On Mentorship and Advice

I participate in a lot of college prep programs designed to help minority and first-generation students navigate academia. I also take any survey someone shoves in my face and answer any call for research participants for which I may be even remotely qualified. I do all of the above because of where I exist along several faultlines in academia, my aspirations, and my general moral constitution.

That fault-line is how I ended up participating in a survey of black female graduate students and mentorship styles. A listserv from one of those college prep programs sent a call for participants for the study. Once you’ve tried to get 30 participants in each quadrant of your study focus you will take anyone’s survey. It’s research karma. I give that I might one day have delivered unto me 30 middle class white men in a technology BA program at a single for-profit college. Everybody’s got their religion.

I met the researcher over coffee. She did a great job. I talked for about an hour and a half about the mentor relationships that shaped me personally and professionally. About halfway through the researcher smiled and said, “you have amazing mentors.” I realized she was right. I had never reflected on these relationships in the mentorship framework. I love and trust and respect these people but I did not consider that distinct from their role as mentors in my life.

Later, that researcher and I talked again because we share common interests. She said almost all in her sample had characterized their mentor relationships in parental terms like the “other mother” role. I was the only one she interviewed that resisted any kind of parental mentorship role. I have thought a great deal about how and why that is and if it matters.

I do not give advice. I have reasons, some of which I think are good. I am not nearly successful enough to give advice to anyone. I think I should achieve something noteworthy before I tell folks what to do. But even if I should get the brass TT ring I don’t think I can give advice, at least not generally. I study this thing we’re in. I am also a structuralist, albeit I hope I’m one of those new-fangled ones that is clear that the distinction from agency and interactionism is an analytical one and not a commandment. Because I am in the structure that I study as a structure I may know better than most how much of a crapshoot this all is. I have no advice for crapshoots. All the Rat Pack could come up with is a lady named Luck and I find that’s about as good a preparation as any.

I also find advice to be uni-directional in that it flows downward from on high and does not often engage a bi-directional process of information from the advisee up to the adviser. If I do not know your hang-ups, your motivations, your personal vision of success then any advice I give you is really advice for who I think you should be and not who you may be actually.

When that gets wrapped up in the psychic valuation of opinion by differences in power and authority it gets tricky to give or get good advice.

But, mentorship is something different to me. By its nature it is a relationship. A relationship implies more than one party is valued and engaged in the interactions. Power still matters, for sure. But perhaps the nature of authority is transformed when people and not roles engage each other directly.

In my experience with my great mentors this relationship was not about who they want me to be but about who I told them I thought I could become. That is rarely a direct statement, of course. I did not march up to someone and say, “lookahere, I wanna be a STAR!” I do not even remember telling my mentors I wanted to be an academic. I do hope I intimated in some way through actions and discussion and presentation and work ethic and habits that I wanted to do well work that matters.

That my mentors translated those signals into a narrative required a relationship, developed over time and across rigid roles. I had to see these Scholars I greatly admire as people to interpret their counsel as both aspirational and achievable. The humanization of my mentors has been critical to the value of our relationship. Without it, they could well be the last page in Oprah’s magazine every month: ephemeral, vague exercises in temporal self-esteem building. But that they instead became human beings with their own strengths and weaknesses meant that I could simultaneously see myself in them while not making the tragic mistake of only seeing myself through them.

That could never have happened, for me, had my mentors affected a quasi parental role with me. That may be a function of age. I was old. I guess I am still old. But, I must admit that my personality has been pretty stable across time. I may have always been old.

I know that I have always valued who people are above what people are. And a parent-child relationship is, in many ways, defined by the child trusting the role above the person occupying it. It is why parent-child relationships change so much as we age. Who among us does not remember the first time you realized your parents existed before you were born? Or had interests that did not include parenting you? Horrifying stuff. I have never had a desire to recreate that dynamic.

But, its clear that I may not be in the majority. The researcher found black women in graduate school seemed to thrive under parent-child “other mother” mentorship arrangements. Oddly enough I have heard the same conclusion for low-income women enrolled in for-profit colleges. They value highly parental authority figures in school settings. And I suspect its not just true of us. The entire graduate school dynamic is imbued with the infantilization of graduate students. Much of our organizational processes geared towards degree completion are greased by the successful enactment of this dynamic by all parties. Some of us even still use the language of being so-and-so’s “child” or “grandchild” or being “made” by famous Dr. So-and-so. It’s difficult to reconcile with the reality of the job market where a grad student is supposed to suddenly perform autonomy and leadership but such organizational mismatches rarely make sense.

I am really grateful that my mentors have trusted me enough to treat me as a person and not as a role. I am especially grateful that they are confident and complex enough to not need me to genuflect to their role absent engagement with them as persons. I have thrived under those relationships but what works for me sounds like it would be horrible for many others. And that, again, is why I do not give advice. But, on the upside, it is exactly why I hope to be as good a mentor to others as Sandy, Ashley, Rosa and Gaye have been to me.

3 thoughts on “On Mentorship and Advice

  1. I really enjoy reading through your blog posts. I really appreciate your perspective of humanizing your mentors. That’s a big hurdle many grad students face. On the subject of advice: when someone asks you for your opinion or explicitly for advice, how do you respond to them? Folks ask because they believe you have some insight that may be useful to them and I wondered how you navigate the request.

    1. Great question. The answer is, “it depends”. Mostly it depends on an honest assessment of how much time I can invest in getting to know a person’s goals and attributes, etc. Either way I always forward people a list of resources I found really helpful and tell them I am happy to answer *specific* questions. That’s another thing. “What should I do with my life” is way beyond my training and, frankly, a scary thing to engage in without a strong relationship. However, a question about GRE scores or rankings or how to negotiate offers is specific and can assume some pre-existing critical reflection on the part of the person asking

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