When the MLA Delegate Assembly convened at the 2019 annual convention, held in Chicago, delegates discussed a problem that affects every reader of this journal—power differentials in graduate education. Delegates talked about responses to a recent MLA survey, administered by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC), which found five main sources of power inequity. Some of these problems stemmed from student-adviser relationships, while others were institutional, such as unclear milestones toward graduation, insufficient preparation for teaching, and a lack of professional development opportunities, especially for alternative academic careers (“Minutes” 684–86; Gere). For students of color, first-generation students, students from poor families, women, and queer students, the problems created by abuses of power are often more severe (Rockquemore and Laszloffy).
These are serious, deeply rooted problems, and they will require creative solutions, large and small, to begin to address them. One such solution, which emerged from small-group breakout sessions at the Delegate Assembly meeting, is to develop mentoring programs for graduate students and early career scholars outside their home institutions. The next day, at the MLA Forum Executive Committee Coffee Break, Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, suggested that the forums could organize mentoring programs for their members. The logic was straightforward: mentoring programs that originate in field-specific organizations like the MLA forums allow students to expand their professional networks by developing relationships with scholars in their research areas. They might also help decenter the power that is often concentrated in the hands of dissertation directors—or at least provide students with other viewpoints and sources of advice. Put more generously, mentoring programs sponsored by professional organizations could help relieve overburdened advisers at research institutions and enable faculty members at colleges and universities without graduate programs to engage in vibrant intellectual exchanges with PhD students.
With these ideas, the MLA forum CLCS 18th-Century designed an informal pilot program. As the secretary, I e-mailed the 250 members who had created online profiles in the forum’s Humanities Commons group. I then created a simple Google spreadsheet where mentors and mentees could sign up to participate. Using user-provided research interests and professional development goals (for mentees) or help (for mentors), I matched graduate students and early career scholars with senior faculty members. (Assistant professors who had finished their tenure books typically volunteered as mentors, although they had the option to enroll as mentees.) Because twice as many mentors as mentees signed up, I was able to match all but two mentees with multiple mentors, usually one who aligned by research area (e.g., gender or sexuality studies, race, history of science, literature and philosophy) and one who offered to provide the same form of professional development advice that the mentee sought (e.g., digital humanities, alt-ac careers, cover letters, teaching statements). In the pilot year, I matched twelve mentees with twenty-two mentors. In my messages to the pairs, I explained which research or professional development aspects they matched on, and I suggested a possible project to begin their mentorship, such as reading a job letter or reviewing an article in progress. I also explained that the forum does not insist on a certain number of meetings or exchanges. Instead, we asked mentors and mentees to determine the kind of relationship that best suits them. We encouraged them to set specific goals and timelines in their initial communications, such as sending a cover letter and receiving feedback by a certain date, but we left the details to individual pairs.1
At the end of the summer, approximately eight months after the program began, I solicited feedback from participants and offered them the chance to be reassigned. Although our numbers are too small to provide rigorous data for assessment, anecdotal reports from participants indicate both strengths and weaknesses of the program. Below I share some of those reports, with permission from mentors and mentees. I have changed all pronouns to they to protect participants who wish to remain anonymous.
Participants who focused on specific areas of need reported favorably on the experience. Jessica Kane, a PhD student in English at Michigan State University, was preparing to submit her dissertation. She was matched with Tita Chico, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Chico read Kane’s dissertation and prepared a written report on future directions for her research, which she shared after Kane’s successful defense in spring 2019. Chico wrote by e-mail that she “was gratified to have a professional opportunity to mentor someone at [Kane’s] stage.” For her part, Kane, eager to pay it forward, offered to mentor other graduate students who might find it helpful to hear from a recent graduate.
Another mentor, a senior scholar in a language department, connected with their mentee, a PhD student in a language department, on WhatsApp. They followed up by e-mail as the mentor commented on drafts of the mentee’s CV and cover letter. The mentor wrote, “From my perspective, I have enjoyed being able to share my academic experiences and offer suggestions to a new colleague entering the field.” The student’s second mentor is outside their field, but this does not seem to have diminished the quality of their exchanges. The second mentor, an associate professor who works in a different language, connected by Skype and corresponded by e-mail, mostly discussing aspects of the job market and offering advice on preparing for job searches at research universities and liberal arts colleges. The mentor had taught in both kinds of institutions and was able to provide concrete suggestions for the student’s job search. The mentee found both mentors to be “excellent and very supportive” and reported that the program “is going very well.”
Overall, mentees and mentors reported high levels of personal and professional fulfillment. As one mentee wrote by e-mail, “I feel so supported by the wider profession. I never expected senior scholars around the country, who have no obligations to me, to spend time and energy to help me develop as a scholar, teacher, and job candidate.” In addition to the intellectual benefits of sharing work in progress with senior colleagues, the mentee added that they now have a wider range of models “for the kind of teacher, scholar, mentor I want to be.”
If these were some of the successes, there were also a few misses. Multiple mentors noted that they either never heard from their mentees or that their mentees made initial contact by e-mail but did not follow up. (Upon being rematched, one mentor then reported a positive experience.) One mentor reported a negative experience. The mentee felt trapped in a job that did not align with their research interests or graduate training. An incredibly competitive job market and family ties prevented them from moving to a different region or pursuing a different kind of job. The mentor suggested a path toward a career in the publishing industry, with examples of how previous students and colleagues had transitioned into this line of work. The conversation ended there and the mentor does not know what steps the mentee may have subsequently taken.
Other participants suggested ways to improve the program. Anne Stevens, a professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, participated in a mentoring program that was organized by the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS), the largest interdisciplinary professional association in the field of eighteenth-century literary studies. In advance of its annual conference, which is attended by scholars at all career stages, ASECS matched faculty members and graduate students for an hour-long conversation. Stevens noted by e-mail that in-person meetings have clear advantages that online mentorships do not. She wrote, “face to face interaction proved useful, and I was able to talk about things the mentees weren’t comfortable talking about with their own faculty advisors,” such as an interest in non-tenure-track jobs and careers outside academia. Stevens also noted that such interaction may not be possible for graduate students and early career scholars who cannot afford to travel to the MLA convention and do not receive support from their departments to do so. The best solution is probably to offer elements of both approaches. For example, one mentor and mentee from our online program have made plans to Skype during the semester and meet in person at the next ASECS conference.
This should not suggest that an informal mentoring program like ours will solve deep-seated problems of power and abuse in graduate education. Mentoring programs that take place outside academic departments may provide help for students at important moments in their careers, but they do not address the root causes of power differentials in PhD programs, many of which are tied to seniority, experience, and celebrated professional accomplishments. One mentor reported that their mentee was grateful to participate in the CLCS 18th-Century program because their adviser did not provide support for the job market or help with professional development. The mentor was surprised and dismayed to hear this. The mentee studies at a prestigious research university, and it seems that the adviser is relying on the reputation of the program to ensure their student’s success on the job market. The student, who is in touch with the realities of a job market in which the MLA Office of Research reports that “competition has increased for what has been a chronically limited supply of tenure-track faculty job opportunities,” did not know how to find support (1; see also “Preliminary Report”).
As this example suggests, the existence of mentoring programs outside a student’s department could reinforce some of the systemic inequalities in higher education by allowing irresponsible behavior by advisers to go unchecked.2 And yet, without such programs, students in the situation described above would be left with few options for support and advice. Perhaps one of the most important benefits of this program is that it introduces PhD students and early career scholars to a variety of professional models and allows them to network with colleagues who work in different kinds of institutions. David Alff, an associate professor of English at University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and member of the CLCS 18th-Century forum executive committee, wrote, “Giving mentors and mentees an occasion to think outside the missions of their home programs not only disperses advisory power across the discipline, but makes all us of more aware of the conditions under which we labor.”
The CLCS 18th-Century mentoring program includes volunteers from private industry and library sciences and faculty members at research institutions and teaching colleges in the United States and abroad. By foregrounding this range of conditions and professional environments, our mentoring program contributes to recent efforts by the MLA to promote career diversity, such as the Mellon-funded project Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers (“Connected Academics”).3 Such efforts are also visible in MLA leadership. The DAOC, for example, draws its faculty members from community colleges, research universities, regional universities, and liberal arts colleges.
Original research that pushes the frontiers of the field is the hallmark of graduate education. And yet, for as much as our profession encourages students to think critically and creatively about their work, we have often endorsed a narrow vision of postgraduate life. Many PhD students feel pressured to pursue tenure-track jobs, even as these positions have become increasingly rare in language and literature departments. Some even feel the need to hide their desire to seek other kinds of employment from advisers who view academic job placements as compensation for years of hard work. A mentorship program run through volunteer labor, both on the part of mentors and forum officers, cannot erase deep legacies of inequity in graduate education. In some cases, volunteer labor may exacerbate existing inequities in higher education, since underrepresented faculty members who are already burdened with heavy service loads, such as female faculty members and faculty members of color, are now performing additional service to the profession—and doing so in a form of service that may or may not be recognized by their home institutions (Rockquemore and Laszloffy). And yet, for all the problems raised by mentoring programs like ours, it is also true that these kinds of collaborations between established academics and early career scholars can help us better understand and appreciate the ways in which power differentials shape our profession. They can also, we hope, help promote policies that seek more equitable distributions of that power.
For feedback on this article and collaboration on the design of the mentorship program, I thank the members of the 2018–20 executive committee of the MLA forum CLCS 18th-Century: David Alff, Paul Kelleher, Natania Meeker, Nicholas Rennie, and Eugenia Zuroski.
1 For an overview of the role of goal setting in successful mentorships, see “Guide” 10.
2 These programs also depend on the goodwill of volunteers at a time when many tenured and tenure-track faculty members are performing more service to departments that are increasingly hiring lecturers and adjunct faculty members. Two colleagues at prominent research institutions said that they were overburdened with service demands in their departments and could not take on mentoring responsibilities for students in other institutions. Natania Meeker, an associate professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California and a member of the CLCS 18th-Century executive committee, noted the need to address these forms of inequity as the mentoring program moves forward. On the disproportionate service demands made of faculty members of color and female faculty members, see Rockquemore and Laszloffy.
3 Other professional associations in the humanities, such as the American Historical Association, have developed similar resources for members regarding career diversity; see “Career Diversity for Historians.”
“Career Diversity for Historians.” American Historical Association, www.historians.org/career-diversity. Accessed 26 Sept. 2019.
“Connected Academics at the 2019 Annual Convention in Chicago.” Connected Academics, Modern Language Association, connect.mla.hcommons.org/mla-convention-activities/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2019.
Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Acknowledging Abuses and Committing to Change.” MLA Newsletter, Winter 2018, p. 2.
“Guide to Best Practices in Faculty Mentoring.” Columbia University Office of the Provost, Aug. 2016.
“Minutes of the MLA Delegate Assembly.” PMLA, vol. 134, no. 3, May 2019, pp. 677–88.
MLA Office of Research. “The Career Paths of Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the 2017 MLA Survey of Doctoral Program Graduates.” Modern Language Association, Aug. 2018, www.mla.org/Resources/Career/Career-Resources/The-Career-Paths-of-Modern-Language-PhDs-Findings-from-the-2017-MLA-Survey-of-Doctoral-Program-Graduates.
“Preliminary Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2017–18.” The Trend: Research and Analysis from the MLA Office of Programs, Modern Language Association, June 2019, mlaresearch.mla.hcommons.org/2019/06/21/preliminary-report-on-the-mla-job-information-list-2017-18/.
Rockquemore, Kerry Ann, and Tracey Laszloffy. “Race, Power, and the Academic System.” The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure—without Losing Your Soul, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2008, pp. 11–29.
Allison Bigelow is an assistant professor of colonial literature in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (U of North Carolina P) in 2020. Her articles on racial categories, Indigenous knowledge production, and gender systems in colonial scientific writing have been published in the journals Anuario de estudios bolivianos, Early American Literature, Early American Studies, Ethnohistory, Extractive Industries and Society, and PMLA.