Thank you for the introduction.
Being selected to give this plenary here at the Ford Conference is a huge honor. Receiving the Ford Predissertation Fellowship was a turning point in my academic life. The community of Fellows and what I learned from them is the reason I stayed in graduate school and why I have my current position.
The topic of my talk today is mentoring. Specifically, how mentoring and being mentored are a source of academic joy. Are what makes our success worthwhile. We don’t use words like “joy,” “generosity,” or “kindness” very often in academic circles, instead favoring words like “rigor” as though they can’t all be connected. I know mentoring and the giving of kindness and generosity have been more important to my life as a scholar than any course, archive, or theory. It is my experience with mentoring that has taught me the most. I know the importance of mentoring because of spending six years on the job market, and five as contingent faculty.
During those years I was an adjunct lecturer, I taught at four colleges and universities for seven different departments. One of the chairs I worked for, Chicana feminist scholar Dr. Karen Mary Davalos, (I say her name here because giving credit is important) mentored me on the job market. Over those years, with her support, I applied for more than 200 jobs across the US and internationally. I had more than 20 interviews, and several campus visits. Five years sounds like a long time and it was. During all that time, even when she wasn’t my chair anymore, Dr. Davalos did more than I can recount here. She wrote my letters, read my research, critiqued my job materials, introduced me to other scholars, and actively encouraged me, treating me as her equal, always.
In 2017, when I was hired into a tenure-track position and began my new job, a friend suggested I write a blog post about how I was able to move from an adjunct to a tenure-track position, a variation on the popular “quit lit” genre of academic blogging, but one with an unusually happy ending. As I thought about how to write what to me seems more good fortune than formula, I decided to write about the academic mentoring practices that inspired me to stay on the market through so many cycles. To write about the community of scholars, of women of color who supported and encouraged me and my work. The post I wrote focused on Dr. Davalos, on the difference one person made, but in reality, there were many mentors who reached out to help. First among them was Ford Fellow, Dr. Kate Shanley, who arranged to meet with me at the Modern Languages Association conference, where I had my first interviews. She bought me coffee, candidly reviewed my job materials, and suggested talking points for my interview. There was also Dr. Norma Cantú, who, at another MLA, made sure I had dinner plans each night and would not be sitting alone in a hotel room.
I wrote about one person and the support she gave me, but there were dozens of acts of mentoring, of generosity, of kindness that helped me on a practical level, but even more importantly, affirmed my value as a scholar and a person. This is important because so much of the academic hiring process is impersonal and dehumanizing. So the blog post I wrote ended up being about the importance of a single mentor relationship.
I wrote it fast, in maybe an hour and a half, and then posted it to my blog. I didn’t expect much to happen when putting the link to it up on my Twitter account. My blog didn’t have many readers (statistics said 5 or fewer visitors a day) and my Twitter account had relatively few followers. But the post struck a nerve. I watched with no small amount of nervousness, as over the next 72 hours the link was retweeted hundreds of time. Friends from all over contacted me to say the link to my blog post had been shared on their Facebook feeds and the post itself was being discussed in a number of groups. At the same time, my blog’s stats were showing hits in the hundreds and then thousands. A digital humanities friend with a much bigger social media presence told me my post had gone “academic viral.” Within a week, with my permission, it had been republished as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, exposing my writing to more people, including my college dean.
All this social media attention was unsettling, the experience of people of color, especially women, on the internet is not an easy one, but the responses I received were largely positive. I heard, from a number of graduate students and contingent faculty about their need for mentors and mentoring. I heard too from people recounting their own experiences with mentors and other acts of academic kindness and generosity. But most of all, I heard from hundreds of senior faculty across disciplines and around the world who said they wanted to mentor someone. People who said they were going to look for opportunities to make that kind of difference to someone in a contingent position on the job market. So there are senior scholars looking for people to mentor.
Which takes this back to you. Because I also heard from faculty and administrators that I had made my own mentoring possible. That I had reached out for help, asked for assistance, and taken what was offered. These conversations reminded me of the incredible vulnerability I felt at finishing my Ph.D. without knowing what I was going to do next, without having landed an academic job that despite the current state of the market I somehow assumed I’d find. This insecurity came from not understanding how academic searches were done, not knowing what positions I was qualified for, not knowing how to go about getting published, or whether my materials were right for the jobs I was applying for. There were seemingly hundreds of things I didn’t know that someone finishing graduate school is somehow expected to understand. The answers I found on the internet were contradictory and did nothing to help my anxiety or confidence. The groups organized by my department felt somehow competitive, and not in a positive way.
Because I had been a Ford Fellow and realizing I needed help, I put my first hesitant requests for assistance on the fellows’ listserv and heard almost immediately from Chicana scholar, Dr. Tiffany Ana Lopez, who reached out to me and offered help. The positive, helpful responses I received encouraged me to reach out more, to find a community of Chicana scholars. When I attended Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social Institute the summer after my hooding, I felt ashamed admitting I didn’t have academic work for the coming fall. But the senior women at MALCS explicitly told me focus on celebrating my doctorate, that Latinas make up only 2% of college faculty in the United States and I should be proud of finishing. They encouraged me to try again on the job market if I wanted to be a professor.
The Ford Fellowship’s mission to diversify higher education is only possible if these moments of kindness, of generosity, happen. When I replied with my concerns about the job market, said I’d read and been told by my own department that there were too many people getting PhDs in English, Ford Fellow Dr. Deena Gonzalez replied very quickly “There are not too many Chicanas with PhDs in English. There are too few, especially given what the undergraduate population looks like.”
This is true for all of us. Our very rareness, a factor that can make us feel like we don’t belong in our Ph.D. programs, is actually part of why we must belong and why we must value each other and our work. Many of us work on texts, on histories, with communities and populations that, if we weren’t doing our work, no one would be doing this research at all. If we aren’t there to ask our questions, it’s not a given that someone else will ask them. Maybe not for years. Maybe not ever. We can choose to see this. In doing so, we can choose to see each other not as competition in a zero-sum game of faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion, but as part of communities of scholars who know each other and appreciate each others’ work and success.
My experiences on the academic job market and as adjunct faculty changed and developed me more than my Ph.D. program did. The experience of finding and working with mentors changes one’s research, teaching, writing, communication, and our own capacity to mentor others. What we can come to see is this world, this academic world we inhabit is full of smart, even brilliant people. The ones I admire, the ones worth emulating and who make the most difference, are the ones who build community. They are generous scholars, who value kindness as part of academic life. This makes for a better experience for everyone they touch.
You’re here and it’s no mistake. You belong here. I know you’re brilliant. Your research is important, could change your field, the world even. So this is my challenge to you. Be vulnerable. Reach out for mentorship and friendship over and over, and accept it when it’s offered. Be all the amazing things you are capable of being, and be kind as you do so. You’ll then be able to reach out and mentor as you climb in your field. Consciously looking for ways to build community and pay it forward.
Here is the final bit of my job story. At the start of this speech, in addition to talking about mentoring, generosity, and kindness, I promised joy. It is not my own. I felt more relief than anything else when I finally got hired. However, when I started my job, my new department chair told me about making calls to check my references before they made the final offer. She said when she called one of my references, Dr. Alice Gambrell who’d supported my work since graduate school, asking about me and in the process telling her of Cal State Dominguez Hills’s planned job offer, Dr. Gambrell screamed out with joy.
That happiness over the success of one we mentor is what I wish for all of us.