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Lessons in Mentoring and the Value-Added of Conferences

Posted By Jason Mittell, Saturday, March 12, 2011
I often think about the function of conferences in today's academic & media environment. Given the fiscal crises & constraints that face most of academia, coupled with the massive environmental impact of moving hundreds of people across the globe, it's worth reflecting on the actual value of conferences like SCMS. While I love seeing old & new friends, exploring a city, and feeling immersed in an academic community, that's not enough to justify the economic & environmental costs.

I've come to realize that I'm generally not that engaged by formal academic papers at conferences. Even at their best, I find it hard to digest & retain an argument and analysis from an oral presentation, and when they're sandwiched between countless other papers that bleed into one another, I'm often left with a mushy sense that I learned something but can't say exactly what. Ideally, I'll connect with the author & ask for a copy of their work to have a chance to really engage with the ideas. But in the age of academic blogs and easily distributed information, a large conference is probably no longer the ideal venue to debut a work in progress to engage conversation & spread understanding.

By the end of Friday, I was pretty burnt on papers, even though I'd seen a number of very good ones. But I became refreshed by the workshop on mentoring, put together by Kevin Sanson and featuring Hector Amaya, Theresa Geller, Mary Kearney and Beretta Smith-Shomade. I left thinking that this is the true "value-added" of academic conferences: getting people together in a shared space to engage in face-to-face community conversation that evolves organically and includes an array of voices. You can't exactly blog that experience, but you can come close to recording the ideas. I actively Tweeted the workshop (leading to some people in other rooms sending their thoughts which I then voiced in the workshop). Here are some of the key take-aways from the conversation as distilled from Twitter, with no attempt at attribution:
  • For senior faculty & potential mentors: make yourself available to others, but be realistic about what you offer & promise only what you can follow-through on. Be willing to learn from others, as you're never too senior to be mentored.
  • For students & junior faculty: if someone offers you help, take them up on it. Acknowledge that mentors have lives and many commitments, so be respectful of their time. Make it clear what you're asking for, and for more structured requests (comments on writing, recommendations), give people reasonable schedules & organized materials.
  • For everyone: use SCMS or other societies as resources for networking, but also to figure out your niche to get involved, build a community, and contribute to the larger whole.
  • If you're looking for mentorship that you can't get at your institution (for instance, mentors who share your racial or sexual identity; mentors who are supportive of other career paths, like teaching-centered colleges or archival/alt-academic careers), politely reach out to people with the type of job you want - they'll probably be flattered!
  • Keep your mentors in the loop about your accomplishments, even after you've graduated & moved on. They'll be proud and/or supportive of your news!
  • Mentoring relationships have power dynamics - own up to them & figure out each person's limits & expectations rather than pretending you're equals.
  • Rely on peer mentoring, whether it's a community of TAs, a reading group as students or faculty, or various networks of like-minded or situated people that you might meet at smaller, more focused conferences or events.
  • If you're active in online communities like Twitter or listservers, use those people as potential mentors or sounding boards. Even if they don't develop into deeper relationships, just knowing that there's an accessible community of scholars can be reassuring to newcomers.
  • What we should tell undergrads looking toward academia: be frank about financial & structural realities of grad school & job market, start pre-professionalization early, look for conference or publication opportunities open to undergrads, talk to current grad students, find ways to avoid debt!
  • For faculty post-tenure: think about your career in 5-year cycles, understand that often work increases after tenure even if stakes are lower, know your strengths & skills to shape your career to what will make you happiest & fits your definition of success.
  • Finally, mentors need to be transparent with their own imperfections - as Beretta said, "mentors should show their own foolishness" to promote realistic expectations for success.
Do you have any more advice to add?

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Jason Mittell says...
Posted Saturday, March 12, 2011
I received an email from someone not at the workshop, but wanted to post this comment anonymously:

Thanks so much for summarizing the contributions to this panel. It's
helpful to see other practices and suggestions from both the
mentor/mentee perspective.

I have a question, however, that perhaps has been answered in this
panel. How much assistance might graduate students reasonably ask for?
And how much should faculty, as both mentors and advisors, contribute
voluntarily to this process? This relationship varies widely,
obviously, since it’s informal and never spelled out in anyone’s job
description.

Secondly I want to comment on some advice I was once given, and wonder
what others think. I was told not to worry about anything else, but
to just write. This is good advice on one level--use your energies
productively, remain focused. However, it also ignores the privilege
of a faculty member who might have access to financial security via
tenure, a working spouse, etc., who can do this, but often the
graduate student cannot. Many grad students at my institution work
more than one job or teach several classes, have families to support
while "just writing." I think mentors can forget about issues of
class, and our access to financial privilege (sadly, gender and age
also come into play in this equation). I don't expect mentors to
solve financial hardships, but I do expect them to be aware of (even
if they don't fully understand) the unique challenges that mentees
have as individuals with different relationships to academia--and
offer realistic advice accordingly.
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