- Full Catastrophe Mentoring:A Conversation
It was still March when Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic that "a pandemic magnifies all existing inequalities."1 As the four of us corresponded about mentoring through April and into May, the gendered effects for academics were already manifesting in declining journal submissions from women.2 By the time this Living It Out column appears, the ramifications of the pandemic will be better understood, though its full impact will take years to measure. As the conversation below illustrates, however, crises can also present opportunities.
What follows is the result of three rounds of correspondence among four cis women scholars from varied backgrounds at different stages of our professional lives, at varied sorts of institutions, and with divergent professional specializations. Kecia Ali invited contributors, wrote a brief rationale for the roundtable, and composed the initial questions. Julia Watts Belser, Grace Y. Kao, and Shively T. J. Smith responded to these questions—or set them aside to address missing points. Kecia collated their answers, rearranged some of the materials, then recirculated [End Page 107] the draft; the second round of responses included elaborations, clarifications, and responses from Julia, Grace, and Shively. Kecia did another round of editorial work, arriving at something like a full draft, and sent it around again; it appears here with a few tweaks and minor polishing.
It seems to me this is a vital moment for us to think about mentoring, both as we seek to support others and as we reflect on our own limits. For me, all good mentoring involves modeling behavior that you want to see and giving advice tailored to the mentee based on your experience and on the accumulated wisdom of observing and learning from others. Feminist mentoring seeks to interrogate and disrupt oppressive systems and promote just social relations. It requires being clear about one's own fallibility, vulnerability, and humanity; being collaborative and—in certain respects—nonhierarchical; and learning across status differentials. At the same time, feminist mentoring also requires clarity about the presence of power. Since power is always at play, we must be attentive to it and think strategically alongside those we mentor about how to navigate power in academe, as well as power in the mentoring relationship.
Like any other kind of feminist or critical praxis, feminist mentoring is a balancing act: we must find ways to flourish in the unjust world as it is and find ways to transform that world for the better. This is never truer than in the midst of crisis. Catastrophes never affect everyone equally. The current pandemic, and the range of responses we've seen to it, both intensify current inequalities and present some possibilities for transformation. Amid major disruptions to our personal and professional lives, we are also being called on to do caring and mentoring work for our students, junior colleagues, and peers. Let's start this conversation by talking about how we define and practice feminist mentoring.
Feminist mentoring is, simply put, mentoring with a commitment to enacting feminist principles while doing so. This may involve more peer mentoring (on the assumption that learning is not always unidirectional and that your mentee has something to teach you as well) and being cognizant of power differentials that exist: we should not act as if we are "equal" to our students when we have the power to assign them grades and write them letters of recommendations for various opportunities in ways they cannot for us. It may involve us approaching the task of mentoring intersectionally—in other words, naming and addressing the ways in which our mentees' various identities affect the issues and challenges facing them. It may involve mentoring others more holistically as embodied selves with vulnerabilities—not just treating mentees as if they are "brains on a stick."
For me, an important feature of womanist/feminist mentoring is accompanying others in their vocational journeys and professional development. It involves understanding their intellectual story and the "why" of their work, so I can come alongside them, and they...