On research, leadership and mentoring

This week’s RunningHot! conference was the best overview of the interests and concerns of NZ’s research community I’ve received since moving to Wellington almost a year ago. I learned about some fascinating research initiatives, met some wonderful people and got a much better sense of how things work. I went back to work today with the knowledge that I’m not alone, and with renewed hope for an incredibly stimulating and satisfying research career here. And perhaps it’s precisely because I felt this sense of excitement that I was more than a little disappointed we didn’t spend more time discussing strategies for valuing and supporting collaborative research, or coming up with concrete actions for tackling some of the big problems. I mean, I love thinking and talking about things, but not to the exclusion of doing and making things. I really hope that the organisers will consider facilitating a series of workshops before the next conference, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like the opportunity to follow-up on some of the challenges and opportunities that were so well presented.

But to be fair, I’ll happily take on the challenge to do and make some things myself. I won’t ignore Helen Anderson‘s call to up the “stroppiness quotient,” in the sense of continuing to ask the hard questions and insisting that we can do more and better. I’ll apply to take some Women in Leadership courses. And I’d like to become involved with the Oxygen Group, or something similar. I’m really looking forward to the Mobilities Research Symposium later this month as a way to make new connections, and I can’t wait to organise the School of Design’s Culture+Context: Brown Bag Lunch & Lecture Series next year. But, most of all, I’m excited about getting into my new research project and starting to make new connections between researchers and farmers, industry and government, ideas and practice. I’m grateful to be working in a country that I think actively supports emergent researchers. I know not everyone agrees, and the system isn’t perfect, but there is no equivalent to the Marsden Fund Fast-Start programme in Canada and I simply wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I have here.

All this talk of collaborative research and leadership also got me thinking about the value of mentoring. Of course, geeky girl that I am, I began with a little research on the topic. First, in a recent article in the Journal of Sociology, Maureen Baker reported that most of the female academics she interviewed in NZ did not expect to be promoted to (full) professor before retirement. This alarmed me because I most certainly intend to join the professoriate, and because I’ve already been told how incredibly difficult it will be, I want to better understand what the obstacles are. According to the article, most cited a “lack of intelligence and/or ambition; insufficient time, energy or publications; or no desire for additional responsibilities. Several women also mentioned that ambitious academics are viewed as ‘tall poppies’ to be cut down” and one woman professor went so far as to say that “the more you climb, the more of a target you become and the less support you get” (Baker 2010: 321). I was especially disheartened to learn that some women lacked the confidence to apply for promotion even when they wanted and were qualified for it, because of a “lack of collegial recognition and esteem” (330). In a related journal article (pdf), she notes that “academic mentoring has been related to productivity, promotion and career satisfaction but fewer female academics report that they have been adequately mentored” (Baker 2009: 34).

Poking around online a bit more, I learned that many young female academics seek out, or are paired with, older women mentors. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Unfortunately, many end up finding the mentorship uncomfortably reminiscent of a mother-daughter relationship, or find themselves tied to mentors who could be considered perfect exemplars of what Ann Darwin calls the “volatile dimension”: neurotic, overbearing, egocentric, outrageous, vindictive, contradictory, self-centred, wild, eccentric, opinionated, stressed, cunning, hard and picky. Um, thanks but no thanks. First of all, everyone deserves a sane mentor. But I also need to believe that mentor-mentee relationships don’t have to be one-way relationships in which I’m forever destined to subserviently and unquestioningly absorb someone else’s wisdom, while simultaneously being denied the opportunity to offer something of value in return. It’s really important to me that I’m able to cultivate the kind of collaborative relationships with my postgraduate students and colleagues that can support greater two-way exchanges. I’m not arrogant or naive enough to believe that this will be possible or desirable with everyone, but I hope to learn to recognise the opportunities when they appear.

So I’ve signed up to take part in VUW’s Academic Mentoring Programme, which is quite formal and highly structured, but I’m also interested in building a more bottom-up, dynamic and informal board of advisors. I found a few articles from a special issue on new visions of mentoring in Theory into Practice that really got me thinking about collaboration and co-mentoring. Janice Jipson and Nicholas Paley rightly remark that “no one gets there alone” and go on to describe a collegial and personal relationship that creates a “shelter…in which [they] can encourage, support and critique each other in the trying out of ideas, feelings and action.” I’m fortunate enough to be able to immediately identify the person who fills this role in my life and because of this support I can confidently move on to identifying additional people. Business folks suggest a group of three: someone several levels above you in your own organisation; a high performing peer; and someone great who works elsewhere and in a different field. They also suggest finding people that both support and challenge you. I’ve already got a bunch of men and women in mind, so wish me luck!