The Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program

Samira K. Mehta

I have been thinking quite a bit about mentoring lately. This is largely because I am currently participating in a remarkably successful mentoring program. Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, with the support of the Association for Jewish Studies Women’s Caucus, created mentoring program for emerging scholars in the field. Anne Lapidus Lerner (Jewish Theological Seminary) conceived of the program to honor the memory of the late Paula E. Hyman (1946-2011) by advancing the field of Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies through nurturing a cohort of six emerging scholars. And this young(ish) scholar is immensely grateful.

The program selected junior women scholars from across a range of disciplines and paired us with senior women scholars in our respective fields. We all have received PhDs within the past five years. Three of us are in religious studies, and three in literature. We have mentors in cultural studies, American history, museum studies, European history, and religious studies. Each pair is supposed to meet (either virtually or in person) bimonthly. My mentor, Annie Polland (Vice President of Programs and Education, Lower East Side Tenement Museum), and I aim to meet twice monthly (or approximately every three weeks) and discuss many aspects of career development, but focus particularly on the preparation of my book manuscript and other writing. Her advice is proving invaluable.

In addition to this one-on-one component, all of the mentors and mentees also stuck around for an extra day after the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting. We went out for a fabulous dinner, heard two of the mentors talk about their career paths (one in the world of museums and one a rather circuitous route to an academic position). The following day, we had workshops on landing a tenure-track job, getting tenure, academic publishing, and work-life balance. Each panel gave me at least one helpful tip and provided a review of best practices.

While the workshops were certainly productive, they were not the best part of the day that we spent together, or what I found most useful about the group. Rather, I was struck by the immense sense of community that we were able to create in a short time. Anne Lapidus Lerner and her selection committee chose the junior scholars from a range of career positions and potential paths. Some of us were in tenure track positions or postdocs, but there were also scholars in academic administration, and some currently working as adjuncts. Regardless of our current position, we were all treated like the scholars that we are and supported in our professional development. In this way, the program becomes far more than yet another program that bemoans the state of the academy.  Rather, by meeting the needs of a variety of young scholars, each navigating the increasingly complex landscape of the post-graduate school world, the program supports and encourages the growth of women scholars and their work in a variety of contexts.  Moreover, the program values each of these contexts in their own right. The Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program therefore reflected the diversity of positions in which young scholars now find themselves.

Similar attention was given to differences in our personal lives. Much of our conversation about work life balance addressed family life, particularly children. One of my fellow junior scholars, a woman with two children under five, reminded everyone that there are many kinds of work life balance and asked about challenges apart from parenthood. For me, a single woman with no children, it was exciting to look across the table at a young working mother and realize that she wanted to be my ally and knew that to do so we had to mutually understand one another’s challenges.

In the three weeks since that meeting, I have thought a good bit about how much community was built across difference and how the Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program was about to create such strong community. I have come to the conclusion that the answer is feminism. Not just any feminism but the specific brand of sisterhood based connection that the mentors spoke of repeatedly throughout the meeting. Most (though not all) of the mentors are women who are a generation older than I am. They have experience with a kind of ideologically based feminist community that I know about and respect, but had never personally experienced. And I am so glad that I now have.


Monica L. Mercado at: January 7, 2015 at 10:33 AM said...

Thanks for sharing, Samira - what a wonderful program! My Catholic history friends and I spent time at AHA/ACHA trying to figure out what's next for our organizing dreams, and this is such an interesting model.

Also, Annie Polland was my women's history TA at Barnard all those many years ago and I have such warm memories of her!

Samira K. Mehta at: January 7, 2015 at 11:15 AM said...

Monica, I actually had a detailed conversation about the Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program with someone on the ASCH steering committee with exactly such ideas in mind--part of what inspired me to write about the Jewish Studies model in this context. I really do think the feminist ethos is part of what made this model work so well, though I think there are strong models of co-ed mentorship out there as well. I was just struck by the very intentional nature of this community of feminist women.

Susannah at: January 7, 2015 at 3:18 PM said...

So nice to hear about what you feel is working about this mentoring program. I'm sure many many other scholarly organizations could learn from this model. The AAR mentoring program does not seem this intensive or inclusive of the varied situations young scholars find themselves in these days. I suspect with you that it being an intentionally feminist space helps foster a level of commitment in the mentors that you might not see elsewhere. It feels like a lot of the other mentoring programs I've seen seem to want to attract mentors by promising a low time-commitment.

Samira K. Mehta at: January 7, 2015 at 3:36 PM said...

I should add that 3 of the mentors other than Annie (which is to say people ASSIGNED to mentor other women in the program) have offered me help and assistance. The idea is that this is a community of mentors, for a community of mentees. And I think the idea is also that we will pay it forward once we are launched.

newer post older post