Guest post by Emily Shreve (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) & Jenna Lay (Lehigh University)
Reproduction haunts the advising relationship. For decades, an apprenticeship model has been treated as a given in humanities graduate education: doesn’t everyone who gets a Ph.D. want to be a professor? The evidence—including the diverse career paths pursued by humanities Ph.D.s both before and after 2008—makes clear that the answer is no. And yet mentoring of graduate students can still all too easily reproduce the interests, methods, gestures, pronunciations and fashion sense of the faculty advisor, not to mention the career path.
We believe that this path of least differentiation is neither a viable nor an ethical option. Instead, in this post (which builds on our presentation for a MLA panel sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities) we advocate for a collaborative advising model that enables students to identify and learn from multiple mentors, and we note the practical steps that can be taken now to expand graduate students’ mentoring networks. Our suggestions are shaped by our own collaborative experiences, first as graduate student and graduate director, then as dissertation advisee and dissertation advisor, and now as colleagues working across faculty and student affairs at different institutions—and we would love to hear your suggestions in the comments!
Multiple mentoring relationships can offer students alternatives to the apprenticeship model of graduate education and thereby disrupt two assumptions inherent to much doctoral advising in the humanities: first, that all graduate students are primarily interested in a tenure-track career, and second that advising and mentorship happens automatically through a process of modeling and imitation. In other words, we question the idea that a successful advisor is good at what they do (tenure-track professor at a research-oriented university), and thus provides—through example, storytelling, and direct advice—a model that the graduate student advisee simply needs to follow. In a primarily dyadic model, those assumptions can limit graduate students’ professional possibilities, either by providing a single, institutionally-specific vision of what a tenure-track position will entail or by narrowing students’ ideas of what fulfilling careers are possible within and beyond academe.
There are many practical and accessible strategies for expanding beyond traditional dissertation mentor-mentee relationships, such as committee service, informational interviews, graduate assistantships, and other professional networking activities. These collaborative activities create opportunities to meet and engage with a range of potential mentors beyond one academic department—including peers, work supervisors, and alumni. At their fullest potential, they can also open new spaces for intellectual development and career exploration:
*Committee service educates students concerning the workings of the university and provides opportunities to build skills essential to self-governance and collaboration.
*Informational interviews introduce students to the variety of intellectually satisfying and meaningful humanities-based careers.
*Graduate assistantships can provide hands-on experience in those possible careers and create opportunities for robust self-reflection concerning the graduate student’s professional ambitions.
*National conferences and other professional networking activities also provide opportunities to learn about the variety of work possible within and beyond academe, witness the wide-ranging work of higher education professionals, and meet new people from various institutions.
In sum, networked mentoring relationships developed through deliberate investment in co-curricular partnerships and extra-departmental collaborations can help graduate students think about a broader range of professional possibilities—and potentially also mitigate (or provide avenues for addressing) abuses of power.
Ideally, these practical steps can be facilitated by individual faculty or—even better!—incorporated into the curriculum of a graduate program, whether through departmentally supported GA partnerships, readings on mentorship assigned in an Introduction to Graduate Studies course, or through innovative configurations for dissertation committees. Graduate students themselves can pursue many of these opportunities and use resources like the mentoring map created by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity to build a deep mentoring network.
We know there are many other wonderful ideas for supporting graduate students’ individualized development. What beneficial mentorship opportunities have been created at your institutions? What might graduate students themselves do to expand their network, especially at institutions that might frown upon or discourage moving beyond the dyad? What type of support from faculty mentors do you feel is most needed and appreciated? We welcome your feedback and discussion in the comments and, we hope, at future conventions.
To conclude, we offer this reminder: these strategies are most successful and meaningful when put into place by mentors and departments that are invested in seeing their graduate students not as mini-mes, but as unique and specific participants in humanistic inquiry, who will take their training in new and as-yet unimagined directions.