How to Build a Professional “Dream Team”
December 8, 2012
Today I had a great conversation with one of my mentors. Sitting outside the Looking Glass Café in Carrboro, NC, sipping coffee and tea, we discussed the progress of our current book projects. After marveling at the 64-degree December weather and expressing gratitude for the time and space to think and write afforded by our respective research fellowships, we talked about the life of an academic. We agreed that the collegial chats and intellectual debates that we’ve enjoyed with colleagues while on sabbatical underscore the best parts of this vocation: the excitement, energy, dynamism, and creativity of pursuing a life of the mind. We also agreed that such experiences are profoundly rejuvenating, considering we’ve chosen a profession that entails such intense and ongoing scrutiny—of scholarship, teaching and service, as well as bureaucratic work. I truly appreciate these conversations with senior professors who are willing to be open and honest about their own experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly and the brilliant—because I’ve found that good advice from the right mentor with the right energy reinforces my own sense of purpose, as an educator and as a human being. In turn, this essay offers suggestions for building your own “dream team” of mentors—a cadre of senior scholars, colleagues and friends who help guide you through a variety of professional development issues and stages throughout your career. (Please note, this blog post is not digital humanities-centric; it’s intended for any academic, regardless of discipline, who might find it useful).
The most important characteristic that my mentors have in common is they are good listeners and they have mastered the art of giving concrete advice in a calm, positive tone. For instance, which sounds better? Get your act together, or else! OR Perhaps you could refine your main argument in this article by doing X, Y and Z. Unless you’re a sadomasochist, let us agree that we prefer the latter approach. The delivery is just as important as the message. If an adviser respectfully listens and actively considers your ideas, your strengths and your interests, that is a good sign. Anyone who offers advice in a vague, dogmatic or malicious tone, implying the proverbial “It’s my way or the highway,” should cause you to reconsider whether that person is a good fit for your dream team. One of my mentors who has a knack for clear, “big picture,” forward thinking sums this up nicely: Figure out whether the person is trying to be helpful or hurtful. Keep the helpful people in your corner and steer clear of the negative energy. I’ve found this to be sage advice. Because a career in academia entails so many levels of ongoing criticism, it’s important to surround yourself with mentors who offer solid advice from a place of centeredness and optimism. This is the difference between mentors and “tor-mentors." Tor-mentors deluge mentees with overwhelming (often unsolicited) advice tainted by their own anxieties and fears. In contrast, good mentors speak from a position of productive self-awareness—often sharing examples from their own careers, to help the mentee arrive at her own conclusions.
Good mentors see you as a holistic person and live their own lives fully. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard graduate students or junior professors express reluctance to share their passion for playing a certain sport, creating art, pursuing a career in public education (i.e., reaching an audience outside of academe), or simply hosting a dinner party, for fear that their advisors might conclude they’re not “serious” scholars. Call me idealistic, but I believe, in the most Zen sense, you should bring all of this to the path of education. I think we do our best intellectual work when we are attuned to nurturing our holistic selves. One senior scholar whom I’ve found particularly inspiring has shown me, by example, that it’s possible to do good work while living a balanced life—spending quality time with family and friends, taking time to walk, go biking, travel, etc. I still recall the words of this adviser when she spoke on a mentoring panel at an academic conference years ago; she said sometimes senior professors become so beleaguered with the challenges of academe that they forget to show graduate students the joys of this profession. I could not agree more. When one of my peers asked me for advice regarding her own reservations with this profession, I responded with similar advice (inflected with my own daughter-of-a-preacherman sensibility): don’t let anyone steal your joy. Happy people produce meaningful work.
I also have observed that mentors who view themselves and others in holistic terms usually have a good sense of humor. This is not surprising, because I think humor and creativity are the highest forms of intellectual expression. I still laugh when I recall one mentor’s response to my complaints about sharing an office with a difficult office mate. He told me that “back in the day” he shared an office with at least three other professors, one of whom had an unpleasant disposition and practically lived there. So, the other office mates decided to smoke cigars indoors to “encourage” the disagreeable one to curb his office hours; their tactic worked. In addition to making me laugh, this anecdote, conveyed by such an accomplished, senior professor, helped me put my own experience in proper perspective. In any work environment, personality conflicts are inevitable; so, the most important thing is to be prepared to approach these issues with a good attitude, and yes, even a sense of humor.
This process of identifying your dream team of mentors who possess good listening skills and the right energy takes time and “effortless effort” (to borrow another Buddhist principle). Because mentoring is a gradual process and a two-way street, experience has taught me that the most helpful mentor relationships develop organically over the course of several years. Given enough time, the right mentor gains your trust and vice versa. It’s also helpful to have a variety of mentors for different needs. This not only ensures that you don’t overburden any one mentor, but it also enables you to receive the best possible advice on any given topic. Whether writing a dissertation chapter, designing a digital humanities project, navigating institutional politics or negotiating a job offer, good advice from the right mentor with the right energy is “money in the bank,” both figuratively and, sometimes, literally.
Keep in mind, my advice on mentoring is intended to be instructive, not proscriptive. (Hey, I don’t want to be a hypocrite!) I understand that we all have different personalities shaped by our own, unique professional and interpersonal biographies; so, the same mentoring style that I might find off putting, another junior professor might find motivating. The most important thing is finding good mentors who empower you to take positive action toward achieving your professional goals.
***I’d like to give a “shout out” to all of the mentors/colleagues/friends whom I held in mind while writing this blog post: Stan Katz, Liz Lunbeck, Imani Perry, Melville McKay, Randal Jelks, Gwen Etter-Lewis, Madelyn Detloff, Steve Norris, Drew Cayton, Charles Price and Bill Ferris.
Tammy L. Brown is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and Assistant Professor of Black World Studies and History at Miami University of Ohio (on research leave). She is currently working on a manuscript titled City of Islands: West Indian Immigrants in New York in which she explores how West Indian religious and political leaders and artists used their work to challenge racism throughout the twentieth century.