Reflections on mentorship in the University.
By Anouk Jouffret
To me, mentorship has always seemed akin to cloning: A student shows a vested interest in a professor’s field of study and hopes, in some way, to emulate their career. The professor, in turn, guides the student in their image. Given the intimacy and gravity of the student-teacher relationship I envisioned, writing emails to professors has never been a simple endeavor for me. I want to BE this person, I always think to myself. A simple “I hope you’re doing well” will never do for an opening. Answering a lighthearted “How is your summer going?” sends me into a spiral. “Am I allowed to return her questions? Can I ask about her summer? Her family—would that be too much?”
I imagined I wasn’t alone in my troubles, but when I asked fellow Columbians “When is personal too personal?”, I was pointed in a very different and much more intriguing direction than e-correspondence etiquette. All of the professors I interviewed felt that student-professor boundaries were relatively simple to navigate. Instead, our conversations probed the meaning of mentorship itself.
When I suggested—through my cloning analogy—to Professor Mark C. Taylor of Columbia’s Religion Department that getting to know a professor personally would allow the student an insider glance at the life that they might one day live, he promptly rejected the notion. The job market in academia has been bleak since the 1970s, he reminded me. “As far as giving students glimpses about the life that they might have in a profession like college teaching, there is no future for them.” When students express interest in emulating his career: “I say, ‘Don’t do what I do. Do what I could never imagine doing and come back and tell me about it.”
A few days before I spoke with Taylor, I met with Alethea Harnish, CC ’23, who studies religion in addition to playwriting, acting, and painting. She considers Taylor to be a mentor of hers and embodied his aversion to the academic route. As a young person searching for the intersections between her interests in faith, philosophy, and art, Harnish enjoys learning about Professor Taylor’s life outside the classroom. She is fascinated by how he translates his body of research into his art as a sculptor. Harnish once wrote a full performance script for a class of Taylor’s and, with his encouragement, submitted it for the Religion Department’s Peter Awn Paper Prize. She won.
I also spoke with Professor Ann Douglas of Columbia’s English Department. Retired for nearly a decade, she continues to teach a seminar on the Beat Generation. We met over Zoom. As her research assistant adjusted her computer screen, I glimpsed the large array of books that Douglas’s mother dubbed the Ann Douglas Memorial Library. Her dedication to the Beat Generation, she told me through the screen, began in her late teens while reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In fact, she was so enchanted by the novel that she decided to go on the road herself—only to be found, four days later, by a detective hired by her step-father. Though thwarted once, Douglas said she has lived her life in this spirit ever since.
Like Taylor, Douglas doubts that the life she’s led in academia would fulfill most of her students’ needs and desires. She certainly doesn’t encourage them to attempt to emulate her CV. But she does urge them to make unconventional choices—whatever that means for them—and to always recall the convictions of the Beatniks.
Both Douglas and Taylor live and breathe the material that they study and teach. But they’re not interested in molding their students into versions of themselves. Instead, they encourage their students to apply their general philosophies to the medium—and for a purpose—that suits them best. When we discussed his pedagogy, Taylor walked around his office in 80 Claremont and pulled out a DVD, a video game, and a script from the bookshelves that lined every windowless wall of the room. These were projects his students had created for him over the years. They resided alongside the volumes upon volumes of books listed in his syllabi and cited in his published works. I took this as an indication of what true mentorship is capable of.