Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lessons for Girls: Don’t Just Ask, Insist on Help (even if it makes you feel weird)

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.


Dr. Crazy said...


And if the people in your department don't give you the time of day, make connections elsewhere and really nurture those connections.

And you're right: we girls (especially girls who didn't have elite educations in K-12 or in undergrad) are not socialized to do this. In fact, we're socialized to do the opposite.

Anonymous said...

this just hurts. I have had to jump up and down and stand on my head to get anything in this department. And frankly, it's earned me a reputation as hysterical and unstable.

make connections elsewhere. that's all I've got.

undine said...

I think this is more a class thing than a gender thing. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses these two perspectives on the world: the advantage of privilege (your prep school friend) is that it teaches you that the world is there to serve you and also teaches you how to talk to people to get what you want. If you were raised with working-class values (as I was), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works if you don't have class privilege to back it up.

Not that I'm bitter, but I've learned that most rules are just starting points for negotiation for people with privilege and have strongly encouraged students who didn't grow up knowing that the world was their oyster to speak up and protest when some arcane rule gets brought up.

Okay, now I have to go and write about this before I hijack your thread.

incalculable said...

I will have to write about this sometime soon too, but I just wanted to speak you your point about insisting on help when you need it. Yes, it's absolutely necessary, and I include myself in the ranks of those who struggle with that.

On the other hand, as a doctoral student struggling through very much on my own, I'm acutely aware that *having* to ask for help is not the same to having unsolicited help thrown at you, just because you happen to fit the mold of the star student. And that, friends, is most certainly both a gender thing and a class thing -- some of us just don't *look* like stars, and I suspect some profs don't want to "waste" time and energy on the non-star students.

Anyway, I will also save all my burning thoughts on this for a post at a later day -- once I'm finished my full time office job, which I had to take because I couldn't get any funding from my department (until I won a very competitive external grant, and now all of a sudden - wow - look at the money they're offering to lure me back!). Grrrrr!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Like Undine, I was going to say that Brilliant Grad was taught, well before college, how to interact with people in this way. If you internalize the "rules" for easy chatty conversations with important people, you're in much better shape than if you have internalized those "don't make waves" rules a lot of us get. An important part of mentoring (perhaps better done in an informal setting) could be providing scripts to "good girls." It's one thing to say "Speak up," and another to explain how to do it. What do you say? What tone do you take? How do you portray yourself as junior-equal rather than as meek suppliant or righteously teed-off young Turk? These things are not easy, and for many of us, personality factors like introversion make them harder still.

Dr. Crazy said...

I really love your point about scripts for speaking up, Dame Eleanor - I think I'll post about that over on my blog :)

Sisyphus said...

Undine, my brother the engineer doesn't think anything of speaking up or insisting on things or networking, and he grew up when my dad was in and out of work in various recessions. I still think the gender part of it is really important --- you want your sons to be go-getters, and your daughters to be politely invisible.

The reason I called him Brilliant Grad instead of Entitled Grad (apart from it slanting the conversation too much) is that he really _is_ brilliant: he'll walk into somebody's office and say, "hey did you see that article on the digital humanities? I thought _____" and then he'll bust out some paradigm-changing spot of brilliance. So he does offer people great things, and doesn't personally think of it in terms of expediency at all. He got that new prof published coming out of the summer at the monolith too.

The thing is, if you told me "do x, y and Z to network," it _would_ come off like Dame Eleanor says, about the tone being too meek or too strident or too needy. The real ...I dunno, entitlement? old-boys' network? is _absorbed_ much more than taught. Spelling it out somehow makes it not work.

That's why professionalizing and formalizing various aspects of academia --- funding process, aspects of the job search --- helps people without the "soft skills" of privilege, even if they seem picayune and bureaucratic.

Flavia said...

The thing is, if you told me "do x, y and Z to network," it _would_ come off like Dame Eleanor says, about the tone being too meek or too strident or too needy. The real ...I dunno, entitlement? old-boys' network? is _absorbed_ much more than taught. Spelling it out somehow makes it not work.

Yes. I absolutely agree with this. And although I think gender has a lot to do with it, the first example I think of, in my own life, is another one of my advisor's advisees, who was also a woman (though from a very very wealthy family, and someone who, like your former housemate, also went to a very small, elite, liberal-arts college--and I think that environment matters a LOT).

She had a relationship with our advisor totally unlike my own but very much like what you describe: she'd drop by her office just to tussle over an idea or remark on something she'd read. . . and our advisor LOVED IT.

At the time I thought it was partly her personality and partly her smarts, but in retrospect a lot of it was, as you say, simple self-confidence: being ready to demand attention and assistance when she needed it.

I didn't have those skills then, but I hope I do now. And if such people do nothing else for us, maybe their example teaches us how to act just a little bit like them.

Phul Devi said...

I think this really hit a chord, based on the responses thus far. I always have seen it as more class than gender based, though I think there are elements of both. IN my case, this is one of the differences between myself and SweetCliffie: he didn't go to prep school, but he did grow up rich, male, and able to ask for things he wanted. One of the struggles of my life has been to learn to adopt this last characteristic, despite my lack of the first two.

And I can report: this behavior can be learned... but it's a lifelong struggle. And I'll never be as unconsciously graceful in networking and asking for help as someone for whom it is second nature.

Bardiac said...

My dis director told me once that students who'd gone to private undergrads deserved special treatment, because their parents had paid for it. Ugh. I wish he'd said that more than 6 months before I was set to finish up.

He is at a public school, but he would chat students up about which private high school or whatever they'd gone to. Once I was clued in, I could tell from his response to a student on the first day of seminar whether that person had gone to a private school or not.

Sisyphus said...

I've learned that most rules are just starting points for negotiation for people with privilege and have strongly encouraged students who didn't grow up knowing that the world was their oyster to speak up and protest when some arcane rule gets brought up.

And this reminded me of the lyrics by The Clash:

Don't use the rules
They're not for you
They're for the fools
And you're a fool
If you don't know that
Use the rules you stupid fools

And for some reason I was humming this and thinking of the bank bailout people this morning...

Anonymous said...

I think it's class, gender, and personality. I grew up in an upper-middle class family: Public schools, but many other upper-class accouterments, such as the country club membership and the hunt club.

I could not ask, never mind demand, help. Some of that for me was gender (since we can rule out class). My mother tried hard to teach me, sharing little aphorisms like, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," and trying to get me into various women's networking groups such as the Junior League so I could "make connections."

I just couldn't do it. Personality.

In grad school, a professor singled me out for some mentoring. Unfortunately, he got run out after losing a weenie-wag with the Dean. And overnight, not only was I left mentorless, but all of his students were tainted by our association with him. Faculty predicted we couldn't pass our candidacy exams, for example, and seemed amazed when we did.

Another male professor mentored guys on the golf course: Women were not invited.

I was unable to attach myself to another mentor. During internship, the closest thing I had to a mentor himself came from the wrong side of the tracks (literally--a railroad spur ran right through the facility's campus!) and was completely powerless to assist me when I ran into trouble there. Mom was right: Who you know is critical.

Anyway, at 56, I still can't get mentoring. Ask for references from my connections on LinkedIn? Gah! I'd rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Renaissance Girl said...

Such a good post, and great comments. I'm forwarding it all immediately to a couple of my (female) students who need to hear it, who've said that they'd like to come by my office to talk things over but feel awkward intruding on my busy work time.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent topic -- and comments!

Lucky Jane said...

Thanks for posting this.

Let me just say my best grad students have been women. As I've worked with them, I've been so proud to see them gain confidence and savvy in seeking out more powerful mentors and taking advantage of what resources my public university has (but grants only to the persistent). Consequently, these women have left or are leaving for more prestigious programs.

Do you think women faculty should—being mindful of the socially conditioned diffidence you describe—make a point of encouraging promising women grad students? I think we do, but in no systematic way. (I'm personally anxious of perceived bias, since my first [male] advisee ever fired me after I wouldn't approve his proposal after many miserable drafts, and last fall I turned away another male student whom I'd never taught before but who waxed rhapsodic over reinventing the wheel with me.) As far as I know, I don't have a reputation as a feminist, even among the young republican undergrads.

As for what makes one a *star*, it's interesting how commenters are adding socioeconomic class, undergraduate institution, personality, etc. to sex as an impediment. So many factors go into Brilliant Grad's charisma—which I believe means "gift" for a reason. If he were a woman of color with a BMI above, say, 24, would his brilliant insights be entertained? Would he be confident enough to give voice to them?

Sorry for the logorrhea. I'll go off and ponder quietly (heh) now.

LittleRaven said...

This really resonated with me. I've always had the vague idea that to succeed you needed to network, have connections, etcetera. But I've never know how, never been taught how, and I wonder if I could have learned anyway. I'm autistic, female, brown, and young. The first one means I have trouble with even basic average social skills, and in my case I don't really get much personal enjoyment out of talking to people, so I don't socialize with anybody, let alone make useful connections. My sex gets in the way, my race gets in the way, my disability gets in the way, my introverted personality gets in the way, and sometimes this makes me feel bitter, knowing how much is out of my reach. I don't even know what I would consider success, or if having those networking skills would make me happy. I'm just always sure that there are somethings that I don't have that I dearly want, and I don't even know what those are, let alone how to get them, and even though I don't want to give up my autistic brain or my sex, part of me blames the world for not teaching me those skills as a reaction to my being autistic and female, etcetera. I'm not sure I'm being clear though.

Anonymous said...

I'm just now reading this, and I felt every word as I read it. Thank you so much for putting such eloquent words to something I've been feeling for years. It's nice to know that I'm hardly alone in all of this.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had read this two years ago (you know, around the time when it was written!) because it summed up how I treated most of my graduate school experience, and I only went through the MA. It's difficult to move beyond that feeling of "don't be a pest" or "I don't want to waste your time but..." Neither my professors nor my advisors ever implied that I *was* bothering them, but I could never move past the feelings created by this self-imposed limitation. It wasn't until I started teaching part time at a different university and really interacting with faculty that I came to realize just how wrong I was in my assumptions, and that I did myself a disservice by trying to be as self-reliant and un-needy as possible.