Academics on Academia: We Belong

I am happy to have ongoing conversations about higher education with my friend and colleague Liana Silva. Our first one is really about that sense of belonging or fitting in academe. Reading Liana’s  piece reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student. I was a first generation college student, who graduated with strong grades from high school. I took the array of Honor’s and Advanced Placement courses during high school and participated in sports and other activities.

But, nothing prepared me for the other side of the university experience–the culture of academe. Everyone assumed that I had money, since I was in university. I don’t know where this came from and I certainly was not going away for Spring Breaks or Summer vacations. Add to this that as a Latina, I noticed that suddenly I represented the “woman of color” in class and the expectations in the classroom varied among my different professors. I was at an institution with a good number of Latinas/os, but not enough to be more than a small minority. When I began to entertain graduate school the process seemed alien. I was fortunate to connect with Graduate Women Scholars of Southern California. It was in Scallops (slip of the tongue by our faculty advisor who hailed from Boston. She meant to say Scholar and Scallops slipped out and it stuck) that I learned about how things worked in academe. This peer mentoring group was one of the best things that happened to me during the last year of my undergrad, as it made the transition into grad school that much easier.

After I earned an MA in Liberal Arts and Sciences and entered grad school in Political Science, I learned that most did not have the strong mentoring that I had and almost no one in the cohort had presented at a conference, had a CV, and were familiar with the vagaries of the tenure track process. Wow. My mind was blown. While I felt like the step-cousin in the department with my areas of research, I was ahead of the curve with my knowledge of academia, which proved useful. I also noticed that Political Science was also very conservative methodologically and politically, and very white. If I thought that Women’s Studies was not that diverse–well, Political Science was a completely different terrain.

Reading Liana’s post really stirred up some memories for me and makes me once again realize how important mentoring (peer and otherwise) is crucial to successful experiences in academe. When you don’t have the mentoring network, it is so easy to feel that you don’t belong…that you are an imposter. Add to this the incredible whiteness of academia and this becomes more complicated for people of color. I will never forget my first experience at the American Political Science Association ( #APSA ). I felt lost and kept on telling myself, “You belong here.” I attended meetings related to Women and Politics and the meetings for the nascent Race, Ethnicity and Politics section. I went outside of my comfort zone and tried to network on my own. It worked. I was emboldened by the good mentoring I had, but at the back of my head occasionally was–do I belong here?

I remember those moments and now make a special point to speak to people new to the conference–especially graduate students. So, Liana, I think we have started an important conversation.

12 thoughts on “Academics on Academia: We Belong

  1. I think the kind of mentoring you describe is absolutely CRUCIAL. First, enculturation into academic modes is crucial to success in the academy: essentially, one’s capacity to navigate the lingo, the culture, the social norms, etc. of academic ‘life’ is rewarded or punished by success of failure in academic work. So it’s something we’re “graded” on, and as such, it should be explicitly taught. Second, I am appalled that people can get to the PhD and have no idea about the undergirding structures: how the job market works, etc. To sign up for a PhD without understanding how it’s funded or all that pragmatic business? Is hardly informed consent. And so again, people born into the culture are better able to understand it, to be subject of academic life, rather than subjected to it. Rude.

    Fascinating post.

    • Thanks for your comment. And, yes, agree that good mentoring is necessary for survival and the possibility of success. (What the heck does that mean in higher ed today?). All of the unsaid rules can exhaust the last drops of hope out of you. There is so much to unpack. I will continue with my chisel.

  2. Something I have been thinking about as I finish my PhD is how explicit this mentoring should be. I would like to see faculty more involved in explaining things to folks. I had that at my small MA program and it was invaluable-it helped teach me how to be a colleague.

    Like you, I try to pay it forward-I try to show the new MA and PhD students in my program the ropes and to be supportive as they figure out how the university works (much less the job market!). Unofficial peer mentoring happens really well in my program partially because when I expressed my gratitude to one of the folks who took time to help me out, she let me know that someone had done the same for her, that no one “just knows” this stuff, and that I would be able to help someone else out soon. I’ve said the same thing to several others, so the chain works.

    But I’d like to see more faculty involvement–even before grad school, as you mentioned–because there is so much that peers can’t know, can’t help with. Advisors are very uneven, unfortunately. I am not sure what to suggest to improve that situation.

    • Thanks for reading our converstation. And, I have to say that the mentoring must begin when the student is an advanced undergrad. It needs to continue from there and then you’re right–it needs to be paid forward. So, peer mentoring is a key part of this process. The only way that this will change, though is if more faculty make a point to mentor better or mentor more. Lots to do!

  3. I think it’s important to write/say these things. I just assumed, as someone who never fit in anywhere (not really) that it was just me, being a misfit as usual. Little did I know that it was the culture that was set up to exclude me. But I’ve asked this before in another post, who are these people anyway? Are we just all pretending to be “them” and reinforcing exclusive and exclusionary practices because we’re all too afraid to do otherwise?

    Interesting analogy that might be a little strained, post-Christmas. The Island of Misfit Toys. The Griffon King won’t allow Rudolph and the other misfits stay because they aren’t the right kind of misfits. Is this the situation we’ve created for ourselves in academia?

    • Thanks for your comment, Lee. Not to sound trite–but we need to make like Fleetwood Mac and go our own way. We are trying to join and change the system. This takes lots of hard work and the occasional moments thinking, “What in the hell am I doing?” I do think, though, you get to a place where you finally feel like you belong. But, it’s baby steps and it’s in different situations. After all those years of adjunct work, I have a sense of belonging on campus. But, then when I go to meeting with certain admin types, it’s that sense of: you’ve got to be effing kidding me. OK. Not all the time, but in some situations.

  4. Great post – I spotted it on twitter. I didn’t realize how lucky I actually was to do my undergrad at Uvic – the small seminars and one-on-one advising of the Honours program were great for the transition to my MA, but the department at my current university lacks any kind of community, let alone a mentoring one. I’ve found myself meaning to cold-call professors during office hours to find answers to my questions.. what’s it like to be a woman in academic, in polisci, how do I know if a PhD is right for me, etc. I think an inclusive environment, or community, needs to be established within a department through social meet-and-greets, panels, etc, rather than leaving it up to students to seek answers on their own. Also, I think there is an artificial wall between professional and personal mentorship – I would love to ask how working as a professor affects family life and relationships (especially with spouses who work outside of academia), but I feel like the clinical, professional (masculine) mentorship model makes these kinds of discussions inappropriate.. Or am I just being neurotic? It’s a terrible cycle of self-doubt!

    • Dear Danielle: Thank you for your thoughtful post. I think one of the things that you can do is refer to some of the great articles or books about women in academe. You’ll also want to do what you suggested–go to office hours and ask women faculty what they think. Some will be honest with you and others might not have time for you. Don’t be offended.

      As far as mentoring, sometimes it just happens and other times you have to make the effort to get someone to mentor you. Is there a women’s faculty organization at the campus? Contact the person in charge to see if she would have time to meet with you, too. And, I’ve blogged about this before: you can find mentors that are outside of your specific area and peer mentors can be useful. Try to talk to some of the women grad students in the dept who are further along–maybe someone two years ahead and then another three to four years ahead.

      If you want to chat more about this–we can set up a Skype date or I can call you. I recognize your name. Hope that you are well.

  5. Yes, we should mentor, but how? How do you share insight about the racist and sexist landmines that must be navigated without discouraging students, and pissing off your colleagues? I don’t want to make students paranoid, yet my experience is there is so much beyond actual research we (women of color) are expected to manage and endure as assistant professors. It feels dishonest to withhold that information and focus only on the formal stuff (conferences, CV, review process). I did not realize how much the “unspoken factors” would play into my trajectory until a few years into my first job. I would guess there is agreement that we should be good mentors, but what is the right approach?

    • Dear Lucia: I think you need to be honest. You don’t name names, but you can be honest about the sometimes sad reality that exists in higher ed for women of color. There are also countless wonderful books about women and higher ed or women and leadership in higher ed.

      I have discouraged some students from graduate school at certain schools. Whey? I’ve shared that the particular program is not known for having good mentors or the best program for students of color. I believe in honesty. And, this honesty comes from having frank conversations with trusted friends and colleagues. If I can help one student make a good decision, I will. Ultimately, it’s up to the student, but I want to give her/him any information that I can.

      I do have an advantage–my dissertation examined women in Political Science and I have read so much in this area and have kept abreast of the literature due to different leadership positions that I’ve held in Political Science or on campus.

      Keep fighting the good fight!

  6. Pingback: Academics on Academia: Any Questions? (Second Installment) | Words Are My Game

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