Lindsay Naylor, UDARI Faculty Fellow Project Update

Posted on July 22, 2021 at: 11:30 am

Anti-assimilationist Mentoring Plan

Sub-committee chair: Deconstructing Syllabi

The education system in the United States puts Black, Indigenous, and people of color into what Love names “perpetual survival mode” (2019: 39). The academy and sites of higher education are institutions imbued with power and privilege. The character of success at the university is presented as benign meritocracy, yet in practice, women, and members of the BIPOC community are often excluded. There is a long history of exclusion and lack of support for these groups and those who do have a measure of success in the academy are often forced to adapt or assimilate to a structure that was not built for them. Moreover, for graduate students at predominantly white institutions may be difficult to find a mentor that they see themselves represented in, as the exclusion and underrepresentation of BIPOC faculty remains pervasive. This situation creates a twofold problem: first, graduate students may not establish a strong mentoring relationship that allows them to feel integrated into their program (see: McCallum 2020); and, second, students may end up merely surviving their program, rather than thriving. There are greater structural issues that must be addressed at all levels of the university, and multiple approaches will be necessary. One approach that can be put into practice immediately is considering how we mentor graduate students who are from groups, which have been continuously excluded and are underrepresented in our disciplines. Here, I offer a series of suggestions, including how to better understand student experiences and what steps to take in mentoring practices, which may allow for breaking out of the assimilationist model imposed by the university and considering additional options for mentoring students to be their full selves.

This guide was written as part of a University of Delaware Anti-Racism Initiative Fellowship and is geared in particular to anti-assimilationist practices around race; however, much of this can be re/considered or configured as it relates to gender identity and disability and how we can work with students from many different backgrounds to be successful in the academy. Acknowledging power dynamics and the differences in student experiences can be a way to create trust between a mentor and mentee. The first step is to see them first as a student.

Drawing from and/or adapting the resources provided below, this guide is written to be flexible and provide a starting point for:
(1) thinking about how the academy is built and for whom, and
(2) how to work with graduate students in a way that allows them to be their full selves and to thrive.
The goal here is to think beyond diversity and toward equitable inclusion. Diversity and inclusion without attention to equity are models for assimilation and adaptation.

First steps
– Utilize resources that examine and explain systemic racism and the experiences of underrepresented faculty and students in the academy; learn about allyship and the work of coconspirators, as well as anti-racism; simultaneously, learn about the joy and resilience of BIPOC academics
– Learn about the demographics of your discipline and about historical exclusion or inclusion of certain groups
– Take a close look at whose work you promote in your classes and in the comprehensive or qualifying exams processes and consider how to make them more inclusive if needed; and address head-on any work that is canonical, but published by someone whose biography demonstrates racism as part of their personal or professional lives
– Think about your mentoring/advising strategies—are they part of a ‘one size fits all’ model? Be willing to amend your strategies
– Advocate for holistic admissions processes and professional development programming that values the heterogeneous character of people in the academy
– Advocate for the hiring of BIPOC faculty and concrete measures of support to welcome, affirm, and retain these members of the academic community
– Take stock of your own position, privilege and power
– Be willing to take risks, experience discomfort, and make and learn from mistakes
– Consider and treat graduate students as colleagues
– Think about how to be present (e.g. are you in your office often? Can you keep your door open, even if just on certain days or designated times? Do you attend department events?)

Practices you might adopt in consultation with your mentee
These practices should be discussed ahead of time with the mentee and could be implemented in part or in stages as the student becomes accustomed to the work they are doing.
– Doing an intake interview with new mentees; send them the questions ahead of time and gauge their level of comfort with discussing such topics with their advisor (adapted from ATN 2020: 8)
o What can you tell me that helps me better understand you as a person?
o How can I be the best mentor for you?
o How can our department be a place where you feel seen, valued, and excited to develop research and teaching skills?
o What matters most to you outside the academy?
o How can I support you mentally and emotionally?
o Can you think of a time when you felt you weren’t being heard or your voice was undervalued? Discuss.

– Bringing these discussions to faculty meetings
o How can we make our graduate admissions processes more holistic?
o How can we best support our graduate students as a department?
o Are there ways we can adjust our program and/or curriculum to divest from structural oppressions present in the academy?
o What programming can we make available to train faculty, staff, and students about anti-racism and equitable inclusion?
o What development work can we do that can bring financial resources for graduate students (e.g. funding to cover: fees; travel to conferences, research travel or tools, raise stipends)

– Consider a mentoring team in the case of racial mismatch between yourself and your mentee(s); consult with the student about their comfort level with this approach
o Learn about “othermothering” (McCallum 2020), which is a practice of care that has historical ties to enslavement in the U.S. and has been re-appropriated in academic settings to describe the forging of bonds in mentoring relationships
o Work with students to identify additional faculty members who they feel represented by
o Provide resources for regular mentoring team meetings between the student and their mentoring team (e.g. small stipend, or covering the cost of lunch)

– Demonstrate care in your regular research advising meetings
o Ask students specific or targeted questions about their day/week/weekend—instead of relying on “how are you,” which is general; utilize others’ best practices such as: “On a scale of 1 to 10 how’s your day going?” And is there anything you as mentor can do to bring that number up? (see: Lythcott-Haims 2021).
o Be transparent (e.g. talk about your role as a faculty member beyond being a teacher/advisor; discuss things that are happening in the department; as comfort-level allows, share something collegial and appropriate about yourself)
o Allow the student their full humanity, being a student is just one role in their lives, they may also tell you about the other roles in their life, make a space for this conversation
o Check in on mental health and discuss strategies for self-care
o Set high expectations and provide encouragement as well as space for faltering and taking stock
o Provide positive and critical feedback

– Having regular mentoring check-in meetings (outside of research advising)
o Discuss bigger picture items (e.g. career trajectory, professional development, big ideas, future research, teaching experience, time management, work/life triage)
o Discuss what the student’s goals and expectations are for themselves and make efforts to align with them
o Talk about who or what they admire and why, discuss what gives them inspiration and motivation
o Have them write a letter to themselves about their goals for the academic year that you can give to them at the end of the year

– Provide support for attendance at conferences and spend time facilitating networking with mentees
o Pay for travel and hotel costs in total
o Provide per diem for meals
o Don’t ignore mentees at conferences, pick a session, event, or the exhibit hall to meet up and network; if you happen across a mentee unexpectedly, introduce them to other conference attendees and share what they are working on

Abolitionist Teaching Network (ATN). n.d. “Abolitionist Teaching Network.” Abolitionist Teaching Network. Accessed June 1, 2021.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
———. 2000. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Love, Bettina L. 2019. We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Beacon Press.
Lythcott-Haims, Julie. 2021. “5 Tips.” Julie Lythcott-Haims.
Matthew, Patricia A. 2016. Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. UNC Press Books.
McCallum, Carmen M. 2020. “Othermothering: Exploring African American Graduate Students’ Decision to Pursue the Doctorate.” The Journal of Higher Education 91 (6): 953–76.
Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez y, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris. 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. University Press of Colorado.
NCORE. 2021. Accepted to Assimilate: Implications for Racial Mismatch.
Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda. 2021. The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. New York: Bold Type Books.
Zambrana, Ruth Enid. 2018. Toxic Ivory Towers: The Consequences of Work Stress on Underrepresented Minority Faculty. Rutgers University Press.
“Code-Switching and Assimilation in STEM Culture.” n.d. Eos. Accessed July 29, 2021.