Timing and Hearing

Before tackling Casie’s list of questions listed in my “Staying and Going” post and making my own decisions about academia, some of which may be more public than the rest, I’d like to consider the other side of the activist mentoring equation, the student.

Although it is difficult now to remember, I was once an MA student trying to decide whether or not to continue on into a PhD program. I’d come south to find an MA program that would also provide me with community college teaching experience, because I thought that was what I wanted to do. Like my mentor from community college, I thought I could be happy teaching at a CC by day and doing community theatre at night. A couple of things happened a long the way that made me question that idea. I started teaching at a cc and I started learning more about composition. I still wanted to teach, but I was no longer sure I wanted to pursue the cc track. I was also no longer sure an MA would be enough on the cc track. As I participated in a “Facutly-in-Training” program at the local community college, the English department announced a TT position, and I got an inside look at the application process. Sure enough, although the ad said the magic words “Ma required” those were quickly followed by “PhD preferred,” and of course the position went to someone with a PhD. I began to understand that, even though the PhD is a “research” degree, I would need it if I wanted to pursue a “teaching” career. Consequently, when the DGS called me in for an advising meeting and said, “Hey! You could graduate this semester,” I kind of freaked out. With only an MA, I knew without a doubt that I would end up an adjunct. Plus, I felt like I wasn’t done learning yet. Naturally, I turned to my favorite professor for advice.

Here you need some context.

The best words to describe my favorite professor were mercurial, cantankerous, and gloomy. Those might sound like odd words to describe a mentor, but really … when she was “on,”she pushed and expected the best of you, and you wanted to give it to her. She was also brutally honest about the academy, the market, and not staying where I was for my Ph.D. work. Here’s the thing. I heard every word she said, and I considered it, but then I continued, and I stayed. Not because I thought the market was getting any better. I stayed because I knew I would need the degree, because, as loose as it was, I had a network in place, and because she was there. The good news … I have the degree and my network of friends and family only grew during my Ph.D. work. The bad news, just before my comps that favorite professor of mine left, leaving a hole in my committee that didn’t get permanently filled until I started writing about writing centers.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with several graduate students, and I would say I’ve been a mentor to a couple of them. One has chosen to go on to do her PhD work. Without being as gloomy as my mentor, I did my best to ask her the tough questions, and paint an accurate picture of graduate school and the professions. I challenged her with some of the questions in yesterday’s list. Still, she’s half-way through her first semester of a PhD program. Yes, this is just one of the ways I see myself in her. However, having been through it all now, I think there is something else at play as well. I think that even the best advice has to come at the right time, because there are points in time when we are just incapable of really hearing/processing it. Some experiences, I think we just have to have.

Of course this doesn’t change the need for more activist mentoring, because for stubborn person like me (or my former consultant), there are students who need to be asked the tough questions. Students, who will use the answers to make informed decisions, and hopefully won’t end up at the end of a PhD program feeling as if they’ve been bamboozled.

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