Yesterday as I was chatting on Facebook (yes, I do that) with a faculty member at a different institution than my own. He’s brand new on the tenure-track at a research university. In addition, he is African American at a traditionally White institution and as such, most likely has to contend with additional pressures. I don’t know this man well, but had been introduced to him by a mutual friend. As we were chatting, he expressed concern over balancing teaching and research. I immediately switched into mentoring mode, offering advice on which journals to approach, how to limit the time spent on prepping classes, and how to carve out writing time during the academic year. His response: “You don’t even know me very well. Why are you being so generous with your time?”
My immediate response was “Because someone mentored me; in fact several people mentored me.” One of these individuals was Asa Hilliard. Asa was a larger than life figure, but never too large to spend time with young people. I remember when I was a new, nervous faculty member with a small child in a strange city, Asa welcomed me to the department and welcomed my family. He embraced me as a scholar and person. This amazing intellectual would get down on the floor at eye level with my daughter and make her giggle — such humanity and care in someone who could have chosen to just go about his work or worse yet, bask in his ego. Instead, Asa mentored and gave the best advice: stay out of office politics, rise above petty academic jealousy, and swallow your pride when necessary. These are lessons that I think about daily and that I pass on to my own students and mentees.
All too often, once we reach a comfortable level of success in the academy, we forget about those who are coming after us into the profession. I have been told countless stories by Ph.D. students about how they approached a faculty member and were rebuffed. I have been told the same stories by young faculty members who approached those senior scholars they admire. I know that people are busy, but there is always enough time to answer a quick question, to lend an ear, and to provide mentoring to future faculty members. What is most disturbing to me about the rebuffs I mentioned is that quite often the person telling me about them is a student or faculty member of color.
My first book was a biography of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, sociologist, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and president of Fisk University. While researching and writing the book, I became intensely familiar with Johnson’s approach to mentoring scholars and leaders. Under his leadership, Fisk University became an incubator for talent, especially future faculty members. In fact, his students told me that he gave them “all the tools they needed to take on the world.” This phrase stuck with me and I have striven to emulate Johnson’s approach.
I believe wholeheartedly that in order to have a productive, caring, empathetic, student-oriented future professoriate, we as current faculty members must invest the time in mentoring young scholars. Of course, there are many ways to do this. One can co-author publications, co-present at conferences, explain the book writing and grant proposal processes, share ways of simplifying class preparation, etc. One of the ways that I take care for young scholars is by meeting with them for coffee or lunch at national conferences — providing a low stress way for them to ask for advice. I never turn someone down who asked to meet with me (unless I run out of time!). Why? Because I was rebuffed as a young scholar and I remember how it felt. I was told by a senior scholar as I asked for a copy of one of her conference papers, “I don’t have time for you.” It stung!
I urge all scholars to think twice before ignoring a request from a young person. In order to make sure that the academy is a healthy work environment for research and teaching, we need to provide the proper guidance and nurturing to future academics.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).