Lessons for Girls #14: Don't just ask, insist on help

Howling for help!

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’sCommenter 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.

treehouseWhen 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.

0 thoughts on “Lessons for Girls #14: Don't just ask, insist on help

  1. I don’t know — I think that I would find Brilliant Grad knocking on my door every few hours quite annoying no matter how charming (read entitled) he seemed.


  2. Like Gayprof, I would find BG beyond annoying. So maybe BG depends on a certain academic class politics?
    And, as someone who has just crossed the country, I’m trying to figure out what my local institutions will be!


  3. I kind of liked better the model of apprentice/advisor interactions that Squadratomagico laid out yesterday in the previous thread; infrequently, like every other month, for several hours at a time–than this “drop in regularly” approach employed by BG. I think it makes for a better dependability but with independence pattern, which remains an ongoing key attribute in creating functional network relationships.

    NB: that’s a way-cool treehouse above, one that would be hard to duplicate here in the East, for regulatory reasons, I’m sure, but also for the impossibility of finding such a way-cool tree!


  4. Excellent series of posts. Such good insights and such good writing are why I always lurk around here … and I’m delurking to add my 2 cents in light of Gayprof and Susan’s [very reasonable] responses.

    I’m by no means a Brilliant Grad (lacking both the brilliance and the rather striking forwardness), but I did recognize something of myself in him… something I do think has a lot to do with class (though in my case it’s coming from a moderate income – highly educated family) and a bit to do with age (I returned to work on my phd after several years of professing with my MA).

    Anyway, what I wanted to point out is that there are ways to take that “don’t just ask, insist” advice without being quite as entitled as BG seems to have been and without wildly trespassing gendered expectations (at least, I hope I don’t come off horribly!).

    Training ourselves to ask questions is probably the first step. I know that I, unwittingly, set what has become a useful tone in my relationship with my department when I asked if they would make a policy exception (about committee members) for me before I accepted their offer.

    I also think just assuming that one’s relationship with faculty is a relationship among adults (rather than child/student – adult/faculty) goes a long way. That doesn’t mean assuming equality (faculty do have authority over grads, after all), it just means breaking with the patterns learned in undergrad.

    err… i don’t want to get long, so I’ll stop… i just wanted to speak for the (hopefully) non-obnoxious but still assuming the right to get help approach to grad school


  5. Great response, Historiann. Self-help under conditions of oppression is a fine line: if you’re not too defeatist about your own powers to effect change, then you might be too optimistic. I just wanted to warn against a literal application of “Don’t just ask, insist on help.” The people who dole out help don’t welcome overt insistence–and whatever the secret of Brilliant Grad’s success might be, it wasn’t that he “insist[ed] on help” in the face of resistance.

    A friendly amendment: “Don’t just ask for help: expect help and try to make it happen.”


  6. I would also add (for grad students) that you shouldn’t necessarily expect to find mentoring or even advising from one’s adviser – and in many programs of course it is very difficult, even impolitic, to change. I agree with LadyProf in her amendment and to “expect help” – but sometimes, for whatever reason, one doesn’t get help. In addition, insisting on help can turn into a very bad experience with an adviser who doesn’t like being insisted to by a grad student (especially a woman). One also needs to learn to read the situation with each individual one approaches. Brilliant Grad was certainly helped by his pedigree and gender, which created in him the expectation that people would help and also created a vibe to which older academics are more likely to respond. Many simply would not respond similarly to a woman, no matter what her pedigree.

    While this doesn’t seem to be the dominant experience for Historiann’s readers, mine has been one in which it has consistently been difficult to find mentors/ professional networks (beyond pleasantries at conferences), no matter how good I am at introducing myself at conferences, or telling people how much I admire their work. (I’ve had endless trouble getting people to agree to read my work, or to write recommendations – even people I know, whom I know like me/ my work.) So I would also say to grad students and young faculty – it might take years and years. Also – Success breeds interest, which I think is unfortunate. But it is often true.


  7. Perpetua: one way of finding people to read things is to cultivate people less advanced on the T-T than yourself. Obviously one shouldn’t use status to force help, but “younger” people may be flattered to be asked to join a reading group by an “older” person, and then you can all work on success together. Recommendations do require someone senior or at least equal, depending on your position, but one thing at a time.

    I’ve added to this conversation over at my place.


  8. Dame Eleanor–great point about thinking about cultivating those less advanced. This is kind of what I was getting at when I suggested building one’s own networks.

    One of the things that impresses me consistently about many of the truly outstanding senior scholars I know is that they’re open to learning from anyone–from junior scholars, grad students at other institutions, anyone. Hierarchy matters less than the ideas and information shared, whereas it seems to be those striving desperately to be *seen* as truly outstanding who are more obsessed with status and with hanging out only with those who are equally or more eminent.


  9. And, perpetua–I’m sorry you’ve had such trouble finding attentive mentors. The only thing I can say is, keep looking and asking. And yes, success breeds more success–that was one of Sisyphus’s questions. (As in, does it get any easier as you get more established?) Yes, definitely. More people will want to help you, and fewer people will want to attack you publicly or behave in dismissive ways. (At least, that’s my experience. It’s not that the attackers think my work is any better, but it’s published now, and to very good reviews, so hang ’em.)


  10. I’ve been following all of this with great interest because it’s due to mentoring (and the lack thereof) that I have my current job in administration. My diss advisor was a total a$$, although very well known in and out of our field. I assumed that he would take an interest in me and mentor me as I had seen him do with other students in the department. I forgot to realize, however, that they were men and I am not. Rather than bore everyone with the details, suffice to say that I don’t think he read any part of my diss until the night before the defense; he avoids me at conferences; he has never once introduced me to anyone who might help me.

    On the other hand, the “outside” member of my committee has done nothing but help me and my career. It was he who suggested that I go into admin after a particularly bad experience with a job position. He always introduced me to people at conferences, and included me and other grad students when he put together a funded conference that turned into a book. I met him by signing up for one of his classes and saying “hi, I’m F and we have xxx in common.” I was thinking, “I’m outside your dept but you have a good reputation and seem like a decent guy. I’m going to try to make this a real mentoring relationship.” My approach was to do what I could to shine: I worked incredibly hard in his classes, always spoke up (but only when I had something to say), and generally hung around.

    So what’s my advice? Don’t give up. If you realize that the mentor you’ve set your sights on is an a$$, or isn’t going to help you, keep looking. And ask around. The other students can tell you if this person won’t like you or help you because you’re 1) female; 2) male; 3) outspoken; 4) foreign, or whatever.


  11. Hmmm. I’m the one who is supposed to be doing the mentoring. I’ve offered, in various ways: suggestions for places to publish, how to deal with this or that faculty member, where one’s priorities might be placed, etc..

    Sometimes it has been great. Sometimes not. It has been almost always female faculty members (I’m not), and it has been difficult to discern a pattern. One might be from a good, not great regional school, and look at me when I ask if I might read some of her current work as if I have leprosy. (I don’t, at least not that bad.) Others, from good R-1 programs, have been at times the same, while still others and I have developed wonderful and productive relationships.

    I can’t, as I said, discern a pattern. I went to a grad school (one of the good ‘uns) where the idea of mentoring was a priori laughable.

    But it is a two-way street. After spending hours reading and typing up comments–critical and constructive–for one colleague, a “thank you” would have been nice. Instead, the colleague ignored the comments in toto, including a “howler” I spotted. You can lead a horse to water, . . . .


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