- Sonya Michel:Mentor and Mensch1
What does it mean to have a “successful” academic career? This question always haunts us when we are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the demands of being university professors in an era when higher education has become a consumer product that ambitious parents purchase to ensure their children’s entrée into the ever dwindling ranks of the American middle class.
When we are still up at 2:00 am grading papers, correcting page proofs, writing letters of recommendation, doing line edits, reading candidate files, reviewing grant applications, or preparing for the next day’s classes, we sometimes distract ourselves by rereading the commentary in The Washington Post complaining that professors do not work enough hours to justify their salaries.2 When we think of all of the time we did not spend with our children because we were pouring our soul into a peer-reviewed journal article that maybe fifteen people in the world would actually read, we become paralyzed with deep, scholarly nihilism. Since the world thinks that we do not work hard enough anyway, why not just give up on trying to get everything done?
It is in these middle-of-the-night moments that we need to summon the examples of our mentors, among them the remarkable Sonya Michel. It is Sonya’s example that snaps us out of our little festivals of self-pity. “How did she do it?” we ask ourselves, imaging the acrobatic juggling it must have required. It is no wonder that Sonya has spent a considerable part of her academic career working on childcare and issues of maternalism.
It is easy to feel intimidated by Sonya’s track record. She has been the author or co-editor of over ten books and was a co-founder of Social Politics. She has taught at prestigious research institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Maryland at College Park. Sonya has held numerous grants and fellowships and served as the Director of U.S. Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But perhaps even more important than all this, Sonya has been a role model to several generations of scholars following in her intellectual footprints.
In the almost thirty years that Sonya has been an academic, she has had a tremendous impact both intellectually and personally in the lives of countless [End Page 276] colleagues, students, and mentees. As the essays included in the special issue attest, her interdisciplinary work has shaped scholarly conversations across history, anthropology, comparative politics and gender, and women’s studies. But there is also an amazing person behind the corpus of her scholarship: a committed feminist who had her first two children when she was twenty-one and twenty-three years old, and her third when she was almost forty. After all of that maternal labor (if you can pardon the pun), Sonya Michel earned her Ph.D. in History when she was forty-four then sailed her way through tenure and promotion to full professor even as she became a grandmother—four times. At the time of this writing, her eldest grandchild was old enough to be a student in one of Sonya’s own history classes and Sonya was hard at work on a new multinational research project. Slowing down is not part of her vocabulary.
Senior academic mentors are not easy to come by, and in our experience Sonya is among the best. In these brief reflections, we both want to share how important Sonya Michel has been to our own scholarly careers and how we have come to understand intellectual leadership.
In the summer of 1991 I arrived in Champaign-Urbana bright eyed and bushy tailed, a newly minted graduate student ready to take on all the big questions of East European historiography under the guidance of Keith Hitchins at University of Illinois. I was sure of my interest in nationalism and wanted to work on Transylvania and the post-World War I period, a thinly veiled autobiographical obsession. Over the following six months I had my butt intellectually kicked numerous times...