Mentoring constitutes a central element of my career plans. I would like to facilitate a program with the campus women’s institute matching undergraduate and graduate women to discuss both work and life decisions. In terms of professional mentorship, I hope to work with undergraduates, graduates, and eventually younger faculty. Teaching groups has always been a pleasure for me, and mentoring would provide the opportunity to foster a deeper relationship with emerging scholars.
Mentorship in the Classroom
When I teach, I build opportunities for mentorship into the syllabus. Specifically, I design specific assignments to facilitate meetings between my students and experts in the field. For example, as part of my “Edible/Political” syllabus, students must initiate an email correspondence with a curator, librarian, or scholar as part of their major research project. Students respond to these activities because they recognize them as “real” work as opposed to busy work. They acknowledge the value of learning from more advanced academics. Although building relationships with other scholars is a key element of academic success, we rarely ask students to do this as part of their classwork. These assignments nudge students towards building their personal networks by offering clear guidelines to approach this daunting task.
Similarly, I also organize optional Skype-based Q&A sessions so that students can meet with artists, lawyers, authors, and activists. When I taught a lesson on “Gender Online” for “Introduction to Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,” I organized a discussion on online harassment with journalist Amanda Hess (pictured at left). Students asked questions regarding the article that I had assigned for the class (“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet“), and asked for Hess’ opinions and advise regarding the lines between free speech and hate speech, the online world and the real world. The students now have a personal connection with someone in the field, doing the type of work that they themselves may one day want to take on. For this reason, I often contact the authors of the different pieces that we read and the directors of the films that we watch, and ask if I might pass on their email addresses and phone numbers to my students, in case they have any questions. Nearly everyone responds with a “yes.” At the end of our class sessions, I write this contact information on the board, urging students to get in touch with these experts both for short term benefits (upcoming assignments) and long term benefits (their future work). My hope is that connecting students with experts alerts them to the fact that our course materials made by real people who they can talk with, and that they can take an active roll in creating new materials by meeting these experts, and launching their studies into the wider world.
Graduate Mentor Program
Along these lines, I founded the Graduate Mentor Program in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell to pair incoming graduate students with those at more advanced stages of study. The inspiration for the Program stemmed from our 2013 student survey responses: many graduates characterized their first year as a time of intellectual and social isolation. With the goal of promoting academic collaboration and esprit de corps among graduates from their first day on campus, I worked with the Department to create a flexible, student-centered strategy for incoming graduates to connect with Ph.D. candidates. Departmental mentorship programs typically pair students by similarity, matching them according to departmental sections or common research themes. However, I took the opposite tack in designing the Graduate Mentor Program to connect students with no obvious affiliations. I based this model on two presumptions: first, like-minded students typically find each other through classes and reading groups without the help of a program and second, pairing dissimilar students allows for inventive collaborations to form organically. By taking this adaptable approach to collaboration, the Graduate Mentor Program not only helps graduates to start building a personalized academic community from the very start of their studies, but also promotes solidarity at the departmental level by connecting students from multiple sections to support their shared interests. Flexibility is the hallmark of this program: paired grads decide for themselves how often to meet, and to what purpose. Each mentorship is different because each reflects the specific pair’s goals. In sum, the Graduate Mentor Program supports the iterative creation of academic relationships by providing an open framework. This customizable model for developing student connections could be applied to many different types of departments and schools to ease the transition into graduate school and set students on the path towards professional collaboration.
I believe in having multiple mentors to gain a nuanced perspective of the field from more advanced scholars. The guidance of my advisor emblematizes the type of mentorship that I hope to give one day. Dedication, honesty, and much good humor characterize her counsel. As a young faculty member, I intend to seek out the advice of experienced faculty on a regular basis to learn how to mentor students in individual and group settings and to improve my research.
Consulting experienced faculty both at formal question and answer office meetings and casual cafe chats helps me to continually chart my academic course. As part of my Teaching in Higher Education course, I interviewed a faculty member to learn how to strike a successful work/life balance.
This interview pointed to the importance of offering support to one’s mentee as a whole person, rather than exclusively as a scholar. This professor’s honesty and warmth suggests to me that one of the best ways to help students and mentees is to offer feedback in a digestible format. To put these lessons into practice, I plan to leaven critical statements with positive observations, offering humor and perspective. Providing three workable suggestions rather than fifty vague ones is similarly helpful. Identifying the right time for feedback takes mentorship to the next level. When a student is engaged but not overwhelmed she is in an ideal state to make challenging changes.
Providing such an assignment gives students permission to ask critical questions that traverse the lines of professional and personal roles. Surprisingly underused given its value to the student, I plan to regularly incorporate interviews in my professional life and course design. Class activities and projects involving consultation of field experts, such as blog responses, could link with interview assignments to promote continued conversation between students and seasoned scholars.