I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role mentorship has played in my life and career, about those who have served as formal and informal or unofficial mentors for me, and also about those for whom I’ve tried to serve as mentor. It’s a complicated set of relationships, but one I think is of enormous importance to the work we do and the values we hold.
I don’t remember having a mentor in middle or high school. I had a *very* strange set of teachers in middle school, one of whom—our math teacher—was taken out of the classroom one day by school officials as he ranted and raved (we never saw him again) and another of whom—our Latin teacher—I was absolutely terrified. In high school, I had a chemistry teacher who was famous for raising knots on recalcitrant students’ arms with her “Nesbitt knocks” and an English teacher who talked to us at great length about her year as a debutante and her deep love for what she called the “old south.” No mentors there.
In college, however, I had one fabulous mentor, a Humanities teacher from whom I took several courses. He invited me to office hours and eventually to his home where he and his wife helped me make up summer reading lists to help fill in the gaps of my knowledge of British and American literature. In graduate school, I was most grateful for the mentorship of Edward P. J. Corbett—and of many of my fellow students: we helped and supported one another throughout grad school, refusing the agonistic culture of many grad programs in which students compete to be “the best.”
During my career, I’ve often experienced a mutual mentoring with students, relationships that seemed to me to be reciprocal: we mentored each other, often in truly meaningful and remarkable ways. And of course I have tried very hard to be a mentor, especially to women and students of color, or to any student I sensed was struggling. I hope I’ve been helpful, that I’ve respected and carried out the inspired and inspiring motto of the National Association of Colored Women, “Lifting as We Climb.”
I also take every opportunity to celebrate great mentors, and our field of rhetoric and writing studies has many. Last year, The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition award its second Lisa Ede Mentoring Award to Penn State’s Cheryl Glenn. And this year, the Rhetoric Society of America presented its third Cheryl Geisler Award for Outstanding Mentor to Texas Christian’s Richard Enos. I attended both of these award ceremonies, and over the years I have spoken with many, many students who spoke passionately about the support they had received from Glenn, Enos, and other mentors. These conversations stay with me, reinforcing my conviction that mentoring can change lives and can sometimes save lives.
Yet there’s no section on CVs devoted to mentorship; there’s usually little or no consideration of mentorship in tenure and promotion proceedings. Most of this work is “extra,” added on to everything else a scholar/teacher is supposed to do. I’d love to see some changes in the way we evaluate candidates for tenure and promotion, and would love to see mentoring recognized and valued more than it is. In the meantime, I will be at every mentoring award ceremony I possibly can, to acknowledge and to celebrate the individuals who give so much to so many.
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