January 20, 2014

Theory, argument, archive. Method, stakes, implications. These are among those things that graduate studies in the Humanities aim to teach. Add in an attention to, and an accounting for, silences, obfuscations, gaps, missed opportunities, and the like, and you have the makings of a fairly standard heuristic for effective graduate reading in the service of effective scholarly writing. Such a heuristic enables impactful participation in the process of knowledge-making, to provide intellectual resources that inform how scholars think, research, and write about the worlds around us. Importantly, I think such a heuristic frames reading, writing, and mentoring as moments in the social process of knowledge-making. 

I come to such declaratives out of a mix of my own life in graduate school and my first years as a professor. I was trained at the University of Washington, in a large English Literature program that was enlivened by an infrastructure to support the critical interdisciplinary study of race, gender, nation, and empire; the crafting of critical compositionists for the undergraduate classroom; and the envisioning of theories, projects, and pedagogies that circuit between the university and a diverse array of publics. Call it the American Cultural Studies / Composition Studies / Public Scholarship triad. Here are four things I bring from that formation into my own practice of mentoring graduate students.

1. Knowledge projects happen in community. Community names those spaces made places by people through practice, struggle, and relation; through memory, history, and narrative; through affect, structure, and cultural expression. As many students interested in pursuing graduate studies in the service of social transformation have told me, their impetus to enter graduate programs and hone research and writing skills is often driven by the abiding contradictions that animate place-making.

While those contradictions often take place at something of a remove from the university—a distance often exacerbated by a long historical present of racialized and gendered exclusion—the university and the community are neither isolated nor wholly autonomous from one another. They articulate and overlap in all kinds of substantive ways. The university makes place in community, and community makes place in the university. Linking and leveraging these connections (and importantly, their distinctions) becomes part of the challenging work of engaged interdisciplinary scholarship. Effective graduate mentoring has the capacity to make these connections legible.

2. Scholars write to, for, and with community. We write to be read, and (unlike so much undergraduate training) not just read by one other person. We write to be read by people who have been in our fields for a long time. We write to mainstays, newcomers, and interlopers alike. And we write to those who may disagree. We write to enunciate and answer pressing questions that emerge from the contradictions in communities we know well, as well as those communities we come to know through careful study. 

As so many of us struggle to find the voice to address and participate in scholarly writing, we reckon with its technical abstractions—abstractions that often figure as an escape or an evasion from material realities. But lexicons of scholarly knowledge are material. They have impact. They carry the analytical power to name.

Yet for many graduate students who work on pressing issues of injustice, addressing what comes to be seen as an insulated scholarly community is insufficient. The desire to speak with and speak for much broader constituencies is real, even as it often verges on the impossible and mentorship for it is tough to find. But there’s a difference between “broad constituency” and “everybody.” Attempts to write to everybody routinely produce a dead letter. If I learned one thing from my brief foray into rhetoric and composition, differences in audience and genre expectations matter. Learning to write a single piece for an array of overlapping audiences not only makes all the difference, but it happens slowly, over time, and with many failures along the way. Mentoring that facilitates this practice is a necessity.      

3. Writing is a social craft. Like reading, it pretends to be an act of solitude—but don’t be fooled. Both activities are moments in broader social processes. In joining a community of scholars, we also join a community of writers. Surely somewhere in the mix of those people who read the work of graduate students are faculty mentors and dissertation committee members, anonymous reviewers and journal editors.

But here’s an exercise I often suggest to graduate students: find your favorite academic book published in the last five years. Take a look at the acknowledgements. Especially if it’s an author’s first or second book, the acknowledgements make for especially evocative writing. More often than not, acknowledgements take up multiple pages—long lists of the overlapping networks through which such work has emerged.  Acknowledgements inscribe the process through which scholars forge ideas in conversation. 

Scholars write often, and we circulate and test out portions of what we write all the time. We circulate our writing to working groups, small conferences and symposia—these might show up on vitae—but also with friends, members of organizations with whom we partner, subjects of our research. The books and articles we read, cite, and with which we think are the culmination of a recursive social process. It is incumbent to seek out people with whom you want to share drafts of your work.

In other words, 4. Read. Write. Revise. Repeat. And do so in community. Not only will it make your work sharper, but it has the capacity to enliven and sustain your work over the long haul. 

This article was originally written for an MLA-sponsored forum on mentoring graduate students of color.