On Mentors*

Defining expectations.


November 11, 2015

For me and others I know, one of the most difficult things about failing is telling our advisors and mentors. Of course, they know. Before the words even cross our lips. No job this year. No fellowship. No nothing. Yet at some point it must be spoken; we see their disappointment, experience it almost as another failure. How many times have I sat across from a mentor and thought, I have failed professionally, and now I am dragging you down with me.

For a while I wondered, am I failing because I did not take the right advice from mentors? Did I not do as I was told? Did I not seek out the right mentors? Was my failure foreshadowed by countless other smaller failures that even now I have failed to recognize?

Possibly. Perhaps likely. In reflecting on my failures and advice given to graduate students and early-career scholars, I realize that my vision of mentorship is different from academic mentorship program. Codifying my ideas about mentorship, my mentor manifesto, if you will, demonstrates how divergent my ideas about mentorship are.

What I Want from a Mentor

I do not want guidance on how to get where she is. She is there; can I not just listen to her stories? Why should I go there myself?

I do not want someone to tell me where to go. I want to go somewhere she has never been, perhaps even somewhere no one else has ever been. I want to go somewhere wild. Somewhere unknown. I want a mentor who delights in imagining these adventures with me, someone unafraid of unknown paths.

I do not want explanations of what is. I have eyes. I can see. I want someone as dissatisfied with what is as I. I want a companion to imagine change. I want someone who sees a different future.

I do not want guidance to navigate what exists. I want a guide who imagines something new.

I do not want guidelines for success, nor maps for achieving milestones. I do not want to succeed in the ways that others have succeeded. I want someone willing to dismiss these ideas, someone who will embrace the blank page and draw something new.

I do not want someone to teach me how to tend a fire. I want someone who smiles conspiratorially whispering words from Woolf when I take a match to burn something down. Let it blaze. Let it blaze.

I want someone who responds, you cannot do that, initially (I still understand the necessity of appearances) then pauses and says, but if you were to do that, these are the challenges I would prepare for. Then, I want her to let me do the preparations, even if they are different from how she would do them.

I want someone who watches with delight how I careen down the mountain. Someone who knows there are trees in the way, someone who knows I will hit them, who knows it will hurt, someone who winces for a brief moment when it happens, then cheers when I stand back up and hurtle myself downward again.

I want someone who will board the same roller coaster, sit in front or behind me, lift up her arms and scream at the swift descent, the hairpin turns. Someone who will disembark and say, let's get in line and do that again.

I want someone who will watch me try harebrained ideas; someone who will celebrate successes and be undaunted by failures. I want someone who will see me crushed by life, whimpering in a puddle at the side of the road, and say, wow, that was a great ride. What's next?

I want someone who recognizes that success and failure are all around us; both weave in and out of our lives. I want someone who knows that what endures, what matters, is daily fealty to creative, intellectual work. I want someone who holds that light inside, someone who shows through her work how to hold that illumination. I want comrades in arms who whisper to one another, what have you done today that matters? What makes you feel physically as if the top of your head was taken off? What have you done today that explodes your mind?

*For MNS, a mentor in all of the best ways.

Julie R. Enszer, Ph.D., is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She has her MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.  You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.



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