Or, how peer mentoring saves “early career” academics.

June 27, 2013

I have a confession to make: I am an acknowledgments junkie.  The first thing I do upon opening any book – whether for work or pleasure – is to read the acknowledgments section. I read these not only because of a “fan-girl” obsession with the superstars in my field (Judith Butler thanks Wendy Brown “again and again”! Patricia Hill Collins thanks Valerie, her “beautiful and talented daughter”!) but because acknowledgments can be used to track the politics of knowledge, illustrating which people have been influential to the thinking of the author of the text (over the years, Donna Haraway has consistently acknowledged her graduate students). Acknowledgments are a way to indicate the important roles that particular people play in our intellectual growth and - critically - our academic survival.

In the UK, where I earned my Ph.D., there is a tradition of including acknowledgments at the start of your dissertation, even before you turn it into a manuscript for publication. I took this task seriously – I started my list in my field notebook, years in advance; I didn’t want to forget anyone who had helped me on my journey. Many people made this list – the people I interviewed, the friends who I stayed with while conducting fieldwork, my family; all of these people supported me along my academic journey. But to this day, I maintain that there is one group of people without whom my Ph.D. -- my academic survival -- would not have been possible: my peers. What about my supervisor, you wonder? Well she was wonderful (see below), and certainly featured prominently in the acknowledgments page. But today I want to use the centrality of support from my peers to talk about why and how it is important to recognize our peer mentors and why relying solely on the “traditional” mentoring structure of senior advisor/early career advisee is problematic.

A quick – and admittedly anecdotal – scan of my friends and acquaintances in academia reveals relationships with mentors that are unpleasant, to say the least. Of course, many people have supervisors that are “absent-minded,” or who don’t get back to students promptly. These are annoying and disrespectful behaviors (though some slacker-prone students certainly enjoy them!), but not the offences of which I speak. To cite just a few: one peer’s supervisor did not read their dissertation, which they dutifully wrote, alone, for a full year. Another’s supervisor withheld a letter of recommendation for an important job with no explanation. Tragically, one peer was sexually harassed by their supervisor (sadly not an isolated incident – as demonstrated in this brave piece in Salon). There are many more stories I am unable to print, as some peers are scared that their stories will be recognized.

That people are too afraid to have their stories recognized is an indication of the larger power dynamics of these relationships, power dynamics that make it difficult to bring any of these cases to resolution within the academic structure. What justice is there for a student whose (tenured professor) supervisor didn’t read any of their work for a year? Who does a student on the job market turn to when her supervisor is sexually harassing her? Even after graduation, we are reliant on the advisor/advisee relationship to succeed in academia -- for recommendation letters, for networking and publishing opportunities -- and it is therefore not only prudent, but essential to keep those relationships functioning (at high cost to some).

And why do these things happen in the first place? One prominent theory – and one that made a splash online a few months ago, particularly in the UK – is that of the “academic asshole.” This theory is one that we’ve heard before in many variations; basically, in academia (as in many business cultures), one is rewarded for being an asshole, sees that being an asshole pays off, and continues to be an asshole.  In other words, this theory explains some of the behaviors listed above and, further, “why senior academics are sometimes nicer and more generous to their colleagues than those lower in the pecking order.”

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that all supervisors are assholes. In fact, I have (and had) a great relationship with my supervisor, and I am also fortunate to have several more traditional-style mentors who have guided me through my post-Ph.D. life. (And whom I will never be able to adequately thank for the countless reference letters they have written on my behalf!) In addition, there is evidence – as indicated in the recently released collection, Presumed Incompetent, that traditional mentorship systems are especially important for women of color in academia. (And check out the summer series over at Viva La Feminista, focused on the role of mentoring in Latina women’s lives.) Nevertheless, in the hierarchical arena of academia, the “asshole” takes on a particular flare; under such a system, the early career academic is the most negatively affected.

These conditions are complicated by the current state of the academic market. As Emma Jackson states, and many of us know all-too-well, early career academics are in an “insanely competitive job market where temporary contracts are on the increase.” Jackson is speaking in the UK context, but we in the stateside market fare similarly. In short, the situation is one that should foster asshole-like behavior, even amongst those lower down the academic food chain. However, in my experience, and Jackson’s, the majority of us have instead coped by surrounding ourselves with “circles of niceness” – or groups of peers who do everything from help us prepare for and decompress after defenses and interviews, to read over materials for publication, to provide an ear to vent frustration. These niceties extend outside of the friend circle and into larger academia -- when someone frames a question positively after a presentation; when someone gives a generous reading of a text; when someone passes along a publishing opportunity to a colleague with less experience. However, will this niceness doom us  from succeeding in a culture that privileges vitriolic critique over constructive criticism?  Or, to put it in contemporary terms: can we “lean in” without being assholes? I think so. More than a survival tactic, if used effectively and widely, these circles will change the face of academia. (Now, breaking the workaholic culture of academia, that’s a topic for another post!)

There are many mechanisms one can use to survive in academia – reading inspiring work, going to therapy, practicing yoga, working out, writing a blog perhaps? I do many of these things myself. But the importance of “circles of niceness” cannot be understated. So today I want to take a moment to once again – and more publicly this time – acknowledge my own circle (you know who you are). Thank you for being there. And for not being assholes.

Do you have experience with academic assholes or circles of niceness? Feel free to list some of the ways that you cope with the stresses of academia in comments.

Gwendolyn Beetham is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University. She also works as a gender consultant, manages the column The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com, and teaches yoga. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, USA. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb



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