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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

As part of my discussions of disability in graduate school, I’ve talked about my mentorship network. Now it’s time to talk about one sticky point about mentoring that affects me (and probably a lot of other students): the intersection of authority and ill-fitting guidance. People who’ve never interacted with certain systems (disability systems come to mind for me) from the side of the person supposedly being served may not think about how scary this can be. It even took me a lot of thinking to figure out what the sticky point really was.

There are two realities at play here:

First, disabled people often run into trouble at the hands of people who think they have our best interests in mind. It’s happened to me. My year abroad in China almost got stopped before it started because of an administrator who thought (and said) autistic people didn’t belong at university. If asked, they’d say they had my best interests at heart, but when a person makes it into an advanced program, suggesting they can’t participate on the basis of a diagnosis is not supportive.

Second, mentors and advisors, basically by definition, know stuff we don’t know. That means they’re going to think of things (academic or not) we haven’t thought about. They may have ideas we initially think aren’t great, but that upon reflection, they were totally right about. They can also have ideas we initially think aren’t great, which, upon reflection, were a great idea for someone else but didn’t quite fit our needs. Figuring out which is which can take time and distance.

I need mentors who can guide me based on the second reality while being very careful of the effects of that first.

If you ask me to consider an idea I might not have thought about, I will. I can, in fact, take advice. Tell me a project I was thinking about is probably too big for a semester? I’ll narrow my focus, plan to do more work than a class normally requires, or accept that I won’t get through the whole thing in a semester. (I’ve done all three at different times.) Point out that an independent study project that involves lots of EEG recording might not play well with my sensory processing issues because of where the EEG lab is? I’ll choose a different project. Suggest that I use Google Scholar to quickly see what results I get on each of the topics I’m considering for my class project? I’ll do that. Only one topic gave me enough results to meet the class’s requirements, so I went with that one.

Unless you’re suggesting I do something I’m incapable of or basing your suggestion on an incorrect assessment of my priorities, I’m pretty likely to take your advice. Once, for example, I reviewed public writing on augmentative and alternative communication options for autistic adults with some speech because I knew there wasn’t much directly relevant work in the literature. The professor liked my idea, and she understood that the dearth of academic literature on the subject was exactly why I wanted to work on the topic. This understanding allowed her to give advice relevant to my actual priorities, and she appreciated my application of tangentially related work. However, this could very easily have gone differently.

Mentors don’t always know how to advice graduate students who don’t fit the mold for any reason, including disabled graduate students. They may assume their superior knowledge of their field means they also know more about our specific needs. When they make and enforce decisions for me, especially those related to those specific needs after I’d informed them of my own conclusions, I’m going to be scared. I might be mad, too, but the primary issue is that I am scared. True, I don’t really think an academic mentor will decide something terribly too drastic without my consent, like having me involuntarily committed (though something like that happened to a friend of mine). And I don’t really think someone who is already working with me will suddenly decide my diagnosis means I don’t belong in their class. However, people I haven’t worked with yet have done this.

Smaller decisions may not have anything to do with my diagnosis, or my other identities. Some do, and others don’t. But it almost doesn’t matter: making and enforcing a smaller call based on incorrect information or incorrect assumptions indicates a willingness to do so regardless of what the decision was. I have the same two options regardless: First, I can try to help them understand why that’s terrifying, hope they don’t do it again, and stay scared. Or second, I can ensure they never get the chance to do that again. Neither of these options are great for a mentor-mentee relationship. Is the mistake you hope to prevent worse than making your mentee fear you? If not, can a failure serve as your mentees teacher in this case? Can you warn your mentee about what might happen, and then let experience teach them?

[Image by Flickr user Jonathan, under a Creative Commons License.]

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