Historiann’s post on mentoring just brought up a wave of weirdly emotional memories. As I have said plenty often before, my department was largely a “raised by wolves” setup, which several grads in my cohort (myself included) really worked to change by instituting our own mentoring, convening our own workshops and training sessions, even giving each other our own mock exams and interviews to practice the skills that our profs told us we needed to have but never taught us.
While I certainly complained about this a lot, I also felt that it was an important facet of the grad school process: the path toward making decisions for yourself as a self-sufficient professional rather than a student. And I’m pretty sure that no one wants new tenure-track profs who are incapable of carrying out basic tasks without getting the approval and signing-off from their colleagues. It would be like our undergrads, who want to be spoon-fed everything.
On the other hand, self-sufficiency can actually be damaging and isolating in many subtle ways. And “self-sufficiency” can uneasily shade into certain assumptions about class and gender and entitlement.
Once, I happened to be walking down my department hallway to the grad lounge/lab when I saw the department IT guy, who I hadn’t seen in months. He stopped me and said hello with some comment on that fact. “Oh, I’ve been around, just workin’ away,” I replied. “You know, I was actually thinking about you the other day, how you don’t ever particularly seem to need anything,” he said as he knocked on the door of a particularly cantankerous, now-emeriti professor. “Well I know to try about 5 or 6 different things before I declare the computer broken and send for you. I wouldn’t want to be a bother.” We shared a rueful smile and he went in the Cantankerous Professor’s office, where he was probably going to show him for the 10 millionth time how to open his email.
I didn’t really think about how this attitude was not just shaped by my undergrad experience at Big Fat University, where nobody gave two shits about any particular cog in that machine, but was also a powerful part of my socialization into my gender and class, until I had a certain grad student as a housemate.
Brilliant Grad knows he is brilliant. People have told him so, and he has wildly succeeded in everything he has ever tried. And he works damn hard so that he can do what he wants to do. He’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I looked at him and would think, ok, this is why you don’t tell people they are smart like that is a compliment. It shapes them in very strange ways.
Brilliant Grad and I loved to talk and would constantly share stories. It was through him I realized that my parents’ working-class upbringings flavored a lot of my experience, and through me that he realized he was not middle class, but upper class. He went to an elite east coast prep school. I learned that there is an entire east coast class of people who think “everyone” goes to east coast prep schools. This isn’t necessarily the case in California, where so many of us go to public schools and the UC system and go on to do important, high-level stuff in the state that there isn’t this weird “cohort” of movers and shakers who all have the same exclusive schools by their names. CA has its own fucked-up class system, but it’s different. And I’m getting away from my point.
Brilliant Grad also went to a top-of-the-line liberal arts school, one you’ve all heard of I bet (I hadn’t, heh). I know he didn’t work through school; I don’t think he ever worried about how it would be paid for. He constantly told me stories of the cool things he and his friends did, created, wrote, filmed --- everything. And he seemed to have strong, even intimate relationships with all of his professors.
So when he would come home and tell me something that Professor Wonderful said to him in his office, or how he had had this idea and knocked on his door to run it by him, if not daily, then every few days, I was confused. “Wow, how often do you go see him? Aren’t you … bothering him?” I’d ask. “No --- isn’t that what he’s there for, to mentor us? What?” he asked as I continued to stare at him with an eyebrow raised, shocked. Profs are here to do shitloads of research, not shoot the breeze with their grad students. I know I don’t go to my advisor unless I have a specific problem that I need her help with and I have already tried three different ways of solving it on my own.
And yet, if you compare our trajectories, Brilliant Grad has done very well. In and out of a half dozen different profs’ offices every week being friendly and sociable, his name tended to come up when they had “special things,” or little bits of extra money, that he got without it ever being offered up to the department at large. He convinced profs to go to certain conferences where he wanted to go and had them introduce him to eminent scholars in the field. He worked with an up-and-coming prof in another department, then convinced him to share his Special Archive Grant money when he went down to write at the Monolith for a summer.
And most astounding, and completely secretly, after listening to all my complaints about money and lack of funding or support and our so-so job placement rate, he announced out of the blue that he had been accepted to transfer into a world-renowned private university, where he would be able to finish out his PhD without ever teaching again. I don’t know if I was more shocked that he could have spent the entire year I had known him applying out to other programs without ever mentioning it, or that he was much more unhappy than I was in our program when he was getting more support than I ever had.
After he was accepted and flew out for his prospective student visit, he came back and told me all about it. “I’m almost sad I was accepted there, because I would so love to work there some day and now I won’t. The projects! The teaching load! Sisyphus, I was in ______’s office talking to him about [Amazing Archive in Fabulous City] where he had just been a year writing his book, and ... jeezus Sisyphus, his office was the size of this living room! He could hold grad seminars over there on his map table!”
“Damn, I’m just looking forward to the day I get an office with walls that go all the way up to the ceiling,” I said.
“Is that really all the higher you can aspire to?” he shot back. I was cut to the quick.
Be a good girl. Don’t be a bother. Don’t worry anybody, now. Don’t take up anybody’s time. Are you sure you want to pester him with that? Be polite. Good girls raise their hands and wait their turn. Don’t be needy, bitchy, clingy, bossy. And Who are you that you could apply there? We don’t have any Stanfords or Rockefellers in our family that could help you get in. Why don’t you go to a state school, like your brother?
Brilliant Grad, he doesn’t even think about whether he deserves something or not. He just meets people and thinks about how they can help him, what they are both interested in, how to make connections. He befriends everyone and then they want to talk to him, support him, do things for him. I hardly know my advisor or any of the professors in my department because I wouldn’t want to be an imposition on their time. For all the countless little connections or bits of advice that never get formalized or written down, be a bother. Don’t just ask for help; insist on it.