A fundamental part of our role in academia, formally or informally, is mentorship. Although rarely trained in what that means (either as a mentee or a mentor) it is a crucial piece of how we move through academia. With increasing recognition about the role of mentorship in our careers I’d like to share some starting points for improving your mentoring of minoritized students. For those of us who find themselves minoritized in some ways but not others - these are still incredibly important.
There is an ongoing conversation about how we can do better in roles as mentors. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has written very clearly on the consequences of the failings of appropriate leadership and mentorship. In particular, I’d love for you to take this on as your mentor-theme: “Advising is about helping people get to their dream life”. What an incredible task, no? I asked on Twitter for people to share with me some of their experiences where things had gone wrong (and right too).
One of the key things to remember - Intent is not impact. If that is not a phrase you’ve heard before, take a little time to consider it. We can forget that no matter how good our intentions, we might still be doing more harm than good. Especially when it comes to catchphrases like “diversity” and inclusion it is worth taking the time to think about what success looks like. What metrics do you use to judge the success of your intents and actions? Who will you hold yourself accountable to?
The first piece of (pre)advice is less for individuals mentoring, but for institutions, organizations, and departments. HIRE MINORITIZED PEOPLE. Hire people of color. Hire people with disabilities. Hire queer people. (These categories often overlap! This is not bingo, so “one of each” is not a solution. We see you, checkbox “diversity” departments.) Be aware of these many axes of privilege. When you hire, you are building a community. You are deciding not only what topic of study or skills a hire brings, but also what kind of community they will create. Seeing a piece of ourselves in our mentors is important. Use hiring as the opportunity it is.
Reminder: These are meant to be starting places, guides, and inspiration. Perhaps the best piece of advice is to remember that we’re all people, our identities have influenced us in a variety of ways, and treating our mentees with respect is the most crucial starting place.
This is an amalgam of input from a wonderful group of folks on twitter and elsewhere. Thanks to Fenella Saunders (@fenellasaunders), Gabi Serrato Marks (@gserratomarks), Alan Au (@alan_au), M.S.Hoecker-Martínez (@msmithma), Tim Brown (@keyofnight), Rachael Beaton (@rareflwr41), Krys (@Wimsy113), Katherine Pratt (@GattaKat). I am grateful for the generous input and conversation, and my thinking on many topics including this one are shaped by the community found on Twitter.
#0: Expand your network & knowledge. Find university & community organizations to support your students (NSBP (National Society for Black Physicists), NSHP (National Society for Hispanic Physicists), SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science)). Do some trainings outside your areas of knowledge. Many universities have “Safe Zone” trainings to support the queer community (Here is an interesting online resource if yours doesn't.). Many universities offer trainings to identify and support students experiencing domestic and/or relationship based violence. Many community groups offer anti-racism training. Do them. Become a trainer. Offer to train your department. Do these things before you have a student in your office in crisis. Be familiar with the mental health services on campus and learn what to do if a student is struggling.
#0.5: Go read this piece (second in a 2 part series. Heck, go read them both). I think it will save everyone a lot of suffering.
#0.5: Go read this piece (second in a 2 part series. Heck, go read them both). I think it will save everyone a lot of suffering.
#1: Listen. Your students will have problems, questions, and challenges you do not recognize. Do not dismiss them. Do not try to be a therapist. Please do not tell them to “push through” or whatever your pat “Please stop freaking out in my office” response is. Do not tell them a story about the good old days, and how hard things were, and how soft people are now. Believe them. Do not try to tell them how they are experiencing their life wrong. If they want, help them find resources. See #0 above. Be familiar with the resources your students might need. It isn’t your job to be all people and all things, but know your institution and community. (And yes, I get it, your urge to fix it, or to make excuses. Recognize that urge, and suppress it. It does an incredible amount of harm.)
#2: Your community/cultural guides are not the only ones. Interrogate the ways you evaluate your students. This comes out in a lot of ways - Do you use “excitement” or “interactivity” as a way to judge your students interest in a topic? What does that really mean? Realize that your students come from many different backgrounds and that shapes how they interact with you as their teacher or mentor. Our current way of doing business in academia is shaped by a very Westernized version of interactions. Be mindful. When you’re looking for undergraduates, how do you select them? Recognize that neurodiversity is real. Diversify measures of success where you can. Open a conversation about expectations, with an awareness of all the cultural baggage you’re carrying (and the cultural baggage your student has that you might not recognize or understand). This is also a place where we sometimes go wildly astray. For example, many "Women in Science" events slip into focusing on issues of family and childrearing. Spoiler alert: There are women & femme presenting people who are not interested in having children. There are people super stoked about babies who are not femme presenting.
#3: Recognize and confront racism. Racism is an undercurrent through our entire society, so please do not think it is not happening in your classroom or lab. If you find trends developing in your group or class based on race, look to yourself and your biases and expectations. Time and time again studies have shown the damage in particular that white teachers do to black students. Disrupt this. Students are keenly aware of the stereotypes carried by society. You can do your part to disrupt this every time you interact with them. When teachers remind students of negative stereotypes before exams, students do less well. In physics in particular, there is a strong tradition of “gate keeping”. Gatekeeping is extremely efficient in passing through white cishet men. Don’t gate keep. Let your students know that you see society (and its failings) and that you see them, and you see them as successful scientists. Minoritized students are often asked, silently and loudly, to balance competing identities. Do not be another person asking students to leave themselves (their identity, their upbringing, themselves) at the door as a sacrifice on the alter of science. We are stronger when we bring our whole selves to our endeavors.
#4: (Sometimes) it is ok to ask respectful questions. Before you ask, do your research. We are, by training, researchers. Respect your students enough to do the “101” learning ahead of time. I do not expect you to be instantly fluent, but that knowledge will help you shape questions that are supportive rather than intrusive. See #0. It is better to ask good questions than to make bad assumptions. (But also? If your student clearly is not interested in sharing? Stop.) (Side note - I am cautious about listing this, because honestly y’all I know how bad you can do here. But a student in particular mentioned how meaningful this was to her. Your students trust you. Do right by them.) Please refer back to #0.5 repeatedly before even consider this one.
#5: Do the work of challenging your biases. We all have them. What do you assume when a returning veteran student comes to your office to figure out their life? How old do you assume graduate students “should” be? When you are hiring (for summer jobs, grad students, postdocs) are you excluding people based on biases rather than facts? Does hearing that your prospective student is a parent influence the way you consider they might progress? Do you assume something about your student’s background based on their race? Meet students where they are, not where you assume they should be.
#6: Build community. Some bridge programs have done a great job of starting to model what this can look like, including introducing "mentor webs" to create strong support systems for students. I believe strongly that academia is not in most instances a solitary endeavor and we would do better to acknowledge it. Communities have values. What is the value system of your department? Of your community association? Are they articulated and clear? Are they values you believe in? Do you feel like your students could turn to your colleagues and feel protected and valued? If not, what can you do to fix that?
#7: Support many career paths. Our students are individuals. They have many reasons for being in our departments and classes, and many paths will take them away. It is overwhelming to think we are somehow training for every job on the planet. That’s fine, don’t think of that. But also recognize that academia is not the only path (or even our primary one, statistically), and by the nature of our field many of the students that come our way will be something other than professional astrophysicists. Let’s value the broad range of skills required in our lines of work - the teaching, the outreach, the research. Let’s train our students how to figure out what they love to do, and help them connect with people who are doing that work. Sure, some of them will take the academic path. But external mentors can be a powerful tool in helping our students decide what their futures look like. This also ties into #5 - our students come from many paths too, not just the high school/college/grad school straight through. This can vastly change how they approach shaping their life. While we are at it - Value the professionals in your department doing the many jobs and professional paths that make our day work. How does your department employ adjuncts? Are they treated fairly? Do you have an outreach staff? Are they an integral part of your department? What about research scientists? Demonstrate to your students what fairness really looks like. (Side note - Treat your administrators with respect. I can not tell you how many departments I’ve been in where a significant fraction of the faculty were incredibly rude or downright abusive to administrators. No. They are an integral part of our community and our work, and you would be smart to recognize that.) Creating a culture of respect is wide reaching.
#8: Listen. Yeah, I’m going to list listen twice. I think it is that important. Many students relate stories of feeling isolated when they go to a mentor or advisor and the response is so alien that it confirms their fears - That they don’t belong. I had an incredible experience in grad school where a professor who I never had a lot of contact with - not on my committee, not teaching a class - helped when I was struggling in a class he was expert in. I went to him for help, and unexpectedly fell apart. Burst into tears, the whole nine yards. I had some other things going on. He was incredibly supportive. He did not freak out. He did not push me. He let me fall apart, he helped me, and that was that. I will be forever grateful that in that moment he was so professional and so human simultaneously. He did not tell me how I was doing my life wrong, or doing physics wrong.
Some other reading: I’ve been doing some writing on ways we can rethink relationships between mentors & students. Chanda has done a lot of work in this area including this piece which exposes the consequences of us not lifting our weight for our mentees, and our colleagues who are minoritized in our cultures and in our community of academia. This recent criticism of “Rock Stars” in tech fields has many extremely strong analogs in academia and is well worth a read as we think about how to build academia in a healthy way. This article is an entire chapter on neurodiversity in higher ed teaching of mathematics.
*I use minoritized here rather than minority to make explicit the social action involved in minoritization, rather than the passive “minority” implying some inherent state of affairs. We actively create a culture that elevates a particular world view and experience to the detriment of everyone who falls outside of it. The work to undo this approach is in our hands.