Yesterday’s post on “Mentors and mentoring: whose responsibility?” got Sisyphus thinking about her grad school days, and the ways in which gender and class work in relationships between students and their mentors. In a post called “Don’t just ask, insist on help (even if it makes you feel weird),” fourteenth in our popular series, Lessons for Girls, Sisyphus writes that a roommate of hers, “Brilliant Grad,” was in the same program as she but he appeared to have a totally different relationship with the faculty in their department because of his attitude of entitlement:
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. . . .
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. . . .
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 $hitloads 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.
So, what was the result of BG’s breezily peer-like–or brashly demanding?–relationship with the faculty in his and Sisyphus’s department?
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. . . .
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.
Sisyphus labors to quiet the voice of the bad angel on her right shoulder, which tries to intimidate her out of imitating BG: “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?”
Many of the commenters over at Sisyphus’s blog noted that this attitude has at least as much to do with class (if not more) as gender. In a separate post responding to Sisyphus, Undine writes,
[I]f 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 for you if you don’t have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you’d abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you’d played by the rules and they hadn’t.
If you let the rage define you, you’re stuck with that outlook forever, always blindsided and hemmed in by rules that may or may not have a good reason for existing. But if you use that rage, turn it into observation, and study what others privileged by class (or gender) are doing to remold the world to their advantage, you can learn from it. The most valuable thing anyone learns in this position is that there’s a difference between the Official Rules and the Real Rules. If you’re born with class privilege, you know this already. If you’re not, you need to figure out where that gap lies and what its parameters are.
And you can pass it on. That’s mentoring.
I like that final line–right on, Undine! But–can a working-class young woman really just plop herself down and expect the same welcome as BG received? Read the comments in the thread–especially Bardiac’s. Commenter LadyProf back here at Historiann asks of Sisyphus’s lesson: “I loved your post, but isn’t your stance another iteration of “women don’t ask” re: salary? If you insist on privilege (or equal pay) and the person you’re talking to doesn’t agree that you are entitled to it, you might get lucky, but you might also come across as an arrogant nut and get punished.”
LadyProf is probably right–in some cases, a young woman who attended a regional public uni won’t get the same hearty welcome from Herr Docktor Perfesser Stuffypipes that a young man who attended Amherst or Haverford will. But, would behaving like a supplicant, like an appropriately deferential girl, in the audience of the great H.D.P. Stuffypipes turn him into a great advisor for Sisyphus, or Dr. Crazy, or Undine? My guess is “NO!” Squadratomagico made a great point here on the mentoring thread that one mentor’s style won’t work for all mentees or advisees–what works for someone else might not work for you, and vice-versa. I agree: the important thing is the relationship you have with a mentor or an advisor, not just that person’s objective eminence in hir field, or the connections ze might provide, etc. Those are nice, but those things won’t benefit you if you don’t have a comfortable relationship with that advisor or mentor. Seek out the people whose work has inspired you, or with whom you see an affiliation, and tell them who you are and what you need. So, I agree with Sisyphus–“don’t just ask, insist on help,” but be sure you are choosing wisely in selecting advisors or mentors.
When I went off to a women’s college, one of the selling points of the Seven Sisters colleges (well, really the “Four Sisters,” I guess, since Radcliffe, Vassar, and Barnard went rogue) was what they were calling the “Old Girls’ Network”–alumnae connections in business and industry that would benefit us. (And yes, I know I’m revealing my own class privilege here, but bear with me.) I was told that instead of beating their heads against the wall to gain admission to the Old Boys’ Network, some of these “Old Girls” decided simply to build networks of their own, which I think is an excellent strategy for those of us who for whatever reason find ourselves working at the margins of a profession, and/or whose identities make us minorities among our peers. (In fact, the two organizations I’m most involved with are the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, founded because women were excluded from the all-male “smokers” at the American Historical Association meetings earlier in the last century, and therefore from critical opportunities for making connections and learning pertinent information, and the Front Range Early American Consortium–the “FREAC”–a Salon des Refusées for us “Eastern” historians who found jobs in the West but not a whole lot of other people to talk to about our work.)
So, if you find yourself isolated, as Sisyphus says, 1) “don’t just ask, insist on help,” 2) from people who are likely to see a kinship with you because of your shared interests, and 3) go from there to build your own networks. The best answer to being excluded from someone else’s treehouse is to build your own! Ownership has its privileges.