Tuesday, 7 December 2010

On Mentors, DH and beyond

A few weeks ago Dan Cohen sent a very moving tweet about his mentor's death at the early age of 66. By unpleasant coincidence something very similar happened to me some years ago. That was long before the days of social media so the internet never heard about it, but Dan's tweet set me thinking about the question of mentoring in DH. I've been fortunate enough to have several mentors in my academic DH career, among them Lou Burnard and Susan Hockey, from whom I learned more than I could describe here about our field. But I wondered if there are certain common qualities that we see in our mentors, and why it is, therefore, that we miss them so much.

The weirdest thing about mentorship is that nobody actually signs up for it. We are all assigned mentors at the beginning of our official academic career but that's an administrative convention: those arrangements may just work out by accident but your real mentors are ones who, like cats and horses, arrive unexpectedly. At the moment I am fortunate enough to have three people I think of as mentors at UCL, all senior people, none fully DH, but all DH sympathisers. I know don't know if they even realise that I think of them as such because, let's face it, they have never volunteered and I’ve never exactly asked them. But I admire what they do and I aspire to be as good at doing it as they are and I try and learn by watching them. Does that make them mentors? I think so. Would they be pleased if they knew that's how I think of them? I hope so. But it’s strange that it's the kind of thing that is never formally spoken of until after death.

Maybe that's just being terribly British, but it occurs to me that inherent in the concept of mentorship is the question of loss. By nature most of our mentors tend to be more senior than we are. This means that we know that at some point we're going to lose them either because they'll leave, retire or at worst die. Once it’s happened, you learn greedily, knowing that your mentors won’t always be there to teach you.

So what do we owe to our mentors? I think it's the fact that we benefit from their experience. They are the people we can go to when we don't know what to do; when we feel unsure about the way our careers are going; when we want to work out how they did something right and we just can't figure out how to do it ourselves. Sometimes we just like to watch them being really good at something and to be proud of being associated with them. We hope that they take an interest in us, and share in the pleasure of our successes. But in the end a great mentor is the person who you can guarantee will pick you up when something goes badly wrong, put you back together and tell you how you can go forward, however impossible it might seem. Perhaps even more crucially, however trivial our latest crisis might seem to them, they should understand why we feel that the world is about to end, and act accordingly. No wonder we miss them so much when they are no longer there to do all of those things.

But the question of mentorship is no longer simply about the past at least for those of us in my generation of DH scholars. I recall a conversation that I had with Ray Siemens and Steve Ramsey a few years ago about what would happen when some of the great senior scholars of our field retired. We looked at each other rather uneasily and realised that we would be part of the next generation of senior people in the field, thanks to the damage wrought by the cuts of the 80s. It occurred to us that we would have to become the people who might be needed to mentor the next generation. I don’t know about Steve and Ray, but I didn’t and still don’t feel grown up enough, or nearly eminent enough for that kind of role. Personally this makes me feel rather uncomfortable; although it's a pleasant kind of discomfort. I guess it's because, as I said, you don't sign up to be a mentor, but do your best if people choose you.

It makes me wonder, though, what kind of things a mentor should do now in the socially networked age. Is the concept meaningful any more when we can tweet our hearts out about the latest crisis, and ask Facebook friends for advice? Can one mentor by email, Skype or IM, or must it be an F2F activity? Is there any point weeping into a webcam, or celebrating success via a headset? Can we mentor someone thousands of miles away as well as someone we see regularly? I think it’s an ongoing experiment, but given what I gained from my mentors it’s one I feel bound to take part in.

For JWS, 1936-2002: teacher, inspiration, friend.

“Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.”