policies. This is especially true for faculty new to your institution or in other departments than your own: faculty tend to not know what the policies are that dictate student lives. If you can provide them with written documentation (i.e. from a graduate student handbook), it can go a long way to clarifying faculty expectations of your work. If standards vary from policies, then you also want proof of that (e.g. if the graduate handbook says comprehensive exams comprise 100 texts but everyone actually does 75, bring some recently defended comprehensive exam reading lists to talk through). Faculty may not vary from the policy as written, but if there is an emerging norm, you’ll want them to know about it and have proof that it exists.

Faculty: Provide a prompt for the material basis for meetings. I find that having some kind of written product to talk through with students makes meetings feel much more productive than not having something to focus on. This can be a dissertation proposal, a grant application, a reading list, an annotated bibliography, an article manuscript, something you’ve both read recently, etc. Having something to focus on ensures that the conversation is well focused and there’s a direct outcome of the meeting. There can be small talk too, but having a clear work plan for you and the student helps to make sure that there are deliverables and that the student has the feeling of being materially supported.

Elsewhere, I’ve provided some guidelines for thinking about how to compose a dissertation committee, and what the overall professionalization timeline might look like given today’s academic job market. The latter might be especially helpful in thinking about the material basis of meetings and to provide a trajectory for the mentoring relationship (at least during grad school). Other tips? Insight? Post them in the comments.

On Having an Ax to Grind

“Productive scholars have an ax to grind.” That was a lesson imparted on me by one of my undergraduate mentors, Brian Murphy. We were walking across campus during my senior year, and I had been talking about the possibility of pursuing some kind of graduate degree, at the time in Literature. Brian was narrating how, despite enjoying the scholarly work he had done throughout his career, he never felt particularly driven to participate in the arguments motivating many scholars in the discipline. (Little did I know that the postmodernism debate was in full rage mode at the time.) Frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with the advice at the time, but I tucked in away.

A man comes to get his ax ground, sometime in the Middle Ages? (From Married to the Sea)

While I was working on the Master’s degree that followed (in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool), I had things I was interested in, but the work was driven more by curiosity and expediency than having a real argument to make. Over time, the thesis I wrote there developed more of an argument and ended up being publishable as a couple of articles about superhero utopias and the role of law and capital in superhero comics. But to this day, I’m not sure I have much of an ax to grind when it comes to superheroes.

It was while working on revising that content that I received a second piece of advice, this time from Hai Ren, a faculty member I worked with at Bowling Green. Hai suggested that to write a dissertation, one needed “three theorists.” Hai’s point, as I understood it, was that you need some parameters on the ideas that you’re working with, and that having three theorists — who, he suggested, one reads in their entirety (queue up the qualifying exam reading list) — gave a writer the ability to play off differences and consensus between sets of theory. If I wasn’t sure what ax I had to grind, Hai gave me a way to craft one.

I’ve made the same recommendations to students over the years, but I add that the theories that one adopts should really be ontologically compatible. So monists and dualists don’t go together, nor do communists and free marketeers, nor biological determinists and social constructionists, etc. I had started thinking about this after reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, where she draws together Freud, Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Hegel (and others, I’m sure, but memory fails me). Butler’s “toolbox” approach struck me as eliding the profound differences between a thinker like Freud, who really believes in some form of biological determinism, and Foucault, who really does not. You can put them together, but you can’t really build a sound theory out of them because the ontologies don’t fit together. That is, unless you find ways to treat some thinkers as existing within an ontological paradigm developed by others who you take more seriously (e.g. Freud’s use of biology is a form of Foucaultian discourse and not really materially reductive. But I’m skeptical.).

If you go look at the introduction to The Slumbering Masses, I’m pretty explicit about using three sets of theory and having an ax to grind: I’m trying to work through the overlap between Bruno Latour, Bernard Steigler, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and I’m trying to bring them to bear on how we conceptualize the interaction between medicine and capitalism in the U.S. That means, in part, that I’m rejecting medicalization as a way to think about human nature and its interactions with capitalist forms of medicine (which you can read about here).

That doesn’t mean that I’m only working through the theories that come out of those four, white, relatively elite, able-bodied, heterosexual French men. I’m intensely aware of who these men were (and are), and use their monism to engage with other thinkers (especially Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens, two Australian Spinozist philosophers) and the subfield interests I have (especially science and technology studies and feminist medical anthropology). Those engagements helped me suss out things from the theories I was using and guided me through my interactions with those rather large fields of literature. It also gave me a way to talk about things like my “contributions” to the field and the “significance” of my research (scare quotes to denote my general skepticism of that kind of grant-speak criteria). In saturated areas of study, being clear about your theoretical commitments can also make clear what you’re doing differently than other people working on the same topic or area of study.

I try and get students to think about what they believe. Stop thinking through the ecumenical polytheism of graduate study, and consider what kind of world you want to make with your scholarship. What is the ontology that you’re committed to? And who are the right thinkers to join to that project? It shouldn’t just be people that you enjoy reading, but people (and sets of theories) that you fundamentally share a common sensibility with. In committing to a set of thinkers, what differences can you map out between them and how might they guide your interactions with key concepts in your field? That can provide a ton of grist for the mill, both in terms of the initial dissertation, but also in articles and other spin-off projects.

I have other axes to grind — especially around racism in science and medicine — and those too are informed by my theoretical commitments. Having a pretty solidly determined ontological commitment gives me a framework to engage with whatever springs up. And, over time, I’ve changed the people most central to the projects I work on now. But having a set of theoretical commitments helps to guide what and how I read as well as the kinds of questions I ask about the phenomena that I’m drawn to work on.

It took a while, but now I have axes to grind…

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

kawa social network us anthro.png
A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.