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Mentoring Graduate Students Through Social Media, or How I Made it Through the Last 5 Years

After Amy recently wrote about how social media led her to Prof. Hacker, I was reminded that social media led me to graduate school in the first place. Without a doubt, I would not have started graduate school—nor would I be finishing, I don’t think—without social networking. In this post I will talk about what social networking has meant to me, from the perspective of a graduate student.

The title of this post is “Mentoring Graduate Students Through Social Media” not because it’s a how-to for faculty, but because for me social media has been my default method of receiving mentoring. If you’re reading this as a faculty member and you have a presence online, please recognize that you are probably mentoring students without even knowing it. For my fellow graduate students, recognize that there are plenty of faculty out there who have something to teach you.

I had a clear plan for this post, all about the great mentoring I’ve had over the years, how social networking has shaped who I am as a scholar and a teacher, and how I’ve been able to bring aspects of social networking to my actual in-person mentor (committee chair) who isn’t as technologically inclined as I am. But then I read some of the comments on Natalie Houston’s introduction to the ProfHacker Series on Mentoring and remembered that not all mentoring relationships are positive and often no mentoring actually occurs. So, before reading on please know that I fully recognize that mine are probably unique experiences. I hope that over time my experiences will not seem unique or even at all interesting.

I am (and always have been) a non-traditional student. I didn’t go to high school, I rushed through undergrad in three years, had no idea what I was doing when I started a grad program immediately thereafter, quit that immediately, wandered around for a few years, went to California to seek my fortune, found a lot of debt instead, started taking classes at community college, then did a second BA (in business management, no less), realized I still loved English, did a two-year MA program at the local state university, applied to a few PhD programs, got in to a few PhD programs, chose a program that “fit” better over one with fancier letterhead, have taken and taught a good range of courses, and am finishing in three years instead of four. I believe my non-traditional path led me to non-traditional forms of mentoring, or at least made me more open to it.

In the narrative above, the point at which I realized I still loved English coincided with the point at which I started blogging: April 2004. The person who told me that blogging was interesting and useful was Prof. Hacker’s own Natalie Houston. Truth be told, I have known Natalie for (gulp) nineteen years. When I quit my initial foray into graduate school (it lasted six weeks), she was into her second year of a PhD program. She never quit, obviously, and is the successful and tenured person you see today. We didn’t stop being friends, so I had the opportunity to experience vicariously the trials and tribulations of completing coursework, exams, a dissertation, going on the job market, going up for tenure, and so on. This leads me to my first point for my fellow students: pay attention to what is going on around you.

I learned a lot through observation. I know that it’s tempting to stay in our little bubbles, but the rest of the world isn’t in our little bubbles. Such is the nature of the bubble. So when Natalie said “you should blog and meet people,” I blogged. But I didn’t have my own community yet, and so I did what social networking is intended to help you do: I developed one. That development began by hanging around in her community, where early on I met George, Jason, Nels, and Billie [yes, half of Team ProfHacker have been "internet friends" for upwards of five years—if we were an academic department, we'd almost all be tenured].

I met many other people from various academic departments, and I read their blog posts about their students, faculty interactions, work processes, pedagogy issues, research issues, funding issues, and so on. When I read something interesting, I didn’t hesitate to ask a question. When I had a question of my own, my blogging community did not hesitate to answer me. Basically, by spending some time creating a community of people I liked as people, who just happened also to be academics, I ended up with fifty or sixty de facto mentors.

So when I walked into my MA program and then my PhD program, I was pretty low maintenance—I already knew how things worked in general, and I knew the right questions to ask to find out the answers I didn’t know. At my MA institution and my PhD institution I’ve had great in-person mentors—three or four, actually, at each stop. Although they are all wonderful and helpful people, I do wonder if part of the reason they are so willing to help me out is because I already came to them with a solid understanding of academic life and processes. That leads me to the next point: immerse yourself in the academic community.

This is where social networking really works—especially Twitter, and especially Twitter as used as a backchannel during conferences. So, graduate students:

  • build up the list of people you follow
  • don’t be afraid to follow the “big names” in your field
  • don’t freak out if they don’t follow you
  • don’t freak out if they do
  • listen to what they talk about, and if there’s an opening in the conversation, jump in
  • if you get ignored, so what? it’s good practice for real-life conversations
  • if the conversation turns and includes you, super! it’s good practice for real-life conversations
  • and more!

With blogging, I had a community of people willing to read my ramblings and offer advice. With Twitter, it’s like sitting in a park with just about everyone whose work informs my own in some way, watching and listening to all the conversations. Blogging supported me personally, but without Twitter I don’t know that I’d be finishing a year early. The backchannel conversations and subsequent contacts following the Computers & Writing, Digital Humanities, and THATCamp (un)conferences not only jumpstarted but brought everything together for me, and it was precisely because my experiences in the blogosphere made me unafraid to interact in the twittersphere. Those interactions proved amazingly useful, and I’ve taken information back to meetings with my committee chair (in person) and we talk about what’s happening in our field right now. There’s just no substitute for that.

A final thought for my fellow graduate students: be unafraid. Mentoring in the real world not working for you? Figure out what it is you need, and call out from the mountaintop—there will be someone out there who can and will answer. Probably a lot of someones.

[Photo by Flickr user oooh.oooh; Creative Commons licensed]

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