Monday, April 30, 2012

Networks of Support Matter (not simply having a mentor)

Reggie Thomas & Julie Hansen, active members in my network of support
For some years now, I've been researching the ways that various factors such as institutional support and timing advantages give African American literary artists an edge in different environments. Those factors tend to account for why a few select writers enjoy benefits that many others do not.

What if, however, I was to turn some of the methods that I have been developing for assessing how writers succeed on my own career? How have those factors concerning support and advantage worked in my favor?

Writing and thinking about the upcoming retirement of my good friend Julie Hansen, a professor and humanities librarian, has reminded me how central she and a network of supporters have been to my development and any of my achievements at SIUE. Universities often assign new professors a faculty mentor when they begin, but my own experience suggests that, well, in the words of that old proverb, it takes a village.

Eugene B. Redmond was my official, assigned mentor when I arrived at SIUE in the fall of 2003, and clearly, he has helped shape my thinking and movements on a range of professional and scholarly interests. More than simply mentoring though, what he did early on in my time here that was particularly notable was put me in touch with a vast network of audiences and supporters. Those networks grew, and even folks who were not official mentors participated in helping me shape my professional identity and various projects.

I think about my connections to musician Reggie Thomas and Julie Hansen, folks who would not have appeared on the official potential "mentor" list for a new professor of literature. For one, they did not and do not consider themselves my mentors (a concept, by the way, that remains frustratingly overused and under-examined). In addition, they were not directly involved in my department's decisions about my work and career at the university.    

Nonetheless, Reggie and Julie became highly active members in the networks of support that greatly assisted me. Reggie, who left SIUE for Michigan State last year, decided about 5 years ago that I should become the director of black studies, and it's difficult to overstate what his decision has meant for the shape of my career and scholarly interests. Julie decided that I should think about solidifying and shaping the contents of a public library, not simply a private one, and she was perhaps the first person to decide that my ideas about an EBR Collection and space for black studies projects should be connected to Lovejoy Library.    

My path and journeys are clearly not the only ways, and at places where I recognize advantages, there are also numerous downsides. Still, I suspect that individual departments and units and colleges could serve the professional careers of new faculty and staff members well if they gave more thought to the significance of networks of support and not simply single mentors.

Julie Hansen Week: Af-Am Lit, Black Studies & Lovejoy Library 

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