Mentoring the Mentors at Central APA

Jill Hernandez (The University of Texas at San Antonio) took part in this year’s Central APA Workshop “Mentoring the Mentors.” Here, Jill shares her thoughts on the workshop, and her tips for mentors. 

For those who couldn’t make it to the session, can you tell us what the workshop was about? 

The Mentoring the Mentors Workshop brought together faculty members who have a goal of increasing access to graduate programs in philosophy for students who are from underrepresented groups, and graduate students who have benefited from (especially) summer diversity workshops in philosophy.  The Workshop provided information about the best practices for mentoring students, models of successful grant-funded STEM mentoring programs, and interaction with graduate faculty about how to help students build a successful application to graduate school in philosophy.

Can you give a brief overview of the workshop?

Do you remember watching the Cubs win the World Series last Fall?  Not to be hyperbolic, but when I saw the call for mentors to participate, I had a similar feeling to watching all the old-guard baseball myths fall– here is a group of people, committed to getting the future of philosophy right, and to ensuring that whatever we do, we do things a little differently.  The Workshop was a compendium of folks, some who have done a great job at outreach to underrepresented groups, some who wanted to improve, and then these amazing students who gave excellent feedback about how to make summer diversity initiatives more impactful and accessible. As a discipline, we need to make training for faculty mentors a centerpiece of our near-term efforts. The Workshop team was dedicated to this–and we didn’t even have to resort to jersey burning, or rally cries.

What was your role in the workshop?

I currently am involved in a handful of formal mentoring activities on my campus, the University of Texas at San Antonio, including for a Mellon Foundation research grant and a Department of Education Title V grant.  Our Philosophy faculty are also intentional about mentoring our MA students, and we all have a small number of graduate student mentees. UTSA is a Hispanic-serving institution and has a high percentage of First Gen students, which creates some interesting challenges for mentoring and facilitating student engagement in philosophy.  I wanted gain some tools that will help me foster opportunities in philosophy for students who might begin their degree not even knowing what philosophy means.  All of which is to say, my role was as a mentor who knows enough about her ignorance in mentoring relationships with underserved students to want to ask questions about how to improve.

What mentoring challenges were addressed?

If free pizza and coffee doesn’t work to bring students to mentoring events–what will?! (This actually remains an open question–so if you know anyone who has good ideas about this, let me know!)  The pizza and coffee is a real issue: part of mentoring well is meeting students where they are at rather than expecting students to find us.  Lewis Gordon gave some good advice about demystifying the faculty/student dynamic, which in my experience is especially helpful for First Gen students.  But, there are systemic issues which can seem insurmountable for effective mentoring, ranging from funding for mentoring programs, student preparedness for philosophy research, the whiteness of the traditional canon, and a tenure/promotion system which undervalues the time it takes to dedicate to mentoring.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned in the workshop?

Well, there’s a positive surprise and a negative surprise.  I was delighted to learn that a STEM undergraduate mentoring program at Missouri has yielded a 100% 6-year graduation rate for its participants who remain in the program each year, and I love the model they employ (i.e., an undergraduate peer mentor/research integration platform with increasing responsibilities and privileges each year of participation).  That program is (not surprisingly) really well-funded, and of course, as humanists, we would love to be able to fund our underserved students for multiple years of learning how to be philosophers.  At least in the current political environment, such programs are a lovely dream for most of us.  But simple aspects of the model can be effective for retaining students and creating a sense of belonging–including setting up interviews for students who would like to be mentored by faculty.

On the other hand, we all learned during the Workshop that our goal of generating enthusiasm for applications for summer diversity programs in philosophy might actually work against our desire to increase access for applicants to graduate school.  There are currently just a handful of summer programs (PIKSI, Brown’s Summer Immersion Program, Rutger’s Summer Institute for Diversity, and most recently, UCSD’s Summer Program for Women in Philosophy) but what we learned from the graduate students is that most applicants to these programs apply to all of them, and anecdotally, the most generous acceptance rate was 20%.  So, if the best underrepresented students are applying to all of these programs, and many of them are going to any programs they get accepted to, by encouraging more students to apply, we simply make these amazing programs accessible to the students from undergraduate departments which already have a high success rate at landing their students in graduate programs. Speaking for myself only, I now have to face the fact that, although I want to tell my minority and First Gen female students (particularly), “Philosophy is for you!”, the programs that seem designed to encourage their participation will in all probability exclude them.   An opportunity coming out of all of this, I think, is to focus new program growth and resources on underserved students who are not in the top tier of their academic class, but who have shown early signs of being drawn to philosophical thinking and who need some help in developing argumentation and writing aptitude.

What are your top tips for mentors?

My top tips are pretty tepid.  I want to continue to learn from mentoring rock stars like Lewis, Claire Horisk, and Karen Stohr.  Like most philosophy Luddites, I have been reticent to embrace social media apps, but that really is where to find students.  I use GroupMe daily to connect with my First Gen mentoring ‘familia’ and have used Line and, of course, Facebook.  It’s amazing what sending a Rocky-themed meme will do to create belonging among students.

But, being reticent to embrace social media doesn’t mean we have to be reticent to embrace social belonging for our students.  (Sartre and de Beauvoir were trendsetters in this regard, right?  My MA thesis advisor told a story about taking money his parents gave him for school to jump on a flight to Paris on a whim to see if he could visit with Sartre and de Beauvoir at le Café de Flore. They did sit with him, and McDermott came back and became a leading pragmatist of our time.)  The single most effective thing I have stumbled upon (again, this is pretty mild so I’d love to hear about ways to improve) was to move my office hours to the library’s Starbucks.  It started accidentally–I relocated offices across campus, and felt far away, so I told students after class one day, just come on over to Starbucks, and if you come, I’ll buy you coffee. Two students took me up on it at first, then word spread, and now I regularly have groups of students who come and hang out with me during my office hours.  We talk about class (of course) and philosophy, but about anything else they want to talk about.  I’ve even had faculty who have either heard about it, or seen me there, ask me about it.  It’s been one of the best accidental pedagogical successes of my career.

What do you think/hope participants will take away from the workshop?

The APA effort to develop mentors should be celebrated, even in this early stage.  What a pivotal moment in our discipline’s history to be a faculty member in philosophy!  The Workshop created a quick community of philosophers–that ‘team’ I mentioned earlier–who are attuned to changing their own age-worn habits to better reach students who otherwise might not decide to be philosophers.  We were given models of success for recruitment and retainment in other fields that are also typically dominated by white men, and we heard from faculty who are effective mentors, independent of mentoring training.  The graduate students who participated gave us a solid understanding of how to be better at mentoring, and opened a window of dialogue for improving our summer diversity initiatives.  And, for faculty who have never served on graduate admissions committees, there was a panel of PhD admissions faculty who discussed what their departments are looking for in successful applications.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One other subtle point came out of the Workshop and has been resounding with me since:  mentors are often those who have mentors for their entire life, and those mentors do not have to look like the mentee.  As an undergraduate and MA student in philosophy, my mentors were men.  They were fantastic, and provided examples of the kind of professor and colleague I want to be.  As a faculty member, I continue to seek out mentoring relationships to make my work stronger and to be a better faculty member.  I communicated that (on GroupMe!) to my familia group as soon as I was done with the workshop, which shows an openness to change and development for students.

Also, in case you were wondering…no jerseys were actively burned during the Workshop.  Instead, we did the hard part of thinking about the future of the discipline over amazing dialogue (and grilled veggies).

Jill Hernandez (PhD, Memphis ’06) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and specializes in ethics and early modern philosophy.  She is the author of Gabriel Marcel’s Ethics of Hope (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil (Routledge, 2016).  When she isn’t sending out Rocky-themed inspirational memes to her students, she’s usually playing rummy or Jenga with her husband, Gustavo, and girls, Allie and Sofie.

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1 thought on “Mentoring the Mentors at Central APA

  1. Thanks so much to the Central organizers and Jill Hernandez for this important discussion! I’d be interested in hearing more discussion of this issue, described by Hernandez:

    “There are currently just a handful of summer programs (PIKSI, Brown’s Summer Immersion Program, Rutger’s Summer Institute for Diversity, and most recently, UCSD’s Summer Program for Women in Philosophy) but what we learned from the graduate students is that most applicants to these programs apply to all of them, and anecdotally, the most generous acceptance rate was 20%. So, if the best underrepresented students are applying to all of these programs, and many of them are going to any programs they get accepted to, by encouraging more students to apply, we simply make these amazing programs accessible to the students from undergraduate departments which already have a high success rate at landing their students in graduate programs.”

    This makes it sound like the problem is that we help a smaller number of students than we could be helping because, by encouraging students to apply to all of these programs, the same ones will get into all of them. They then go to all of them, crowding out other applicants.
    But a student might get into only one. Given this, it makes sense for me as an advisor to encourage my students to apply to all of them, to maximize the likelihood they can go to any of them.
    It seems to me that a better way to address this issue would be for the programs to coordinate on allowing each student to attend only one of the programs they are accepted into.
    I realize that this would no doubt be disappointing to those who would otherwise attend more than one. But that doesn’t strike me as a sufficiently compelling counterbalancing consideration, given the overall goals of the programs. Is there some other counterbalancing reason that makes this solution suboptimal?
    I’d be interested especially in hearing from those who have participated in or helped to organize any of these programs.
    (And thanks for all of the work those organizers do!)

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