What It’s Like To Be A Woman In The Academy: Mentoring Edition by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn my first post, I promised to return to the topic of mentoring. Mentoring is a survival strategy for feminists inside hostile or difficult-to-navigate environments; in its best possibilities, mentoring is a strategy for flourishing, not just surviving. But when a mentoring relationship goes wrong, it is so destructive an experience that it may even be characterized as traumatic. Mentoring is also a practice rife with possibilities for abuse: the recent Yale study of gender bias in the sciences shows the extent to which gender alone serves as a significant variable for scientists assessing the possible rewards of mentoring a student.

I have given a lot of thought to mentoring in recent months – as I transition into new mentoring roles in a new institution, as I negotiate changing relationships with current and former mentors, as I reflect on successful and unsuccessful mentoring relationships I’ve been involved in, and as I seek to develop policies and practices that will serve me (and more importantly, my mentees) well. 

As a mentee, I have found that the following practices work best for me:

First, when a mentor gives me advice, I try my utmost to take it. Mentoring is a gift of time and attention; the least I can do in return – since there is an aspect to mentoring that is necessarily unilateral – is to honor that gift by not just nodding along, but actively trying to implement the advice given me. Creating a positive cycle of this sort allows my mentor to see that I respect and value her advice; it also forces me to push myself beyond my own boundaries to take risks that I would not otherwise have taken. Whether the advice is to prioritize my writing even in the face of seemingly urgent daily tasks, or to practice asking for what I want rather than awkwardly standing in a corner hoping someone will magically guess what I’m after and give it to me (!), successful mentoring helps to remind me of what’s important, of my own limitations as well as of ways in which I might get better at a job that, despite all its pressures, I love with a fiery burning passion.

Second, as a mentee, it is my responsibility to figure out which purposes and topics belong with which mentors. If one of my mentors (note: this is an utterly hypothetical case!) were an outstanding and well-published expert in my field, but tended either to blather or to dominate in meetings, I would not seek advice from her about how to get my committee work done efficiently, but I might ask her to look at an article to see whether it’s ready to submit to a high-impact journal. As in all relationships with power inequities, the person with less power tends to see the truth of the relationship more clearly, and I cannot rely on mentors to recuse themselves on topics on which their advice may be less helpful. Figuring out what someone’s strengths are as a mentor, and playing to them as a mentee, requires a delicate touch – there’s no rulebook to consult! Exploratory conversations are helpful here, as are consultations with socially gifted mentors. But paying attention helps too: what sort of a trajectory did this mentor or that have to get where she is today? Is she familiar with the culture of the school at which I work? On what topics does she demonstrate deftness and agility, and which issues seem to stump her?

As a mentor, I see my primary responsibilities as taking three forms.

First, I need to examine myself to see how and in which ways I can be helpful to my mentees. I am quite well prepared to talk to students about navigating applications to PhD programs, about preparing for the academic job market, about learning the culture of different institutions (as I’ve taught at three very different institutions in four years), about adapting one’s teaching style for different levels, and so on. But knowing where and how I can be helpful is both implicitly and explicitly an acknowledgement of my limitations as well.

Second, I need to practice responsibility with respect to my mentees. This means showing up on time for appointments, giving a realistic timeline for reading work and following up, monitoring my own time and investment so that mentees know that they will get a yes or no answer to any request for input, and – most importantly – giving similarly focused attention to all mentees.

Third, it is it is part of my practice to work gladly with students whose opinions and interests are widely divergent from my own. If my own mentors had not been willing to do so as well, I would never have been mentored at all, and that brings me to the final point:

Pay it forward. Mentoring should never stop with me; whatever I have learned as a mentee needs to be passed on as freely as it was given to me.

Are there other practices you have found successful? Failed mentoring relationships might be a topic for another day, but I’d be interested to hear suggestions for what to do when mentoring relationships go fundamentally wrong as well.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 

Author: Linn Marie Tonstad

Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.

One thought on “What It’s Like To Be A Woman In The Academy: Mentoring Edition by Linn Marie Tonstad”

  1. Ahhhh, yes, those blathering mentors. This is an excellent and practical post. Paying it forward–paying kindness, respect, intellectual honest forward is a good idea. Brava!


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