Being a thoughtful academic is more work than just being an academic

Being a thoughtful academic is more work than just being an academic

In a long Chronicle essay that came out today, there is a point at which the author describes his dissertation advisor’s tremendous ability to nurture his growing dissertation and his spirit with a combination of extensive, timely feedback on his writing; conversations in which it seemed this highly successful academic was genuinely interested in his ideas; and thoughtful attention to him as a person and not just as a laboring mind. In other words, the writer asserted, she seemed to have combined being a brilliant academic with being a “Den Mother” in ways that he appreciated.

Why, at least half of my Twitter feed is now asking–some angrily, some thoughtfully, some in the dismal resignation of here-we-go-again–is her ability to be a nurturing, thoughtful, supportive person in academia inevitably coded as feminine? And what are the consequences of continuing to do that?

Lauren Eriks Cline astutely sums the problem up as follows: “A lot of women I know in academia deal with this problem: if you are good at helping students feel warm, valued, skillful, you get perceived as a mom. Which can mean that the hard work you did to learn how to support students gets naturalized as feminine instinct and undervalued.” (The whole, excellent, thread from which this tweet comes is here.)

The problem, of course, is not just that your mentor is not your mother. It is that we chronically allow, nay prefer, motherwork to remain largely invisible when it is performed by actual mothers, and that when we move on to categorize aspects of the paid labor of women as motherwork, we similarly imply that it should be done for free, in addition to the rest of the work load, without any particular acknowledgment, because it comes naturally.*

But good mentoring is not like what breathing is for most of us. Instead, it takes sustained, conscious effort.

Good mentoring requires persistent willingness to schedule time on a regular basis to pay undivided attention to the work of students or colleagues. This is time that good mentors are not spending doing research or writing grants or revising essays or crunching data or coding or reading the latest issue of a journal. In other words, it is work-based time that they are choosing not to dedicate to their “own” work because they recognize that the work of the profession requires collaborative, collegial, supportive efforts that are wholly focused on making someone else’s “own work” better. Good mentoring takes putting one’s own professional anxieties or personal life to the side, for some portion of time, in order to focus on being supportive of someone whose professional position might be more precarious.

This is not “natural.” It is a choice. And it is labor, even if the people who are good at it will tell you that it is labor they enjoy. (Enjoyment, by the way, is not a prerequisite for any other part of an academic job. So the excuse that “well, the people who enjoy being mentors should do that, and the rest of us will do other things,” is a load of hooey. No one assumes that only those who enjoy filling out an annual report should be required to do so.)

This, I would venture to say, is what it means to be a good academic citizen, whether we are talking about a mentoring relationship, the process of being Reviewer 2, or the day-to-day functioning of any given department.

You know what would make it less likely for this kind of supportive labor to stop being coded as feminine? For everyone, regardless of gender, to take it upon themselves as a necessary part of the job description.

This means not just mentoring student projects. It means saying yes to reviewing essays. It means volunteering for ad hoc tasks. It means spending time consciously thinking not just about what would improve someone else’s piece of writing, but about how to deliver that feedback in a way that will be productive of revisions rather than merely demoralizing to the writer. It means keeping to your allotted time during a presentation, or asking actual questions rather than more-a-comments designed to show off yourself, at a conference.

I am not subtweeting All Academic Men here. I have a number of fantastically generous male colleagues. And I have seen plenty of women go over time while giving a talk. But I find it very telling that I have only ever heard female colleagues tell me that they feel they constantly have to navigate being relegated to a “mom stereotype” when they are working as mentors. And women who refuse that designation sometimes find themselves criticized for not being nurturing enough, as if biology demands certain behaviors from them in the workplace. By contrast, men who are good at mentoring have that work praised as extraordinary.

To change that, we need to not just point out the obvious gendered biases that exist here. We also need to look at ourselves and the ways we do or do not volunteer to take on certain kinds of labor that require not just time but sensitivity.

A lot of people read the Acknowledgements in books with great interest, whether or not they know they author. They are not looking for their own names to appear on the page. They are looking for signs that here is an author who appreciates all the many people who took the time to focus on someone else’s “own work” at the expense of their own. They want to know who are the conscientious and thoughtful humans among us.

So much of academia feels personal because it is a vulnerable thing to think out loud. And the people who help us feel like we are not just okay but interesting when we do that are thus people to whom we cannot be anything but grateful. Given that we all benefit from the conscientious and thoughtful humans of academia (someone peer reviews our essays, and someone does the tasks for which we do not volunteer in a department meeting), we all ought to try to be those people.


* Edited to add: I hope it’s clear that I do not think motherwork should be devalued as not-labor either, and not just because it’s Mother’s Day weekend, aka the one day a year that we are expected to acknowledge that it is not “natural” or easy to mother, even for those among us who love parenting.

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