Culture Section Mentorship Program: Reflections and Future Prospects

By Amy Zhang (George Mason University) and Dustin Kiskaddon (UC Davis)

At its best, the section’s mentorship program invites junior sociologists backstage. They can learn what Howard Becker might call “tricks of the trade” as they develop ideas and gain insight into the institutional reproduction of the sociology of culture and cultural sociology. We–Amy Zhang (ABD George Mason) and Dustin Kiskaddon (ABD UC Davis)–thrived as mentees of Jennifer C. Lena (Colombia) in the Fall of 2020. This report summarizes reflections from mentors, mentees and the program organizers. It addresses their roles within the mentorship program and highlights themes of mutual value. We then suggest best practices, relay advice from past participants to future ones, and bring requests from participants to organizers. We end on a high note. 

Program History and Intention

 2020’s program organizers, Alissa Boguslaw (Coe College), Mathieu Desan (Colorado), Samantha Leonard (ABD Brandeis), and Marshall Taylor (New Mexico State) sought to encourage deeper relationships than a one-off event would produce. They wished to “create connections and community [within] the section,” “broaden intellectual networks,” and support “the professional development of early-career scholars” (Boguslaw 2021).

Organizers distributed a survey to match mentors with mentees based on career aspirations, the types of institutions in which they work or wish to work, and their investments toward one or more of the following: 1) diversity, equity, and inclusion, 2) alt- and non-academic career paths, 3)  public sociology, and, 4) navigating the academic job market. The 2020 cohort met under the weight of many challenges, not least of which arose from the pandemic that upended the annual meeting. In the context of this year, organizers, mentors, and mentees alike found this program all the more necessary. 

Themes of Value

Most respondents echoed our own sentiment–that participation in the program was grounding, motivating, and abundantly worthwhile. We highlight three themes of value:

  1. Participants found reassurance by demystifying academic labor. Mentees learned about the contours of the subfield and how one’s work is best situated within it. For early career researchers, it can be illuminating learning about the mechanics of a research paper or the timeline for book production. Many mentees were heartened learning that their mentors didn’t find immediate success. One mentor suggested, “Just sharing experiences of having manuscripts being rejected before eventually getting published or feeling lost when dissertating can be really meaningful to graduate students.” 
  2. While graduate students and most professors engage in mentorship within their departments, participants suggested they benefited from having a community outside of their home institutions. “When you talk to people in your own school, you somehow feel like you have to give political answers,” one mentee told us. A mentor echoed this benefit, that the program “enables conversations that are harder to have with a formal advisor who has institutional responsibilities.”
  3. Participants valued sharing strategies for dealing with conditions of academic labor. Mentees appreciated learning about academic production, seeing how active scholars managed accepting projects, scheduling their work, and prioritizing tasks. One mentor told us they shared an “extensive system of calendaring and ways of managing mental health and productivity” that was produced “over the years, out of need.” These strategies seemed especially important during the COVID era.

Best Practices

There are ways to do this thing right. Participants felt positively about the small group format, as many explained that this format provided them with a low-stakes environment for feedback which allowed participants to learn from each other’s experiences, and “generate[s] a small network…to cheer each other on.” And because the program pairs more than two people with differing goals, needs, and expectations, participants seemed best served when they approached the experience with a set of broad, rather than targeted, interests and goals.

Mentors should prioritize addressing topics of collective interest and be attentive to balancing time spent addressing unique concerns. Those who got the most out of the program also seemed, among other things, to have shared expectations about the function and format of the group. Group dynamics could become stilted if responsibilities for discussion leadership were unclear. We recommend clarifying expectations and roles in an early meeting including basics like how frequently the group will meet and for how long.

Group members should collectively determine concerns and interests while leaving space for unstructured discussion. We recommend creating a minimalist agenda prior to each meeting. Participants often expressed that they enjoyed the social support and connection generated by ad-hoc free-flowing discussions, but many mentees reported finding additional value addressing specific issues and challenges. Among many other things, mentees valued working on skills training, receiving feedback on writing and research, career development, reviewing job application materials, and receiving practical advice for navigating academia.

A lack of understanding about the time commitments of the program frustrated some mentors and mentees alike. We recommend building a structure to allow participants to opt out of groups or for organizers to anticipate potentially forming new ones if groups go dormant.

Advice: From Mentors to Mentors and From Mentees to Mentees

Our mentor surprised us with her thanks, and she wasn’t the only mentor to enjoy the experience. “I truly enjoyed the chance to get to know two incredibly bright scholars,” said one mentor. “I enjoy mentoring,” another mentor told us, “because I know that I’ve appreciated mentoring that I’ve received.” One other mentor urged established scholars to participate “even if they are unsure about what they have to offer,” finding that there were “many ways to be useful as a mentor and to use your experiences to support our junior colleagues.”

Mentors wanted potential-mentors to consider the importance of mentoring for the subfield’s reproduction. “I volunteered to participate,” one told us, “because sustaining cultural sociology is a decades-long project for me.” Another told us, “Mentorship from others who have ‘made it’ is essential for the future of our subdiscipline.” Another suggested, “Given how few ‘culture’ jobs there are out there, it is essential to find ways to guide cultural sociologists toward successful career paths and help those with jobs keep them.” 

One mentee wanted potential-mentees to know one thing, “There is no reason not to sign up for this!” Another shares that “It was absolutely worth my time,” while adding, “It deeply enriched my sense of what cultural sociology looks like, how to find my place in it, and how to improve my writing to make it more legible to this subfield.”

Messages of Thanks for the Organizers 

The reflections of mentees and mentors who participated in the 2020 Culture Section Mentorship Program demonstrate at least three non-exclusive benefits of this program: (1) It offers junior scholars useful advice and support; (2) It animates our subdiscipline and contributes to its cohesiveness; (3) It enables connection in hard times, offering respite from isolation and a chance to build meaningful, generative, relationships. 

Along with these benefits, we heard a resounding thank you for the organizers.  A mentee added, “Although my group had differing substantive interests, identities, and backgrounds, the pairing was quite perfect.”A mentor tells organizers, “Thanks for organizing this and for the chance to participate. It was really enjoyable and worthwhile for me,” while one simply wrote “ENCOURAGEMENT”. Another mentor adds, “I appreciate all the work that went into matching us because it was a great fit.” 

In all, the program was a success, and participants seemed to benefit greatly. We hope to see the program grow in the years to come. Thanks to the organizers and participants!