Conversation between Mary Cantrell, Vida Cross, Rachel Hall and Anna Leahy
The four of us met more than thirty years ago, as students at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. While we didn’t head to graduate school at exactly the same time, we overlapped with each other as students in the MA program at Iowa State University (now an MFA program in the writing of place). We shared the same professors as we came into our own as writers, and we’ve kept in touch with each other for thirty years since then. Not long ago, we talked about our friendship as women writers and about mentors and mentoring at the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference. We welcome the opportunity to extend that conversation about role models, mentors, and friends here at Tinderbox Poetry Journal.
*Continued where we left off in Part 1 of this conversation, found in the Summer 2020 issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Here is the first part of this interview, if you missed it!
Anna Leahy: Vida, you talk about Mary Swander as someone who gave you permission, but you also name Calvin Forbes—a man—as your mentor. Do you think the gender of a mentor matters?
Vida Cross: I think the fact that Calvin Forbes is a male mentor was never an issue for me. What was most important was that he was an African American writer who understood what it meant to be an African American writer trying to articulate experiences that occur in African American communities while attending a predominantly white institution. When I was at SAIC, Calvin was one of one. There were plenty of females, but none were black, and there were plenty of males, but he was the only black one. I studied with everyone, but Calvin had the respect and authority to protect me a little from people who wanted to tell me to stop what I was doing and go home.
Mary Cantrell: I don’t think the experience of having few female professors or professors of color was at all unusual. My first term at Knox, I took a class with Sue Hulett, a political science professor, whose book had just been published. On the first paper for her—my first college essay!—she wrote that I was the best writer in the class. I was a terrified Okie, far away from my encouraging relatives and adoring high school teachers, and her comment meant the world to me. I might not have returned the next semester, had I not had her as my professor. For the rest of my time there, though, I took classes with only two other female professors. But we were lucky that many of our male professors were well versed in feminist politics, at least for the times.
Anna Leahy: I’d say they were well versed in feminism in some ways and relative to academia at large. But to name our few women professors and how influential they were for us—for me, Robin Behn in English, Nancy Eberhardt in anthropology, and Penny Gold in history—is to say there was a problem, and there still is. Progressive-identifying white men don’t, in and of themselves, offset systemic bias.
Mary Cantrell: True, but at Knox, I didn’t experience the male arrogance that many women writers experienced. After completing her MFA, one of my friends was so demoralized by her male professors that she quit writing for thirty years. In “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit reminds us that the prevalence of male arrogance “makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field.” Such arrogance, she writes, “keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” I wasn’t crushed into silence at Knox or Iowa State; in fact, both experiences bolstered my confidence.
Rachel Hall: Mary’s comments and yours earlier, Anna, make me think about how much self-confidence plays into this discussion. The confidence to ask for a potential mentor’s time and attention, the confidence to put your work out in the world and potentially face rejection. When I think about my own students, it isn’t always the most talented ones who have success; it’s the ones who have confidence in themselves.
Anna Leahy: Is that confidence or persistence? Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses this question in a video at The Atlantic. He opens by saying that he “knew what kind of writer he wanted to be” but “was not becoming that writer.” You try to write something brilliant, he says, but it’s not brilliant—you fail, which is “very depressing.” But you revise—and that’s definitely one way I gain confidence, too. Someone advised Coates, “the path is so tough and you get beat up so much” that a lot of writers eventually give up and do something else. You either build up writerly stamina or you quit. And then, if you stick with it, Coates says, “The competition will thin out.”
I developed lots of skills through years of practice, and I have always been more confident as an editor than as a writer.
Mary Cantrell: How can you persist if you don’t have at least a little confidence? Doesn’t the stamina come from a belief in yourself and in what you’re doing?
Anna Leahy: Yes, confidence in what you’re doing, which you need to muster in order to keep at it. It’s a vicious circle, something that works when it becomes self-perpetuating.
Mary Cantrell: I’m actually amazed at how much I wrote after I became a full-time professor at Tulsa Community College, where the teaching load is five classes a semester. Even after my son was born, I continued to write. Many years into my career now, I’m not as prolific, in part because the path is so tough, but also because I’m much more confident about my teaching than writing. Some days, I tell myself maybe teaching is more important than writing, maybe I’m making more a difference putting my talent and energies into helping my students than I would be if I were finishing my novel, for example.
Or is it just that I’m taking the path of least resistance? Not that teaching five sections of first-year composition is easy, but my career as a community college professor can be tremendously rewarding. Moreover, I’ve worked with many excellent women—women who inspire me, encourage me, serve as good role models for achieving work-life balance.
Anna Leahy: Maybe we need mentoring for the writerly life even more than for the writing itself.
Mary Cantrell: And maybe finding a mentor is easier in some places than in others. A special issue on gender of the journal New Directions for Community Colleges cites a recent study that suggests, “Community colleges are feminized work spaces that allow faculty members to find a balance between work and family,” in part because more faculty at community colleges are women. The women surveyed identified community colleges as good places to work, especially for women who want a family. The authors of the study point out, though, that career choices in higher education “are influenced by power and gender norms in institutions” and that “women continue to make the greatest strides and have the greatest representation in institutions that are perceived as less prestigious (e.g., community colleges), in positions that are marginalized in traditional academic terms (i.e., nontenure track and part-time positions) and in disciplines that tend to be marginalized in terms of knowledge production and institutional value systems.” I’m pretty sure my success at a less-prestigious institution has been easier than succeeding as a writer, perhaps because I’m in a “feminized workspace.”
Anna Leahy: So, did we each make our own way to where we are now in our careers, or were we drawn by disciplines and roles where women belong? I’m asking, in part, because I started college intending to study science and become a surgeon, and the arts and humanities are considered feminized by comparison, but that’s where I ended up by the time I was a sophomore.
Vida Cross: I believe I made my own way. I too teach at a community college. I was never encouraged to teach. I took one adjunct faculty position many years after I finished graduate school and I loved it. Unfortunately, I did not realize how tough it is to obtain a full-time position at any college level. I am now, full time at a community college. I have been here for many years. I love the school, but my full-time position is temporary, and it can end after any semester.
Anna Leahy: That’s terrific—your persistence paid off, but it’s not easy. And your situation remains contingent.
Mary Cantrell: When I was hired at TCC, the competition wasn’t nearly as steep as it is now. I doubt I’d get a full-time position if I were on the job market today (even before the pandemic), and if I were applying for a community college position, my minor successes as a writer would not be seen as an asset, which is too bad. We need more practicing writers to teach and to mentor first- and second-year students.
I realize now how fortunate I was to take classes with full-time, tenured professors who were not just good mentors but also accomplished writers. Robin Behn’s collection won the poetry prize in AWP’s award series the year after Rachel and I graduated from Knox. She was writing those poems while teaching, and she was setting boundaries with students like Rachel, who wanted her time and attention. I’ve learned to say no to my creative writing students who ask me to read their fiction or poetry, but I’m less likely to turn down a student’s request for help on a scholarship essay. I spend a lot of time helping struggling students who have none of the advantages I had when I was an undergraduate, and that means I’m giving up writing time. TCC rewards me for making teaching a priority, too, whereas my success as a writer counts for nothing. I’ve just been promoted to full professor (a rank that came into existence at TCC only this year), and I’m pretty sure my meager publications did not matter at all. I’ve focused on teaching and service.
Anna Leahy: When I applied for promotion to full professor a few years ago, I had little doubt my record exceeded the criteria, but there were no other women at the highest rank among the eight of us in creative writing and only one woman full professor in the whole English Department. We’re well into the twenty-first century, and this path hasn’t been well paved for women, people of color, and people with disabilities. I go out of my way to mentor some colleagues actively because the path remains more of a thicket for some of us.
Vida Cross: It is my opinion that to be mentored—to have these conversations—you have to be of a certain state of mind. It might help to know what you want and to be able to communicate this to the people around you. The student—or fellow writer—may have a greater responsibility than she thinks. When I was an undergraduate, I was unsure of my career goals, and I was less aware of how important and useful a mentor could be. My failure to be mentored had something to do with my own reluctance to connect with people of authority, parental figures, and superiors.
However, I also believe that I existed in an environment that many of my peers—African American peers and students—co-exist in: a world in which you are being observed but not assisted. In my experience, as an African American female in predominantly white environments, people are watching you. They are watching to see how you live up to or fail to live up to their expectations. If you are lucky, a faculty member may have a one-on-one conversation with you. They may want to know about your schooling, your parentage, your ACT scores. This is insulting to Black people. The encounter with the student, the African American student, is a kind of interview to see if the student can live up to the teacher’s intellectual, social, political, and overall life expectations. Ralph Ellison wrote in his novel Invisible Man, “When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Anna Leahy: I don’t see how mentorship is possible in this situation, when the person in a position to mentor doesn’t really see the person who could use some mentoring, but I also see your point about the need for communicating goals or being open to connections.
Rachel Hall: I agree that the student may have a greater responsibility than she thinks in terms of being mentored. I suspect I wasn’t always open to the mentoring that was offered for various reasons—my own flakiness and erratic work ethic, a lack of confidence. I didn’t always look like a good bet.
Anna Leahy: So, we have to prove ourselves worthy of being mentored? That suggests that success invites mentoring.
Mary Cantrell: Sheryl Sanberg makes that sort of point in Lean In. Instead of encouraging women to get a mentor in order to excel, she argues, we should tell women “Excel and you will get a mentor.” Sanburg explains that “a virtuoso performance” is not the only way to attract a mentor. Through “casual and quick” exchanges, women can establish mentoring relationships—kind of like the exchanges with Calvin Forbes that you describe, Vida. But it’s a chicken and egg problem: women who aren’t confident won’t excel and therefore might not connect with someone who can help them be more confident so that they can excel.
Anna Leahy: If that’s the case, then those who might need mentoring the most are left out and those who might go the farthest the fastest even without mentoring get further advantage.
Mary Cantrell: And I would argue that those who most need mentoring are those students whose privilege and background keep them out of the “mainly white room” of creative writing classes, but also out of academia in general. Those are the students I want to help. Doing so makes me feel better about being a practicing writer at a community college. I didn’t squander all of that mentoring from writers. I’ve applied it differently.
Another problem: Sanburg characterizes mentoring as a “reciprocal relationship” because “the mentor receives benefits, too, including useful information, greater commitment from colleagues, and a sense of fulfillment and pride.” If that’s the case, who are those in positions of power likely to want to take under their wings? What made professors take note of me? I can’t imagine I looked like a good bet. And really, I wasn’t, if what my professors hoped for was someone who could publish award-winning books and give them a sense of fulfillment and pride. Would anyone boast to his colleagues about how one of his protégés is now teaching community college students?
Anna Leahy: Academics can come across as snooty, but, yes, I think they would boast of your success, if they had a sense of the current job market. In fact, this year, my department has been discussing the importance of preparing our graduate students for community college teaching, and some of us are happy to see how many of our recent graduates are finding full-time work at community colleges. But for many academics, it challenges their definitions of success.
Mary Cantrell: That’s heartening, but I’m not sure that people in your department or at any graduate program would know how to prepare graduates for community college teaching. Don’t most faculty at four-year and graduate programs see themselves as mentors to students who will someday be successful writers and professors who teach creative writing? Even for those aware of the realities of the job market, the divide between what you’re doing at your institutions and in graduate programs and what happens at a community college is huge. Maybe graduate students need community college faculty to mentor them, if they really want to find a career at a community college.
Anna Leahy: As part of our conversation, we’re trying to address our shortcomings—bringing back alums to talk with current graduate students, looking for funding to host a community college mentor-in-residence, making connections with administrators at community colleges. Some of our faculty, myself included, have community college teaching experience and have worked with diverse student communities.
Mary Cantrell: That brings us back to the question of how we mentor students with paths unlike our own or who are very unlike ourselves. My job puts me into contact with young people whose lives are very different from my own. I try to select a diverse array of writers to include on my syllabus, and like all institutions, TCC strives to hire faculty with diversity in mind, which is key to creating an inclusive, welcoming educational experience to our students. But here I am, a middle-aged white woman of privilege, teaching so many students who haven’t had the same advantages I’ve had, advantages like good teachers, involved parents, reliable transportation, good medical care, food. Some of my students have experienced racism, abuse, mental illness that goes untreated. My job sometimes requires me to have more faith in my students than they can have in themselves.
Anna Leahy: My guess is that we’ve all worked with students unlike ourselves. I’ve sometimes felt unprepared to help students navigate experiences of racism in our community or to cope with students whose mental illness interferes with their ability to excel in my class.
Mary Cantrell: I think we all agree that having faith in our students’ abilities, whether they’re struggling first-generation composition students or graduate students looking for a career, is part of mentoring, and certainly we want to offer advice and guidance, but maybe we’re rather limited in some respects, based on our own backgrounds and experiences.
Rachel Hall: Aren’t we also limited in terms of time? I have to say, I’m suspicious of mentoring as an expectation for faculty, though it’s become a buzzword in education these days. In part, I’m thinking about job sprawl, with its increasing piling on of duties and responsibilities. Also, I think it’s important to note, as Anna points out, that women writers may not be getting the same kind of mentoring as male writers, but those women who teach are very much expected to provide full-on mentoring. It is, after all, care work, and we know to whom that kind of work typically falls—in the home or the workplace. Also, like other kinds of women’s work, it is largely invisible. In her article in The Guardian, “A Woman’s Greatest Enemy? A Lack of Time to Herself,” Brigid Schultes writes about the many demands on women’s time and the resulting difficulty this creates in terms of writing. She references the work of sociologist Joya Misra and her colleagues “who found that not only were the work days of the female professors much longer than their male colleagues […] but that the women’s time at work (like home) was interrupted and fragmented, chopped up with more service work, mentoring and teaching. The men spent more of their work days in long stretches of uninterrupted time to think, research, write, create and publish to make their names, advance their careers and get their ideas out into the world.”
When women mentor, is it perceived as mentoring or are we simply nurturing?
Anna Leahy: That’s a good—tough—question. I see some guidance as an obligation of the job, and now that I direct a program, I give a lot of thought to how I can help emerging writers get where they want to go and figure it out for themselves. I maintain distance, though. I tell myself that’s because I don’t want students to substitute my goals as a writer for their own, nor substitute me for their peers—for the possibility of writerly friendships like the four of us cultivated over decades. But it’s also about setting boundaries to protect my time and guard against the stereotype of nurturer that undercuts being seen as a professional.
I didn’t understand mentoring very well as a student, and I’m still figuring out how best to support other writers, including my students. I work better with some students than others in doing this—and with some writer friends and acquaintances better than others. A curious student or someone willing to take risks generates a mentoring response from me. I’m trying to think more about how to mentor equitably.
Rachel Hall: A part of me thinks this is admirable, Anna, and a part of me thinks mentoring cannot be equitable—nor should it be. It’s important to recognize the unquantifiable in the most meaningful of mentoring relationships. I advise many students and write letters for grad schools, jobs, etc., but there are some students whom I mentor more actively. What is it that makes this happen? It’s not just a belief in their work, though that is essential; it’s also that some compatibility exists between us. We click with some people or we don’t. I think this mutual clicking is essential or the mentoring relationship isn’t genuine. In the corporate world, for instance, mentors are assigned. Some institutions have expectations—usually unwritten—that faculty will mentor students, but I think this is a difficult thing to require. It’s like requiring friendship, a relationship we recognize must be voluntary. I happily mentor a number of students and former students, but it would lose all the pleasure for me if it were required.
Mary Cantrell: Yes—and even if mentoring were required as part of the job, women would be judged differently than men in terms of how we fulfill that requirement. The interactive Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews website emphasizes students’ different expectations for men and women faculty, and we know from many studies that women are expected to be nurturing. I hate the discrepancy in expectations, but isn’t the nurturing that (mostly) female professors provide really valuable?
Anna Leahy: Maybe it’s valuable but not rewarded.
Mary Cantrell: I can’t help but think of your experience, Vida, and of how important it is that we pay attention to which of our students are reluctant to seek a mentor or who simply feel they don’t belong. This has a lot to do with what academia likes to call “the attainment gap.” Politico recently published an article about a new program at Pasadena City College, one that helps faculty be more attuned to their students’ needs and approach teaching differently. “Their core philosophy,” the articles explains, “is that unless professors change what they do in the classroom with a deliberate focus on racial equity, even the most well-meaning and dedicated among them will discourage students of color with subtle messages that they don’t belong, that they aren’t expected to succeed, or that they are on their own to sink or swim.”
Maybe instead of pushing back on the expectation to be nurturing, we should impose it on our male colleagues and reward faculty who take the time to mentor their students in the ways we’ve been discussing. Certainly, we should be granted the time and student-faculty ratios we need to provide the kind of nurturing that benefits students.
Vida Cross: I agree with you, Mary. I see myself as a nurturing mentor. My students come from a variety of backgrounds, but I want them to see themselves as a welcome member of our community (this educational institution). I want them to learn and thrive and enjoy. I encourage academic friendships amongst their peers, I encourage them to enjoy learning, I encourage them to seek people out and ask for assistance. I am encouraging them to be mentored and to understand the process. I think you can nurture as a mentor at the community college level because the students aren’t aware of the need for it. However, at a four-year institution or graduate school, being THE nurturer may be too much.
Rachel Hall: And let’s encourage Mary to remember she’s a writer, in addition to an amazing teacher and mentor.
Anna Leahy: The writing connects us to each other and to our students. Interestingly, the word “encourage” comes from the word for heart, and maybe that’s the key to mentorship as well as to friendship. Our hearts are in it.
Mary Cantrell is a Tulsa Community College English professor, a George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Faculty Chair, and, sometimes, a writer. Her most recent publication is “Diggers in the Garden: The Habits of Mind of Creative Writers in Basic Writing Classrooms,” a collaborative essay published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College.
Vida Cross is the author of a book of poetry Bronzeville at Night: 1949. She is a Cave Canem poet and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. Currently, she teaches English full-time at a two-year college, Milwaukee Area Technical College. See more at vidacross.com.
Rachel Hall is the author of Heirlooms, a linked collection of stories, which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize (BkMk ). Heirlooms was also awarded the Phillip McMath Post Publication Prize. She is Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo. See more at www.rachelhall.org.
Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor (Bloomsbury) and the poetry books Aperture (Shearsman) and Constituents of Matter (Kent State University Press). She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, where she edits the international poetry journal TAB. See more at www.amleahy.com.