3 Tips for More Anti-Racist Mentorship

This morning I participated in a plenary session for a workshop on anti-racist and decolonial curricula in archaeology hosted by the Columbia Center for Archaeology. In my talk, I framed the topic of anti-racist curricula in terms of mentorship, and the ways in which good mentorship could help alleviate the pressures placed on first-gen, marginalized, and underrepresented students in Classical Studies and archaeology by the hidden curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum is a set of skills or norms that individuals are expected to know, particularly in academia, without being formally taught them

On this blog, I have taken a particular interest in the hidden curriculum, and have made several blog posts illuminating different aspects of it.

Skills and norms which are part of the hidden curriculum include:

  • Preparing for fieldwork
  • Writing a dissertation (prospectus, chapter)
  • How and when to apply for funding
  • Writing conference abstracts and papers
  • What to wear and how to act when attending a conference
  • How to interview for a (usually academic) job

These range from seemingly simple skills to more complex ones. However, our assumptions about individuals’ knowledge of these skills and norms disproportionately harm students from marginalized backgrounds. These students feel they must put in twice the work to keep up with their peers.

Here are some ways that we can better support students throughout their academic careers.

1. More clearly articulated thoughts about what constitutes success

At least in Classics, we are led to believe that there’s only one acceptable outcome of our degree, and that is going to grad school and getting a tenure-track job. 

Moreover, sometimes we are even discouraged from pursuing other paths. I was dissuaded from pursuing a job working in a museum not only in undergrad, but also last year, when I considered applying for the Museum Studies Certificate Program at Michigan.

A similar phenomenon occurs when archaeology students are discouraged from pursuing professional development opportunities during the summer. This is because fieldwork is often considered to be of highest importance. 

The point here is that graduate programs need to more clearly define their goals and thoughts about what constitutes success and be transparent about those goals. 

A good instructor sets out clear course learning objectives and goals and connects them to each activity and assessment. Similarly, graduate programs should provide clearly articulated goals for the degree students are working towards. These goals in turn should be tied to the activities (exams, courses, teaching, fieldwork) that students are expected to complete. 

Transparency is not just fundamental to equitable and inclusive teaching. It’s also fundamental to the development of more equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist institutions. Illuminating a program’s goals and expectations makes it possible for all students to succeed.

2. Engage in more reflection on your own experiences

A fundamental question you, as a mentor, should ask yourself each time you take on a new mentee is: what do I wish I’d known when I was a student? 

If you can’t come up with anything, consider instead the professional skills that you did learn, and how you learned them. The ways in which you acquired these skills have different implications for how different aspects of our identities have operated in our professional lives. 

Did you have your own mentor? Were there workshops that you attended? Did you learn by observation? Or did you simply already have the skills necessary to succeed in academia?

This reflection and the list that results will provide you with a baseline for anticipating what concerns your mentees might have

However, mentors need to anticipate their mentees’ needs not just after something difficult or traumatic has happened, but all of the time. 

While mentors asking what we need is nice, students don’t always know the answer to that question. This is either because we think we’ve already done it all, or because we’re new to the field and haven’t been exposed to the range of possible concerns.

3. Address the challenges a student might face in light of some aspect of their identity

In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which describes how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics intersect with one another and overlap

In academia, this forces us to recognize our students as whole human beings who are affected in different ways in different environments. Applying an anti-racist approach to our teaching and mentorship makes us consider the bigger picture, and the wider contexts that our students and mentees inhabit.

We – as instructors, as mentors – can and should engage with our broader communities. You aren’t truly anti-racist in the classroom if you do not enact the same principles and values elsewhere in your life, too.

Questions you should ask yourself when considering what advice to give your mentees:

  • How are your mentee affected in different environments?
  • What will they bring to the table in light of their intersecting identities?
  • Potential adverse experiences they might have in light of certain aspects of their identity?
  • What structures exist which might lead to these adverse experiences?

Structural and institutional racism, as we have increasingly come to reckon with over the last year, are not eventualities. They are realities which must be addressed head-on. 

One potentially low-stakes way of doing that is by having frank conversations with your mentees. This is so that they aren’t surprised when – not if – something problematic occurs. However, I know that not everyone is totally comfortable with or feels supported by the mentors they have. 

If this sounds like you, know that it’s okay to seek guidance from someone else. Or even multiple someones. 

My advisor is really supportive in terms of my research. However, I’ve had more fruitful conversations about the challenges of being a woman of color in Classics with people – fellow graduate students, academics outside of my institution – who share more than just one aspect of my identity. Seeking additional, informal mentors is helpful if you are considering career paths beyond the tenure-track.

~

The talks from the workshop were recorded, and I will update this post with a link to them once they are posted. Hopefully this post will help us rethink our approach to mentorship and lead to better support for underrepresented students in ancient studies.

Some mentorship programs to check out:

Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus Mentorship Program

AIA Student Affairs Interest Group Mentorship Program

Women’s Classical Caucus Mentoring Program

**If there are any mentoring programs that I’ve missed or that you’d like to see added to this list, let me know @ApothekeBlog on Twitter or in the comments!

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