I’ve had mentorship on the brain lately. Last week, I was at the annual ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference in Washington, D.C.; during the event I took part in not one but two mentoring events. The first was for graduate students, and I participated as a faculty mentor. The second was for mid-career scholars, and I was invited by my colleague (and, in fact, mentor) Tracy C. Davis to sit on the panel that would anchor the event.
I admit I had to blink and read twice when Tracy’s email asking me to take part on the panel came through; I don’t automatically think of myself as senior enough to mentor anyone who identifies as “mid-career”. I think of MYSELF as mid-career! And that’s part of the point, I suspect: at this stage in the game, those of us lucky enough to have won the tenure-job lottery need to take care of one another.
For the mid-career mentorship panel, Tracy asked me to speak briefly about my experience going up for promotion to full professor, something that happened just three years ago. At the time that I was putting my application together I took a sidelong glance at the process here on the blog, in a post about the value of scholarly editing, but it was only in preparing comments for the panel that I really stopped to take stock of what I’d learned going through the promotion process. As a young-ish woman (I was 42 when I earned full) who did not have the slam-dunk, two-monograph, so-called “gold standard” promotion portfolio, I had a slightly tricky time of it, but I persevered.
Why I did, and how I got through it, provided me with valuable lessons in mentorship and support, scholarly responsibility, and self-care that I realized were more than worth sharing.
So I’ll share them again here.
First, some quick context. When I returned to Canada from the UK in August 2014 I had written one scholarly monograph (the book that earned me tenure, which I wish every day I could write again, and better!). I’d co-edited four volumes of essays, all of them award winners. I had another edited volume, solo this time, in the pipeline, and I was just completing a short monograph for students, Theatre & Feminism. I’d written many articles and book chapters – what I’d call a solid number for my discipline – and edited two journal issues. I had great teaching notices. And I’d just contributed to the design and founding of my school’s new Theatre Studies program.
Sounds like a lot, right? Except in my department (English Studies) at my school, something was missing: the second full-length scholarly monograph, that chestnut of a “gold standard”. Never mind that my collaborative work had been at once scholarly and pedagogical, not to mention prize-worthy and with extensive reach. And never mind that my lowly book for students would shortly go on to sell more copies than all my other volumes combined. (I even got an advance for it.)
I knew I might be a “risky” case, but I also knew there was enormous value in my scholarly portfolio and in the ways it crosses over into teaching. I also knew that it would be immeasurably valuable to help set a precedent in my department for alternate routes to full, especially for women and minoritized scholars. I was nervous – nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough, or “not ready yet”, which is what I feared – but I decided to go for it anyway. The years in the UK had been bruising for a long list of reasons, and I was ready for a good shot in the arm, however hard it might be to achieve.
I sat down with my chair at the time, Bryce Traister; Bryce and I had a good chat about the situation, and he offered me unwavering support. He was realistic about possible negative outcomes but never said anything less than: go for it, and I’m behind you.
And that makes lesson #1: find the folks in your corner, both at your university and outside it, in your wider discipline. Locate mentors, locate champions, especially those who currently outrank you. Listen to their advice, and hold fast to their support of you, especially when you doubt yourself.
Round one did not go my way; my department committee felt I needed a contract in hand for the book I was about to write (Theory for Theatre Studies: Space), another mini-monograph for students, in a series I co-edit at Bloomsbury. Heeding Bryce’s advice, I agreed to wait, and then I began to plot.
I sought out another mentor, my longtime friend and colleague Susan Bennett. She helped me map the landscape, and together we brainstormed excellent names for potential external examiners. (At my school, the candidate for promotion offers a list of names to the Dean, who vets and selects final readers.) Because I’d worked with so many of my colleagues on edited books and journal issues over the years, lots of great potential readers had to be ruled out as conflicts of interest; having Susan’s senior, expert eye across the field helped me light on potential examiners I would never have thought of myself.
Susan was terrific not only in this administrative name-gathering exercise, but also as another supporter, champion, and thoughtful interlocutor about the business of promotion. She reminded me of the value of the work I’d done, but also, more importantly, of the need for and value of women with capacity seeking access to the top academic rank, precisely in order to create precedent and make space for those talented young scholars without traditional academic privilege rising after us.
Every new woman Professor in our field shows another woman they can do it; every woman Professor in our field means another female academic available to review tenure and promotion files elsewhere, to sit on major prize committees, to do crucial senior administrative labour that often impacts the lives of graduate students, contract and junior faculty. Of course that’s not to say all women, or only women, support and champion other women, or that men don’t – not at all. But perspectives matter, lived experience matters; for someone like me to have the influence of a top-ranked academic in a major research university means more people who grew up like me might yet get there, because of the example I can now set, and the heft I can place behind it.
Susan and I both come from non-traditional backgrounds (for example, I was the first person in my family, on either side, to go to college), and as a result her advice to me has always touched on mentorship as a lineage and a responsibility. A lot of her advice over the years I’ve banked and paid forward: from offering holistic, work-life balanced advice and support to graduate students, to making the time to write truly detailed and excellent letters of reference for students and junior colleagues, to bearing in mind the immeasurable value of using my profile to bring others into the spotlight whenever I can.
And thus, lesson #2: don’t think your promotion is only about you. Take up this space now, so you can actively help make space for others.
I got my promotion on that second push forward, and after I got the good news I was invited to review the external letters of recommendation in my file. While one was a touch grumpy about the missing “gold standard”, the other two reflected back to me what I had hoped would emerge from my research statement: that I have chosen – actively and consciously – to edit A LOT, to collaborate often with peers, to work hard at my teaching practice and also to write for students, precisely because those paths are scholastically valuable. They are, and should be counted as, no less “scholarly” than choosing to write exclusively, or primarily, traditional monographs for academic audiences.
(One reviewer made a point of singling out my collaborative ethos as crucial to the next generation of theatre scholars in my community; to be honest, that, more than the promotion itself, was the shot in the arm I needed.)
What happened after I got promoted? A funny thing. I began to recognize the freedom it brought me: to focus in my research only on projects I truly care about; to continue to advance my skills in collaborating; to spend more time on service to my university; and (maybe above all) to spend more time living the life I’d put on hold for so long.
I have been for as long as I can remember so focused on keeping the “imposter” gremlins at bay that I think I forgot how much of our careers in academia can, at bottom, be about proving ourselves to ourselves. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s a quite human thing, I suspect – but it’s amplified by the hothouse of a walled meritocracy. We’re always scraping and scrapping – or I was, anyway. Going up for full was an important means for me to prove to myself that I was, indeed, worthy of this place, but once I had the achievement in hand, I was surprised at how humbling it turned out to be. It was time for me to refocus, recalibrate; it was time for me to ask myself what I’m actually doing here, not just in my work, but on this earth.
And that’s lesson the last: the path to promotion may be hard work and stressful in the way that all “tests” are, but for that very reason it can be remarkably enlightening – even revelatory.