How a Graduate Center Mentorship Became Friendship, and Inspired a Book
A professor and an alumna discuss their mentoring relationship and the inspiration behind their co-edited book.
Tahneer Oksman (Ph.D. ’13, English) came to the Graduate Center in 2006 for her Ph.D. knowing she wanted to work with Distinguished Professor Nancy K. Miller (English, Comparative Literature, French, Biography and Memoir, Women’s and Gender Studies). She had heard her University of Chicago Professor, and Graduate Center alumna, Deborah Nelson (Ph.D. ’96, English) speak glowingly of her mentoring relationship with Miller. Now Oksman, who is an associate professor at Marymount Manhattan College, also speaks fondly of being mentored by Miller, who advised her dissertation. That their mentoring bond is still strong is evidenced in their co-edited book, Feminists Reclaim Mentorship: An Anthology.
Published by SUNY Press on February 1, the book contains essays by 26 contributors recounting their experiences — positive and negative — with mentorship as both mentors and mentees.
In late January, just before the book’s publication, Miller and Oksman spoke to us about their process for creating the book and their views on the changing nature of feminist mentorship. Their responses, lightly edited and condensed for space and clarity, are below.
The Graduate Center: What sparked the idea for Feminists Reclaim Mentorship?
Nancy K. Miller: In January 2019, my last book, My Brilliant Friends, had just been published. While talking about the book with Tahneer, we saw that mentorship had in fact been a crucial part of these relationships, and thought that the line between friendship and mentorship would be interesting to explore. I had been focused on the nature of friendships between women in a professional world. But not about mentorship itself.
Tahneer Oksman: At the time I was also reflecting on my job directing the writing program at Marymount Manhattan College, which I had jumped into right out of graduate school. I was a tenure-track professor put in charge of a whole program that included many part-time faculty. So I was also thinking about my own shifting role, from having been mentored to being put in a position where I could potentially become a mentor myself.
GC: Why is it important for feminists to reclaim mentorship now?
Miller: By mid-2020 we knew COVID was going to transform everyone’s lives. The pandemic, notably in the workplace, had a serious impact on our thinking about mentorship. Work itself was rapidly changing.
Oksman: When people talk about mentorship, particularly between women, it’s often as a celebrated, idealized relationship. One of the things we hope the book does is complicate the idea of mentorship. We wanted to look at the relationship in a more complex way than the conventional understanding. When we asked friends about their own experiences, they had a surprising range of stories, including a yearning for the kind of relationship they had never had. We wanted to present a more nuanced look at what mentorship can be, the problems and pitfalls, the power dynamics of that relationship.
GC: What makes a great mentorship and how has mentorship changed?
Miller: When I was in graduate school at Columbia, and later teaching at Barnard, my mentor was the well-known writer and feminist critic, Carolyn Heilbrun. We taught together, we created a book series together. We also had dinner once a week and thought of ourselves as friends. When Carolyn died by suicide in 2003, many feminist critics felt they had lost a mentor. I was bereft but I wasn’t going to look for another mentor. By then I was in fact mentoring graduate students, though I wasn’t thinking of myself as a mentor. Carolyn was my idea of a mentor. I was just doing my job. I hoped to have a more fluid relationship with my students than Carolyn had had with hers, in part because she seemed somehow stuck in that role. Ultimately, I think, that was harmful to her. Coming into my own years of mentoring, I didn’t want to seem frozen into the classic mentor image in the eyes of the students.
Oksman: Throughout my education, I had what I think of as moments of mentorship. I’d had many wonderful teachers over the course of my undergraduate career and beyond, and I’d connected with some, but I’d never had a sustained relationship that carried beyond the institution. The way that I often talk about Nancy as my mentor is that, in a way, she taught me how to think. One of the writers in our book talks about feeling that her mentor gave her permission to do what she already knew she wanted to. Looking back, that’s how I feel too. Sometimes I just needed someone to say that the unusual choices I was making were okay. Nancy once confirmed that I was triply marginalizing myself — writing about women, Jews, and comics — but that if that was what I wanted to do, I should do it. She threw a famous Grace Paley line at me one time: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
I also felt that Nancy would always tell me the truth about my work. I never thought that the compliments — or critiques — were unwarranted. It can be hard as a writer to get honest or attentive feedback.
GC: What big takeaway do you want people to have from Feminists Reclaim Mentorship?
Oksman: When you read these essays, you start to see how patterns we tend to think about as limited to the academic life or the writing life or any vocations where you feel as if you’re on your own, how these models recur. You can see them in all kinds of ways beyond the worlds of academia and writing and publishing.
Miller: Contrary to popular opinion, mentorship is not necessarily a rigid, hierarchical arrangement, and it doesn’t just require a pair. It’s a fluid relationship that can take many forms, from the classic one-on-one to the multiple to the horizontal group. Feminist mentorship ideally is flexible, reciprocal, and will evolve over time.
We hope readers come away excited about the possibilities of mentorship in their lives.
GC: How has your relationship changed since you met at the Graduate Center?
Miller: During Tahneer’s dissertation process — and this happened with some of my previous students — I began to explore the kinds of work she had introduced me to. She made me realize that I had never looked at comics this way. As we suggest in the book, there is a potential for reciprocity in the mentor-mentee relationship, and also change, which is often ignored. It happened with us.
There’s a line in the book’s introduction that Tahneer must have written, where in talking about the evolution of a relationship — it’s not static, it doesn’t remain in one place — she said: “And then there’s a time when it’s time to mentor the mentor.” Okay, I thought, it was true; we’ve reached that time.
Upcoming events for Feminists Reclaim Mentorship include a roundtable discussion at the Rifkind Center on Thursday, March 9; a roundtable at the Graduate Center Ph.D. Program in the English Lounge on Friday, March 31; and a reading at the Graduate Center on Thursday, May 4.