Monday, August 08, 2011


From an essay in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join.

I can't use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I've talked to. Much of what I've heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what's on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I've known were quite angry about those issues.

While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models.

Some commenters on the CHE website have already noted that it's strange to discard all women English professors, however angry, as role models for these reasons.

The author of the essay seems to define role model in a very narrow way: the only viable candidates seem to be people who are remarkably similar to him in as many ways as possible, and unless he finds these people (men), he doesn't want to be an English professor.

OK, that's fine. It's important to like the people around you, in your job and in your life.

I also think it is important to distinguish role model from mentor, and ask: role model for what?

There are many of us STEM-field women who have male mentors and friends, but depending on what we want out of role models, we may or may not consider male professors as role models. That's not so different from what the author of the essay has done.

Nevertheless, I have had male role models in my career, and still do today: male professors I admire for their research abilities, commitment to teaching, and kindness. Those qualities have nothing to do with gender. The role models may have very different approaches to research, teaching, and life, they may have different motivations, and they make "think differently", but model isn't someone I want to emulate exactly, and I certainly don't expect them to be like me. I don't want to be them; I admire them and would like to try to be like them in some ways.

I have also had male mentors. These are people who kindly gave (good) advice and taught me how to be a researcher, teacher, and advisor. Some of them are still teaching me..

If, however, I consider other aspects of my life and look for people who have similar roles with respect to their children and careers, most (but certainly not all) of those role models are women. It is nice to have such role models, but it has never been such a concern for me that I have considered other career options because of the extreme scarcity of this type of role model.

I know little of academic English, of course, but I wonder why it was so difficult for the author of the essay to find female English professors driven by intellectual curiosity and passion, rather than "professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard and so on. I am not sure I believe that he understood the motivation of the female English professors he met (because they are so different, and therefore can't be role models.. it gets a bit circular, I guess).

Anyway, I know some (but admittedly not many) female and male tenured professors in academic English, and they all seem similarly motivated by a love of literature, language, writing, teaching, discovering, thinking, communicating, connecting, wondering.. the same things that drive many of us in academic anything.

Somehow I doubt the Female English Professors of the world are all that interested in convincing the author of the essay to reconsider his career choice, especially the older ones -- perhaps because they are so angry -- and I doubt if there is a long line of women queuing up to be non-angry role models for him.

That is why my main point*, such as it is, relates more to the difference between role models and mentors. Do you have any role models who are not mentors, or mentors who are not role models? I don't mean the mentors who are assigned to tenure-track faculty and who may or may not be a good/sane choice; I mean the mentors we truly think of as wise and useful guides and givers of advice.

What do you want in a role model? Is gender important in your choices and opinions of either?

* Yes, I know the essay/author is not worth the time or ink. You can comment on this if you want, but if you do, I will get major points in Blog Comment Bingo. Just so you know. And just so that you know that I know, if you know what I mean.


Anonymous said...

I am in academic computer science. If gender was a factor for me in choosing either a role model or a mentor, I am afraid I would not have either by now!

Anonymous said...

I've certainly had mentors who were not role models. I've gotten good advice from people who went into engineering or academic management, though I personally find the thought of doing administrative work very irritating.

Role models who were not mentors? Not so much, as I'm not much of a people-person, and the desire to emulate others has never driven me much. There are people I've admired (Don Knuth, for example), but not tried to emulate.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. I have a ton of mentors, but they all tend to mentor me in a very narrow way (research OR teaching OR advising OR parenting...). When faced with a dilemma, I tend to ask many mentors their opinion, assess the varied advice and decide which is best for me.

When I think of a role model, I think of someone who can model how to bring it all together... more of a roleS model. I don't know why that is. The woman who has been my closest career mentor is not married and has no kids, so I don't really think of her as a role model for me. In fact, I cannot identify someone of whom I have ever though "that's a good role model for me".*

I also tend to think of mentors as people who I interact with and specifically ask advice, whereas role models tend to be further away... someone I've seen and admire from afar. Someone who models the behavior, as opposed to giving advice.

So maybe, its all in the definition, and we all have different definitions.

* On the other hand, I have been told _numerous_ times that I'm a good role model for someone else (usually their daughter, or student...). I suspect said daughter or student does not think of me as a role model.

Anonymous said...

So for bingo then...

Academic English is also a club I don't want to join-- I like having more job security and options and a higher salary!

In terms of mentors and role models, I have only the highest respect for the women who have made it in my field. Many people in my field are role models, male and female, and I have been blessed with a subset of those as mentors.

mathgirl said...

I think of a role model as someone who has more or less the same type of career and family life as what I would like to have in the future. In other words, a role model is someone who can show me that the model of life I want is possible.

It can be someone close (and then, probably, a mentor) or someone far (I don't just mean in geographycally terms) and then not a mentor. My definition of role model is very narrow (I haven't read the article and I can't compare), but certainly I would not identify as a role model someone who has different motivations than mine to be a professor.

A mentor, for me, doesn't have to be a role model at all. A mentor is someone who is an expert for some specific aspect of life/academics and who can guide me thought it. It doesn't even have to be a role model in that aspect, just have enough experience.

Like I said, I haven't read the article, but during my PhD years most (or all) of the older female professors in mathematics I met would argue in the same terms of professional acceptance, equity, etc That put me off completely, and for a many years I didn't have any female role models. I was lucky to find a real good one just as I got pregnant. I was already an assistant professor by then.

Anonymous said...

I am an undergraduate physics major, and I have two people I consider mentors, one of whom I also consider a role model.

My first mentor is also my first research advisor. He was great about helping me figure out what I need to do to go to graduate school, giving me advice, etc. However, I don't consider him to be a role model, because I don't necessarily desire to emulate his teaching/advising methods (he was a bit too much of a hands-off research advisor for my liking).

On the other hand, I do consider my current research advisor to be a role model because I admire the way she runs her lab, advises her students, and does outreach.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've always had female mentors (though both my thesis supervisors were male). But that doesn't mean that I wanted to be exactly like them. I loved the way they approached learning things, and the fact they were women made them a bit easier for me to connect with.

As an FP myself now, if a student like the OP came to me, I'd say that, yes, I think it's important for women's voices to be heard, and I want to be a part of that. But my primary reason was to learn stuff for a living. I suspect that he may have approached these women with certain expectations firmly in place, and heard what he expected to hear.

Anonymous said...

My PhD advisor was female (as am I). While she was and still is a fantastic mentor, I would not call her my role model. She is childless and drawn towards administration (because she is good at it), so our priorities tend to be different.

Actually, watching what she went through as department chair was when I first realized that I don't ever want to be a department chair. So perhaps she is my anti-role model!

BioGirl said...

I have quite a few role models and mentors over the years. My mentor list is highly skewed towards males - an indication of the field I am in. However, they have also always encouraged me to seek out other female role models, if not mentors. In fact, I asked my post-doc supervisor for his recommendations on FSPs in my department who I could talk to. Win-win! These days I try / aspire to be either one for the students in my department.

Anonymous said...

In a mentor, I look for someone who demonstrates sensitive diplomacy, is open to new ideas and can receive them non-defensively, and can flexibly problem-solve.

William said...

On the other hand, this essay might be helpful in communicating the idea that women can encounter non-explicit forms of discrimination in fields where the professors are overwhelmingly male.

(And where is the author that the English professors are mostly female? I have a friend doing a phd in English lit, and his supervisor, committee members, and outside collaborators are all male.)

Anonymous said...

I think viewing someone as a role model involves a little bit of ignorance and idealism. It can be helpful to forming your goals and priorities, but it can be a set-up for disappointment as well when you learn your role model is not as perfect as you first thought. So, I think you have to be careful when you set someone on a pedestal.

I cringe when my grad students have indicated I am their role model because of my ability to balance family and work. I have told a few in confidence that perhaps a give the PERCEPTION of balancing family and work, but it is far from perfect, and involves struggles and giving some things up.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting question. I've had only mentors and essentially no role models in science. Only recently I've finally met someone whom I might consider to be both, as least as a career mentor (though not a scientific one) who seems to have a balanced personal life (but not at the expense of everyone around her).

I agree with mathgirl - a role model would be someone who has more or less the type of career and personal life I would want.

Actually, you would be a good role model for me, in that sense.

But it's not that simple. It doesn't make sense to have a role model who is so far out of reach as to be unattainable.

I could as easily say that Angelina Jolie is my role model, but that would be a bit ridiculous.

Sort of like suggesting that admiring a tenured professor and the way she lives her life has anything to do with my own ability or resources to mimic those achievements and have that kind of life.

I guess that's where the mentoring would come in. Maybe you can have role models from afar, but mentoring requires mutual investment in the relationship.

NJA said...

Hmm... I think if someone is unwilling to enter a field because they can't find a more senior clone of themselves, then that field might be better off without them.

It's great to have people around that can help you work through those specific issues that crop up in academia (how do I sell my grant proposals? how do I secure my share of departmental resources? how can I write so many awesome papers a year? etc), either by example or by offering advice. Whether you call these people role models or mentors doesn't really matter if you consider their help as à la carte - pick and choose the best bits from each person.

But insisting on finding someone who *thinks the same* - the same motivations, opinions, priorities, ambitions, etc. - strikes me as a little childish. And more than a little stalker-ish. Ick.

Anonymous said...

Reading the post and the comments, I find I have a very different concept of role model than several of these perspectives. For me, role model is a much more personal thing - more of how I want to be as a person - whereas mentor is specifically relegated to career-related development. Role models for me don't necessarily have to be older or more experienced, they're just people that I notice handle some things better than I do, and I try to observe and emulate their behavior. I think as a result of this, my role models do tend to be same-sex (in my case, women), but they're not necessarily so. Anyone who can demonstrate patience, focus on the problem-at-hand in a practical manner, and more mindful of what they say than I am, can be a role model for me.

My grad advisor was definitely an anti-role model, but I know she was an excellent mentor to a lot of people, undergrad & grad, male and female. And despite what I still see as a lack of guidance with my research (diss projects or prior ones), she actually did a lot of very good mentoring (introducing me to people, getting me opportunities to present, showing me grants & papers for review & supporting completely independent research for a number of years).

But she was also a horrible gossip, said very hurtful things to me & others without thinking about it, worked 2 hour days for a couple of years (M,W,F only), and overshared, to the exclusion of other conversation, her physical & emotional problems. These are the traits I try very hard to gain control of in myself, so she was not such a great role model. Well, unless you count by negative example...

Anonymous said...

What the first anon said. If I was only capable of learning from other females, I would be in deep trouble.

To me, a mentor is someone you go to for advice about strategy. (Should I kill this project or keep going? Should I take this postdoc or that one?) I think a mentor could be anyone, so long as they have experience and perspective...and think highly enough of you that they'll take the time to share their wisdom.

A role model is more about tactics. (Wow, you handled that question well, I'll have to remember that line.) That could be anyone too, but I do think it's easier to learn from a role model who matches your personal or intellectual style. I had the very good luck, in my first real job, to have a boss who was both amazingly competent and a spot-on personality match. I just watched what he did, and could pick up his tactics with very little trouble, because our styles were so similar. (Yes, he's a dude and I am not, but that didn't really matter.) I know other people who are very competent in their own ways, but since it's not quite my way, it's harder work to learn from them.

Anonymous said...

I'm an FSP who has mostly male mentors, and a few female mentors who all don't have children (I don't have children but am planning to someday). None of these mentors have really talked about work/life balance with me, but I admire their respective solutions to that problem, mostly because it shows me that no way is the "right" way. I talk about work/life issues with peers but not with superiors, and appreciate it when my mentors/chair don't broach those questions with me. I guess I think of mentors and role models as people who have a habit or characteristic I'd like to emulate or know more about. I suppose I'd define a mentor as a role model who is approachable and can be asked questions. While I don't want to be exactly like any of my mentors, I'd like to take on a few traits from each of them.

Ace said...

At my R1 university 20% of all tenured or tenire track profs (including English and non-STEM fields) are female, but 54% of undergrads are. It's certainly a problem, I think. But if everyone needed to see themselves in academia to stay in it, women and minorities would remain underrepresented forever.