Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scripts for Getting Mentorship: Crazy's Version

This post was inspired by a comment that Dame Eleanor left over at Sisyphus's place to her Lesson's for Girls: Don't Just Ask, Insist on Help (Even If It Makes You Feel Weird) post, which Sis wrote out of inspiration from this post about mentoring over at Historiann's. How's that for a chain of inspiration? At any rate, Dame Eleanor writes in her comment to Sis:

"It's one thing to say "Speak up," and another to explain how to do it. What do you say? What tone do you take? How do you portray yourself as junior-equal rather than as meek suppliant or righteously teed-off young Turk? These things are not easy, and for many of us, personality factors like introversion make them harder still."

Now, I don't often think about this part of the whole "seeking mentorship" thing because it has often felt like this part of things comes fairly naturally to me (I'm an extrovert more than an introvert), and because I tend to be more of a big-picture sort of thinker than a nuts-and-bolts-details sort of thinker (and my challenges in my scholarly work are a testament to this). In other words, before I read Dame Eleanor's comment, it had seriously never occured to me that one needed to do more than to say, "Speak up," because when I think "Speak up," in my head that includes the script that I would use. I know that's silly of me, thinking about it now, but really: it had never crossed my mind before that it would be useful to outline potential scripts for seeking mentorship. At any rate, now that it has, I do feel like it's worthy of a post.

As I begin, though, I feel a bit stuck. To some extent, all of these things depend on context, upon the power differentials in play, and upon the personality of the person who's doing the asking as well as upon the personality of the person whom is being solicited for mentorship. They also depend upon the particular circumstance for which one needs mentorship. In other words, what I'll present will in no way be exhaustive, and probably other people should weigh in (whether on their own blogs or in comments here). So with all of that being said, perhaps before I proceed to any scripts, I think I'll first address some general "rules of engagement" that have served me well.
  1. I think it is always best, when one is asking another person for advice or help, to bring something of one's own to the table. In other words, if you need a strong letter of recommendation, provide the potential recommender with lots of material that will enable them to do that job easily for you. If you need an answer to a particular question, work on potential answers to the question yourself first, and only go to the person after you've done that work. This doesn't mean that you don't still need to go to another person, if you've don't that work: rather, it shows the other person your level of investment, and they still might be able to offer supplementary advice that will help.
  2. Be polite. I know, obvious, right? But you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you knock on somebody's door with a demand, they will be more likely to blow you off. If you knock on somebody's door with a polite request, unless the person is a jerk, they will likely be more receptive.
  3. Being polite doesn't mean being fake. You don't need to have read everything the person has written, or to agree with everything the person thinks. What you do need to be is genuine and respectful. Good mentors aren't always people who see eye to eye with you: sometimes they are people with whom you disagree mightily, but who nevertheless have something to offer.
  4. When people ask you about your work, or if they ask you if you need help with anything, or if they ask you what they can do to make something work more efficiently for you or to make your life easier, assume that they are asking in good faith. This is a really important one, I think. The first response that might come to your lips is "I'm fine." The way you get mentors, though, is to say, I'm managing, and I will do fine regardless, but you might be able to offer wisdom or advice in regard to this particular thing. When people ask you about how things are going, more often than not they are offering their mentorship. Don't dismiss that.
  5. Demonstrate that you are capable, independent, and autonomous the majority of the time. Then, when you need assistance, people will not think that you are entitled or expect them to do the work for you. In other words, know your shit, do your shit, and then, if you need help, when you ask for it people won't think you're taking advantage of them.
With these rules of engagement in place, I will offer some scripts from my own life. I think this is better than me trying to manufacture examples that might not fairly represent how I've managed mentorship in my own life.

Example 1: The Undergraduate Trying to Find a Person to Advise Her Senior Thesis

When I was an undergraduate at a regional university (mediocrely research-oriented) with over 25K students and where I very much felt like a number for most of the time, I was also in the honors college, and to graduate with honors I needed to write a thesis. I had no idea of how to go about choosing an adviser for my thesis, other than that I knew what I wanted to do my thesis on, and so I chose the faculty member with whom I'd taken a class where I'd read some of the books I wanted to study. This person also happened to be my adviser within the major. Let's just note that this person had actively dissuaded me from pursuing grad school ("your gpa isn't good enough and you'll never become a professor") but she was all I had. So I asked. She said no. She recommended that I ask a person who was not on the tenure track in the english department at my university, but who taught at a branch campus part-time and who had a full-time position at a center on campus for an author of the same period. Now, I could have been dissuaded by this "adviser" (who, incidentally, I now see regularly professionally and who claims me as her "student" - as if!) and given up on this particular thesis project, or on a thesis altogether (it wasn't required to graduate). But I took her advice. And I contacted my Awesome First Mentor, Thesis Adviser. This was in the days before email, so I wrote her a letter. A very carefully crafted letter. I explained the project that I had envisioned, and I politely asked whether she would be interested in supervising me. I did not just show up at her office one day demanding mentorship. I politely presented my project (something into which I'd put a lot of time, thought and effort), and she politely accepted me as her student. And once that arrangement was made, I was entirely open to her criticism, her challenges, and her advice. In other words, I respected that she had a certain authority as my adviser, and a hell of a lot more expertise than I had, and I trusted her expertise. She was my mentor, my guide. I never thought of her as a hoop I was jumping through, even if the thesis itself was. The relationship that I developed with her ultimately led to my first conference presentation as well as to my first publication. This wasn't because I was entitled to that, but rather because I nurtured the mentoring relationship that she offered. (In an awesome "it's a small world after all" quirk of fate, she met my thesis student, BES, a couple of months ago. When who she was, and who BES was, was realized, it was a festival of hugs and academic lineage. Note: I was not there. I only heard about this weeks later. This was totally a happenstance thing. And I'm so excited that BES meant First Ever Mentor! Especially since I had showed BES my undergrad thesis - BES was totally blown over by the whole thing.)

Example #2: Choosing a Dissertation Director

I chose my dissertation director because I knew that he would push me like I'd never been pushed before. He was a person (and I imagine still is) that most grad students in my former program shy away from, when it comes to this particular gig. Not because he's not cool (he so is cool), and not because he isn't the most incisive and responsive reader (he is), but because he is a total hard-ass. He writes your comments on seminar papers like he's writing a reader's report for a journal. Complete with referring to you by last name. He sees flaws in what you write that most experts won't see. He's, well, omniscient and brutal. Those are the two best words I can think of for him. I, however, as the person that I am, sought him out. The first time I remember approaching him for something specific was when I was accepted to a conference for a paper that would be based on something I wrote for him. I remember going to his office to tell him about it, and he was dismissive. But, whereas my undergrad thesis adviser was supportive and welcoming, I also trusted DD (Dissertation Director). He was dismissive because he *expected* excellence from me, rather than encouraging and nurturing it. He was dismissive because the fact that I was accepted, I now realize, was *obvious* to him. It was after that experience that I asked him to be the director of my dissertation. Again, I came to him with clear goals. In fact, I came to him with not one but two proposals. And I asked both would he be my director as well as for his advice about my ideas. Now, we never had a warm and fuzzy happy relationship where he designed conference panels on which I would present or whatever. He was not that guy. He was the tough love guy. He was the guy who would give you feedback on your work that would leave you curled up in a ball on the couch for weeks. But it was amazing and insightful feedback. And if I wasn't good enough? He'd never have taken me on as a student (which I realize now). He taught me how to handle BRUTAL criticism, and he taught me how to believe in myself in spite of it. And I took it. Because part of getting good mentorship, I now believe, is in taking it. Sure, I cried bitter tears and whatever, but I believed in what he was advising. And I took it to heart. I think a lot of the teacher I am now, and the mentor I am now, is a reflection of him. This may be why many students are afraid to take classes with me. But the ones who do take classes with me? They get it. They get all that I have to give them, ultimately because they want it. And I think that's the thing with a lot of mentors. I think a lot of mentors need to believe that you want what they're giving.

Example #3: Oh My God, I Ended Up with a Mentor!

This example came after I was on the tenure track. I presented a paper at a mediocre conference as a preparation for a conference that I was worried about. It was a preliminary idea of the thing that I would present at the later conference - not the same paper. It turned out, however, that one person in the audience was in a Position of Power at the later conference (something I'd not anticipated). So this was a new way of getting a mentor. I presented something I was totally work-in-progress on, and a Person of Import happened to be in the audience. In this instance, I basically was open to the PoI's interest, and I nurtured and fostered the interest of the PoI in my work. I took the opportunity, and I forged a friendship - not because I had intended to seek a mentor in that instance, but because a potential one popped up. I was polite, I was respectful, I was interested. And then I saw PoI at the Scary Conference, and we became friends. And I presented on an MLA panel as a result of her mentorship, and then got my first Awesome Journal Publication as a result of that panel. And another less important publication. And another publication in a collection that she was editing. And I became a president of an allied organization of the MLA. All I was was myself, but I was also respectful and interested. And I was open to help. And I was open to advice.

So what do you say, when you're trying to get mentored? I don't know that I've really given a script, after all. I think the first thing that you probably say is, "Hi, I'm Crazy." Actually, that just made me think of a mentoring relationship that began while I was in grad school.

I was at a conference (awesomely) in Italy. I was on a balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea, at sunset. I was in a Hapsburg palace. And a few feet away from me, I saw a person I was citing heavily in my dissertation (which would later become my book). I said to this person, "Hi, I'm Crazy. You're Fancy Lady, and I just wanted to introduce myself because your work has been so important to me."

This person ended up writing the blurb that's on the back of my book. And that blurb uses the word "prickly" which in the context of my scholarship? Makes me giggle every time. The point is, the basic script is to talk to people you are interested in talking to and to talk to those people about real things, having done the work on your end to have things to talk about.

I'm not sure if this post really provides a script, and I fear it doesn't. But I hope it at least provides some sort of a map for this stuff.


Anonymous said...

I think this is all great advice. It does underscore for me, however, how totally screwed I was from the start. That's nice, actually, because it reinforces that I didn't actually do anything wrong. I ended up working with people who were, for various reasons, incapable of helping me. Then I did a lot of asking for advice, which went nowhere until it turned into a lot of screeching, which eventually solved long as I went over everybody's head. An irresolvable advisor problem = get the director of graduate studies involved. DGS dragging hir feet? Go find a dean.

That worked and I don't think people in the department hate me as much as I think they do.

The only thing I wasn't very forceful about doing, at least in the beginning, was articulating my own proposed solution. I did a lot of "here's my problem, please help" because I didn't dare suggest anything. I mean, what if it were against the rules?? What I discovered, over time, is that there are no rules. Not really. So if you want something, ask for it. If you make a compelling case, somebody out there will make it happen.

The problem with "Here's my problem please help" is that everyone I asked would listen kindly, offer advice, and send me off with a pat on the head, hoping and expecting that I would eventually get over it and get down to work. I couldn't. Getting down to work was not my problem. Making progress was, and it really was my advisor's fault.

What I wanted to add is that *some* part of this is gender based, as per other posts. It is amazing--and by amazing I mean good for him but holy crap, where were these people when I was in grad school--to watch my husband walk around his new PhD department literally pursued by (white male) faculty who want to befriend and mentor him. And they do it in ways that would not fly if they were pursuing a female student. Asking him out to beers, for instance, or asking him to attend a classical music concert, after they've stopped him in the hall to talk shop casually. All the awkwardness of we should stay in a well-lighted public place with the door open and I shouldn't look too interested in this person because what if someone gets ideas about us that I experience habitually with male faculty is completely missing. My husband and I are both in male-dominated subspecialities, so it's really striking to me, the way my faculty carefully kept their distance while his instantly treat him like a junior colleague. And between PH and I, I am the extrovert. PH does not have to pursue mentors. They're falling all over themselves.

Flavia said...

Because part of getting good mentorship, I now believe, is in taking it.


I chose my advisor for much the same reason you chose yours--and I have a couple of post-grad-school mentors I acquired much as you acquired yours.

I don't think of myself as an extroverted or aggressive person--and I worry a lot about being a burden in pursuing would-be mentors and opportunities--but there's a lot to be said for forcing oneself to do the scary thing even if it doesn't come naturally.

Great post.

Bavardess said...

That is great advice about not shying away from people who are going to really challenge your ideas, because sometimes it is all too tempting to take the path of lesser resistance. I'm sure it was like being put through the wringer at the time, but DD certainly seems to have had an enduring positive influence on your own work and career that someone who wasn't as tough probably not have had.
Anastasia - your comment about the differences between how you and your husband get treated by profs/potential mentors is really interesting. I never considered how that particular double-edged sword could affect mentoring relationships between female students and male professors.