“Race, Recruitment, and Reciprocal Mentorship”

By Ryan Witt, Temple University

The experiences depicted by Staci Perryman-Clark and Collin Craig in “Troubling the Boundaries…” are painful to read. As one who inhabits a white male body, this society grants me a great deal of undeserved privilege. I cannot imagine how these episodes must have felt to Drs. Perryman-Clark and Craig and how the white, male, heteronormative society we live in imposes injustices upon them and people of color. But I read their article to be hopeful, an enduring edifice upon which those who are shamed by CWPA’s apparent lack of diversity and those striving for social equality may build a more inclusive future.

In writing that the CWPA Mentoring Project is “the ideal platform where we begin cross-institutional dialogue with WPAs on how to develop a language and collective action plan that serve the interests of cultural differences,” Perryman-Clark and Craig seem to point to the more intimate, more personal, more nurturing space afforded in this social relationship (54). Certainly, identifying, recruiting, and developing promising future WPAs through the mentoring process can help address the authors’ call for more WPAs of color. And the collegial, fostering attitude upon which mentoring is built can lead to active efforts on the part of WPAs, CWPA members, professors, adjuncts, graduate students, and others to seek out and include writers, intellectuals, scholars, and educators from underrepresented racial and social groups.

But I wonder how individuals from underrepresented groups experience such recruitment and inclusion efforts from white folk like myself. Do they feel tokenized by “well-meaning white people”? Could a person of color trust assurances by myself or other whites that their voices and ideas would be valued and made a central part of the work we aimed to accomplish? Would Craig and Perryman-Clark, for instance, feel comfortable in a committee meeting after being recruited…and having the group’s (now only) mostly-white membership smiling back at them?

Perhaps mentorship can address some of this issue. In Craig and Perryman-Clark’s work, I believe there is an optimism about the mentoring relationship as one that can more easily negotiate difference and thwart the status quo power relations that, for example, turned the authors’ bodies into specimens for physical labor and the (heterosexual) male gaze. In the moment quoted previously, Craig and Perryman-Clark suggest mentoring as a model of social relations alternative to status quo hierarchical models that reinscribe (or, at least, fail to challenge) cultural, racial, and gender-based inequality. I would argue that specific, reciprocal, and critical mentoring relationships can promote a more inclusive CWPA and facilitate conversations across racial difference.

Any such optimism about the possible power of mentoring should of course be tempered by Perryman-Clark’s objectification at the hands of a full professor and potential mentor-figure in her department who had previously supervised first-year writing TAs (42). The author, in the following paragraphs, lucidly explains the role racism, sexism, and white male privilege have in this exchange and others like it. A more equitable mentoring relationship, where both partners seek to learn from each other and have dialogue across difference, would have likely prevented some part of this offensive episode. By “dialogue across difference,” I am in part referencing the use of this phrase by Linda Flower and her colleagues in their work with the Community Learning Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Their model of addressing problems and talking across lines of difference is designed for larger groups, not necessarily one-to-one mentoring relationships. However, I do believe that some of the processes outlined by Lorraine Higgins, Elenore Long, and Flower in “Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry,” such as the development of problem narratives, rivaling, and seeking out information and input from diverse stakeholders (even via text-based sources), for instance, can open up more collaborative lines of dialogue between mentor pairs. (This process also has the added benefit of falling within the field of composition and rhetoric; as such, members of the field are likely more familiar and comfortable with it than similar—and possibly more effective—methods from other disciplines.) Nevertheless, despite all of the promise of nurturing, reciprocal mentoring relationships, they simply cannot block out the effects of our racist and sexist society.

And yet Perryman-Clark herself provides a glimpse of the potential value of this terrible exchange—if this individual and potential mentor-figure had only “asked for advice on how to deal with the TA himself,” changing the power dynamic and opening up the possibility for a conversation about racial and cultural difference (44). I wonder if an attitude of reciprocal mentorship would have helped this professor seek help or advice rather than a “pretty face” to take care of his problem. By “reciprocal mentorship,” I am referring to work by Martha Gabriel and Kandra Kaufield (among others) that defines this as “a mentoring partnership in which both members contribute to a collaborative learning relationship” (311). That is, both members of this relationship take on the identity and attitude of a learner—and of a teacher—and aim to assist their colleague in meeting certain mutually agreed-upon learning goals. Is it possible that a professional attitude of reciprocal mentorship would help more established professors and scholars be more effective guides to those entering the profession, particularly in being willing to talk and learn about racial and gender-based differences with perhaps younger mentor-partners? Yes, it may be a little too optimistic. However, Perryman-Clark and Craig’s idea to start with the mentoring project seems the best option we have.

Works Cited

Craig, Collin Lamont, and Staci Maree Perryman-Clark. “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)Constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 34.2 (2011): 37-58. Print.

Gabriel, Martha A., and Kandra J. Kaufield. “Reciprocal Mentorship: An Effective Support for Online Instructors.” Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 16.3 (2008): 311-327. Print.

Higgins, Lorraine, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower. “Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry.” Writing and Community Engagement: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Thomas Deans, Barbara Roswell, and Adrian J. Wurr. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 167-201. Print.