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Essay on mentorship styles in higher education

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Why Sparkleponies Matter

April 7, 2014

I've always done things the hard way, the different way, many times to the chagrin of my mentors. Some of my colleagues think I'm crass and that my research isn't scholarly, and some think my work is visionary and that I am forthright. If I were a crap academic (and there are plenty of us out there, tilting our own windmills), I might take the negative comments to heart, but instead I've proven over and over again why sometimes the hard way works.

My C.V. represents that proof, but doesn't represent HOW I was able to move from whippersnapper M.F.A. student doing the first electronic (interactive) thesis at my university to how I became editor of the leading journal in digital writing studies, winner of my field's top innovation award, and recipient of a Fulbright. While I could trace that pattern, I'd rather tell you about the system in which such a tracing can happen, because all of the professional, rhetorical moves I've made in my career can be traced back to the kinds of playful professional-development mentorship my field is known for fostering. And one of those methods -- sparkleponies -- erupted the interwebs last week.

If you don't live in my field, here's some background: Rhetoric and composition's main gathering, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (otherwise known as the Cs) was held a few weeks ago in Indianapolis. About 3,200 scholars attended. In higher ed trade publications, two articles were written about the thousands of research panels at Cs. At only a half-century old, this relatively young field is used to being ignored in the media, and outright discounted by most in academia, which is a shame since writing studies scholars research how writing works in the world, and how to teach it better. Pretty much every academic discipline and everyday people in the world would benefit from knowing more about our research, which is grounded in recognizing writing as an activity system that is collaborative, social, process-based and product-oriented.

Instead, the world now thinks that writing research conferences are all about sparkleponies, since several venues of questionable journalistic repute published stories about a professionalization and mentoring game that has been run for several years at Cs called C's the Day. In brief: winners of this augmented reality game, who have completed upwards of 80 professional-development and network-building quests throughout the course of the conference, are awarded a giant sparkly pony and the chance to be mentored into their first publications in one of three scholarly journals in the field.

Rather than feed into the unhappy academic trolls who populate the discussion threads on those previous articles, I want to focus on why sparkleponies represent an important method of mentoring junior scholars into an academic discipline, and why junior scholars should have a choice between mentoring that approves of sparkleponies and those that do not.

Digital writing studies (as the subfield of rhetoric and composition and out of which C's the Day was born) has always valued play as a learning method. Placed within a theoretical framework of game studies, playing a game in order to learn is commonplace in this field. For two decades (or more), this field has used game-based mentoring to acculturate new scholars, specifically by having first-time attendees at its subdisciplinary conference. Computers and Writing answer historical questions about the field by partnering with luminaries in the field during its [day-long professional development workshop. Prizes, including academic books and other fun tchotchkes, are donated to support and encourage new scholars to enter (and stay) in the field. (Secret: Everyone wins a prize, because in this subdiscipline, everyone is seen as a potential winner.)

First-time attendees are also partnered with a mentor-luminary throughout the conference, to further break down the barriers between so-called stars and newcomers. Finally, first-timers are given quiz sheets to have signed by other leaders in the field (e.g., Get the signatures of two journal editors; Get the signature of a past C&W host; etc.) The express purpose of these games is to break down hierarchical barriers between junior and senior scholars, to build historical knowledge of the field, and to introduce junior scholars to the field's professional development values and methods (through fun and prizes).

Year after year, first-time attendees tell the conference organizers and leaders they meet how friendly, welcoming, and open this conference is, and the professionalization games are a major part of that openness. C&W is the reason I became an academic: The people were nice, genuine, and had interesting research. (If we are not happy, why do what we do?!)

It is these values that the organizers of C's the Day brought from C&W, with its smaller attendance of around 400 people annually, to the much-larger, difficult to navigate, and overwhelming Cs conference. Yet, C's the Day, with its sparkleponies and guaranteed publication for winners, isn't necessarily welcome by all who attend the large conference. Why? Because there are two types of mentors at the large conference: Those who value nontraditional mentoring styles like those that have been used at C&W for decades, and those who value traditional mentoring styles.

No one has been able to explain to me what these "traditional" networking paths are, but I am guessing that they equate with privilege and access to mentors at top research institutions who can introduce students to appropriate leaders, help students write their first academic article, tell students which parties to attend to meet the "right" people at conferences, and provide funding for those students to get to such conferences. (As a relevant aside, these universities are places where, for the most part, research in digital writing studies has not been welcome because of its nontraditional, technological nature. I have heretofore avoided such institutions, and my career has been fine.)

These places, as I've stated in other columns, are looking for a certain kind of scholar, a scholar who has been mentored in "appropriate" ways -- that is, not through game-based play that is relevant as a practice and a research area within a discipline. These "appropriate" ways of mentoring are valued, accepted, and recognized within academic disciplines, but they are not always the best or most appropriate way to acculturate new scholars into the field. I would even argue that traditional mentoring strategies might be yet another reason why academia is so white. C's the Day was started to help junior scholars who might not otherwise find entree to a large conference like Cs break that invisible ceiling. It's also why C's the Day offers a guaranteed publication in one of three journals to the winner. This is the point that sets most academics off into a trolling frenzy.

As one of the journal editors who offers this prize, I will point out that all of the journals involved in the award are scholarly, peer-reviewed, well-established, even premier, open-access journals -- each espousing in its own way the values of mentoring, professionalization, collaboration, and process -- and product-oriented writing as an activity system that writing studies respects. And each of these journals has non-peer-reviewed sections, which are where the C's the Day award winners are placed (unless their argument is appropriate for one of our peer-reviewed sections). Most authors (not just the game winners) are sent through multiple rounds of revision before their articles are even accepted, because these journals practice what they preach by acculturating writers into the discipline.

In my journal's case, which has a 10 percent acceptance rate for peer-reviewed sections, nearly all authors need mentoring into publication because of the experimental nature of the scholarship the journal publishes. These journals are incredibly proud of their mentoring and review processes -- embedded with values that writing studies holds dear. It should be no surprise that most of these journals are born out of digital writing studies. These journals regularly publish game-based articles and reviews. Because that's how we roll.

Now, this is all probably TMI for most of you, but I wanted to lay it out here to explain how it is possible that a field can value sparkleponies as a talisman for productive, professional development. Over the last few days, I've seen discussion forums and Facebook posts saying what an important networking experience C's the Day has been for them, and I've seen more from other fields comment that they wish their field, or their major conference, had a similar ice-breaking opportunity.

And the thing is: It can. A bunch of grad students started C's the Day several years ago, and it's grown tremendously, in part because those grad students became emboldened enough to approach leaders in the field to ask to incorporate the game into the major conference. Grassroots mentoring and development can work. A field doesn't have to study games as a scholarly endeavor in order to appreciate the way games can assist our field-building. Academe as a whole is just one big game, so what's the big deal in making one part of that game a little more explicit, to the benefit of all?

This doesn't mean game-playing is for everyone. But for scholars who may not have "appropriate" or traditional or elite ways of being introduced to the field, it's an alternative that has proven to work. But this alternative is certainly based on the fit factor as well. I'm the kind of person who fits better in a nontraditional mentoring environment than a traditional one, as evidenced by my research, teaching pedagogy, and my affiliation with the journal I edit. Or, as one of the professors in my Ph.D. program said to me when I was going on the job market the first time: "Cheryl, you must not want to work for anyone who doesn't have a sense of humor." Indeed.

So my call to mentors and mentees alike: Choose the method of professionalization that works with your personality, your academic identity, and your resources. Acknowledge that your mentor or mentee may have a different path of achievement than you do. It's O.K. Because, at the root of it, everyone still needs to be able to articulate their research and teaching within a smart, cogent framework to others. Or, as one C's the Day quest suggests: Explain your research in a coherent way in 15 seconds to a luminary in your field. Elevator pitches are just one way of practicing job-market skills. If you want to win a sparklepony for doing so, more power (and levels) to you.

 

 

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