Want Healthy Communities in the Literary Arts? Focus on Mentorship.

By Erin Wunker

I have found myself thinking about how, in the last few weeks, there have been more and more testimonies about abusive relationships between women and people – namely men – who have been in ostensible mentorship positions. After the raw, hollow feeling of recognition, after those first fresh surges of rage, after the familiar feelings of exhaustion, isolation, and helplessness, I have also found myself thinking: what can we do and how can we move forward? How can I help to ensure that, after these brave stories have had their time trending on the too-often racist and misogynist space of Twitter and appearing on Gawker or Jezebel or Medium or Toast or Hairpin, people are still talking and thinking carefully about making literary culture and the academic world safe, fair, just, and more hospitable for women? Put differently, I’ve been wondering: can a sustainable system for restorative justice happen on social media? I’m not so sure. After the likes and the retweets and the backlash and the shares, what happens to the story? What happens to the person who wrote it? Where are the discussions of proactive planning two, three, four weeks later? Where is the sustainable discussion about mentorship and community happening in real life as well as over the duration of our lives? We need to rethink the role of social media in our efforts for restorative social justice and vital, safe, nonreactive community building. Social media cannot be an effective and sustainable space for that by virtue of its medium. Further, it cannot be even a means to make a space for this unless we somehow figure out how to have real, generous conversation and time for understanding in the space of social media.

These are not isolated incidents.

A few years ago the blog I co-founded, Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, ran what was meant to be a monthly roundup of experiences of misogyny in the academic workplace. The idea was simple: women could email the editors with their stories and we would anonymize them into a long litany—a prose poem—of sexist experiences. We thought that publishing a monthly roundup would both demonstrate that sexism isn’t over and that there was a public forum for talking about it safely. The column only ran once. Why? Not because we weren’t receiving testimony. We were actually receiving several emails a week detailing micro- and macro-aggressions ranging from the offloading of emotional labour to detailing experiences of physical and psychological assault. But instead of giving us permission to put them on the site women were telling us “I don’t want this published, I don’t feel safe. But I do want someone to know what happened to me.” What to make of this excruciating impasse? Clearly, women are experiencing a range of aggressions in the present. Clearly, they want witnesses. And yet, what this small anecdote again suggests is that the fear of reprisal for naming aggression it too high for women to risk. Because we didn’t understand it or anticipate it, the response of we Hook & Eye editors at the time was simply to name this impasse and let it sit. That won’t do. Silence won’t do. We need a network of people working to the common cause of equity, who recognize that equity is not a simple formula, who respect that mentorship is complicated by many factors, and who acknowledge that there is not one way to reach social justice.

A few days ago, in the midst of the most recent watershed of young women speaking bravely and publicly about their experiences of rape culture and misogyny, I found myself remembering that failed This Month In Sexism column. I also found myself thinking about mentorship. So many of the emails we received pointed either to the author’s relief that she had a strong mentor and community or, too often, the opposite. Over and over I read emails that pointed to failed mentorship, failed community, and pernicious isolation.

What does it mean to mentor women? What do women need from mentors? What kinds of healing and future-building are possible if there are deliberate and public and ethical networks for mentoring? And, in the present, how can these stories of failed mentorship, of failed community, of abuse and shame be heard and carried and recognized?

Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”

What is needed, in my estimation, is a stronger understanding of what healthy mentorship for women should look like. In fact, I’m not alone in this. The Rhodes Project has just released a preliminary study of female Rhodes scholars that supports the suspicion that there is a dearth of generational mentorship amongst women. Susan Rudy and Kate Blackman report that women “expect to find career support networks and do not,” and that they experience “second-generation gender bias.” And these are women who are amongst institutionally sanctioned intellectual elite. While Rudy and Blackman don’t address misogyny and rape culture directly, close readers can infer the layers of systematic and pernicious violence that a weak mentorship culture can perpetuate, however inadvertently.

So what is to be done? We need to think about what mentorship means. Mentorship is generally described as a relationship between a more experienced—usually older—person in your profession who offers advice, guidance, and insight to your career and to your life. This sounds straightforward in theory, but in practice mentorship is hardly this cut and dried. Practically speaking, mentorship is always an asymmetrical power relationship. Tip the balance in a negative way, and you are at risk of a range of abuses that can undermine and damage your self-confidence and your career. Tip it the other way, and you have guidance, support, and access to a dialogic exchange of generational knowledge that will at least begin to redress the pernicious micro- and macro-aggressions of living and working in patriarchal culture. But of course, this dichotomy doesn’t always allow for time and duration to recast the relationship in hindsight. This is where issues of trust emerge: it is possible that what feels one day like generosity can, in time, be recognized as an assault. It also works the other way sometimes, what feels like rejection one day can, in time, be recognized as support. Maybe a return to the old feminist question of “who benefits?” should be our watchword here. Maybe an institutional system that is already so entrenched in upholding relationships of unequal power needs to be challenged by the force of humility. Maybe good female mentors are not as rare as we think.

Mentorship does not follow a single pattern and it does not happen in one direction only. What follows is the start to a working document of what good mentorship does and does not do. This is meant to sustain and broaden the conversation that’s been opened. Please add generative suggestions in the comment box and I will add them as they accumulate.

Good Mentors DO:

-Respect and foster your intellectual development

-Read your work carefully and critically–with an eye to your potential

-Treat you with respect

-Buy your lunch or coffee when you meet to talk about work

-Talk to you in a frank and supportive way about the economic and practical context of your work

-Expand your horizons

-Help you get well-paying or widely-respected work as intern or research assistant

-Introduce you to lots of other people in your profession–local, national, and international

-Help you meet and develop relationships with more advanced professionals whose interests match yours

-Give advice only with awareness of their situated knowledge


Good Mentors DON’T:

-Exaggerate the strengths or weaknesses of your work

-Focus on their feelings

-Regularly ask you to drink with them

-Emotionally manipulate you

-Think they are the only ones with knowledge to convey


I have an incredible community of friends and mentors; there isn’t room to name them all here. Direct thanks for help on this piece goes to Danielle Bobker, who developed the majority of list that ends the piece, to Sina Queyras who reads and encourages and leads by example, to the entire CWILA Board of Directors—Clélie Rich, Marie Carrière, Libe Garcia Zarranz, and Leigh Nash—who provided edits and insight, to CWILA Executive Eirector Sheila Giffen and Count Director Judith Scholes for edits and indispensible comments, to Tanis MacDonald for reading, commenting, and providing key questions, and to Bart Vautour for reading, editing, and thinking with me.


Board-Erin-Wunker-bw-150Erin Wunker is Chair of the Board of CWILA. She teaches Canadian Literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS. Her areas of research and teaching include Canadian literary and cultural production and critical theory. She is a co-founder and editor of the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe.


Published on October 14, 2014

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