Academic Mentorship in the Zoom Era: The AC Survival Guide Continues!

Dear Kim,

Happy belated International Women’s Day!

One year ago, I was sitting in a bar in Toronto, having beers with a friend. We were chatting waiting for food when my eye was drawn to a TV hoisted in the top corner of the room. The news ticker announced that the University of Toronto was temporarily shutting its doors due to COVID-19.

Like watching a wave roll onto the beach, I stared at the TV – intrigued, confused, a little nervous: one by one, the universities closed.

COVID-19 in Canada: Virtual Town Hall | CBC News special - YouTube
A television program that could not have existed on CBC a year ago.

That night was the last time I was in a bar.

Shifts in mentorship haven’t been a major talking point in pandemic-academic (pancademic, anyone?) circles. But the structures of mentoring have taken a major hit this year.

Mentors and mentees have been enveloped in a cloud of increased labour, affecting everything from availability and scheduling to emotional space. Virtual conferences curtail chatting between sessions or at events, making it hard to maintain or forge informal connections. One-on-one meetings are relegated to zoom or the phone, adding a formal and time-sensitive element to conversations, both official and casual.

All of this adds up to loss: of intellectual growth, of professional development opportunities, of community building, of human connections.

A lot of us are feeling the effects of this loss. I miss being able to meet with mentors in person. I miss forging connections at conferences. I miss humans that aren’t in my “bubble.”

But, when I reflect on the year, I am also struck by the mentorship opportunities that have emerged: an increase in free, widely available, online sessions with high profile speakers, hosted by artistic and academic communities; the generosity of colleagues who have noticed a new face on a zoom call and reached out via email to offer “zoom dates” or resources; friends who have slid in to co-mentorship roles, wherein parties of similar rank and experience discuss professional development and mentor each other in areas of strength.

Which brings me to my question for the week: As the dust of the pandemic starts to settle, where do you think scholarly mentorship is headed? Where would you like it to head? Is there anything we can take with us from this strange time? Anything we should leave behind?

– Kelsey

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Dear Kelsey,

A year ago, I was on a VIA train, heading home from my Thursday teaching at Western (in London, ON) to my home in the Hamilton area. We were somewhere between Brantford and Aldershot, rocking along through the still-cold winter night, when a text came through on my phone. Western was going virtual for the remainder of the semester.

VIA Rail cancelling all Canadian trips until further notice | Urbanized
Train riding, a novelty of the past (and future?)

That was the last time I was on a train, the last time I performed my otherwise-routine commute.

The question you pose is one I’ve been thinking a lot about: what should we bring with us from the pandemic world to improve our academic labour in the future? (Assuming this pandemic ends anytime soon… and I’m a bit skeptical, to be honest.) What should we leave behind? I read a piece recently that argued we need to bring back in-person office hours (yes, agreed), and in-person department meetings (REALLY??). But that feels like the tip of the iceberg to me.

Let’s start with the mentorship piece you raise.

I’m more often than not a mentor, rather than a mentee, now that I’m mid-career and fairly senior at my school. I feel the many stressors of this time that you so aptly highlight: I don’t like Zoom meetings very much, and I find sitting and talking for a set period of time, through screens, with my ongoing bad-lighting-weird-shadows Zoom issues constantly distracting me, really agitating. (THANK YOU for the “hide self view” tip btw – SO GREAT!!)

So I’ve begun strategizing around how to make the experience better, less Zoom-y, and I’ve decided to implement a new strategy: NO VIDEO.

This is an extension of my already-popular “Zoom dog walks,” in which I take office hours while walking Emma the Dog, using my nice new noise-canceling headphones. I head for a local park, minimizing sidewalk distractions, and when the weather is nice we just sit on a bench for the chat.

Following the lead of Emma the dog, as ever.

No video is a requirement for these walks, more often than not, and I’ve found that my mental landscape opens when I’m talking and looking around me, at the world, rather than at a screen. (We already know Zoom is a deadening environment, on purpose – our affect is flattened and often digitally edited, making creativity, for me anyway, harder on Zoom.)

A couple of weeks ago I tested this IRL: I held a student meeting (part lesson, part mentoring session) in person, and we did social-distance walkies with Emma while discussing the relationship between theatre and history. We couldn’t look at each other (SOCIAL DISTANCING) and so we looked ahead, behind, around; again, I felt the warmth of the sun and the attention I was paying to my footfalls a helpful way to expand my thinking. My brain was wandering, in a good way.

COVID-19 pandemic: Tips to remain 'sane and safe' during social distancing  | 2020-03-18 | Safety+Health Magazine

Colleagues in other fields, who have to Zoom even more than we do (I KNOW CAN YOU IMAGINE AAGGHHH), tell me that no video is increasingly the norm for their work – nobody can tell if you’re stretching on a yoga mat, lying on the floor looking at the ceiling (or the sky), or multitasking (ok, so maybe I don’t advocate this, but… sometimes it’s a thing. #departmentmeetings). There’s freedom – including freedom to think, to be in the moment, to move in and out of the moment as needed.

So, back to your question.

What I want to take with me, from the mentoring landscape of COVID, is just this: voices in my ears, my attention wandering just enough to spark creativity, and my body moving, gently, to help light that spark. This can happen on the phone, on Skype, on Zoom, on WhatsApp… or in person. It can happen with colleagues around the world, or it can happen with students IRL, walking along the river valley apart-together.

Maybe this is why I yearn for the return of in-person-style office hours, and why I have no interest whatsoever in going back to sitting in a lecture hall for those monthly department meetings.

– Kim

Mentorship at mid-career

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.

Mentorship

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.

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I googled “getting promoted” and clicked on “images”. I’ve picked a few that I found most inspiring.

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.

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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.)

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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.