Privilege and Mentoring

I have spent 34 years in the academy as a professor in research universities. I think I have learned a lot along the way, insights into what it takes to be a successful faculty member, to earn tenure, to be fully promoted.  Insights that  I can share to help others be successful.

I started this blog to share perspectives on successful paths to promotion and tenure.  It is part of my official role in the university to see if I can help others navigate this journey.   If you have read other entries in this blog, it should be apparent that I feel that transparency is important, such as using rubrics to establish clear standards.

To travel this path without clear guides and mentoring,  seems to me to be more like walking a tightrope in the fog.   A very difficult balancing act with each step, no visible net below, and no clear notion of whether or not you are close to your desired destination.

I know that my experiences are the product of privilege.  I did not grow up in a wealthy family, and without the GI bill following my military service it would have been difficult to complete my education.   Yet, I am a white, heterosexual, male.   In the academy, that means that I had many benefits, occupying an advantaged position on the matrix of privilege.

Did I accomplish what I have because of some combination of ability and hard work?   Yes, I do think I earned what I have accomplished.  But, did my privilege make it easier to accomplish whatever I have than it would be for others who do not share these advantages?  For at least some contexts, the response is clear.  Absolutely!

Recently, while reading the essay Peculiar Benefits, in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, I came across this:

“You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”

When I read this, it helps me think of my limitations as a mentor.   I can be aware that being a woman, a new mother, a sexual minority, a faculty of color, all come with additional challenges, barriers and prejudices.   I can try, in my administrative roles, to provide resources to address impacts that I can see and to facilitate preventative measures  where possible.  But, I cannot really know.  And, because of that, I cannot be the most effective mentor in addressing some challenges that faculty in these other contexts face.

It takes me back to Kerry Anne Rockquemore’s notion of a network approach to mentoring, creating a “mentoring map”.   I can cover some areas of that map very well.  I would be woefully inadequate in addressing others – particularly those that map onto areas where my privilege is not present.   My privilege does not negate the merits of what I have to say.   But I cannot be a “mentoring guru”.

In my next post I will begin to explore resources that we can use to work together, from multiple positions within and outside of our institutions, to build the kinds of mentoring maps that support all pre-tenure faculty, regardless of where they are positioned in the complex matrix of privilege in the academy.

We may not be able to make the pre-tenure journey feel like less of a tightrope walk,  but we should at least be able to lift the fog for everyone involved.

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