Let me step back for a moment. Use my indoor voice, as Mrs. Winteringham reminded us in kindergarten.
Some number of years ago, a friend of mine sent a copy of her completed dissertation to one of her committee members, a year or so after its completion. This was in an era prior to PDFs and e-mail ubiquity, so it would have been photocopied and cost my friend thirty or forty bucks, plus mailing. She was still on the job market, adjuncting and sending out applications and working her butt off as young scholars do.
She received, months later, a note from said committee member. I’m going to use a pseudonym here, not to protect his identity —may his grave always be in shadow and his name forgotten—but rather to protect hers. Let’s call him, I don’t know, Smug Lesserlight. Anyway, Dr. Lesserlight sent my friend this handwritten note on a sheet torn from a desk pad:
(I hope this reaches you.)
Thanks for your note and copy of thesis. I appreciate your kind words.
I hope you still believe it was all worth the while. You worked so hard (sometimes!) and it hasn’t seemed to lead anywhere.
What a foul, wretched bastard. What a misgotten, ill-bred, tone-deaf son of a bitch.
…okay….step back, breathe, indoor voice…
So today, I write to my colleagues on the graduate faculty, those among you who facilitate the transformation of students into scholars. Their future is in your hands. Not merely intellectually, but more importantly as you facilitate their entry into membership. No community welcomes new members without sponsors, a current member willing to do the work of introducing and lending support and making connections and easing the way. Your job is not simply to raise the scholarly bar to the appropriate height; your job is to get them a job. You need to spend more time on that than you do on your own scholarship, now that you’re tenured and inside the gates.
At this stage in your career, you are a builder of your discipline’s intellectual community. Your best scholarship has (likely, at least statistically) already occurred, and now you play a different role, one of mentor and guide and concierge to a new generation. You cannot walk your students to the exit, shake their hands, and be done with it. You need to have worked steadily, for at least the two years leading to the dissertation defense, to be your student’s foremost publicist, making their light shine brightly among your colleagues, bringing them to the right taverns at conferences, making their name into the most desirable brand in your field.
Yes, you are responsible for assuring the quality of their scholarly product. But you are also responsible for giving that seed a well-prepared soil upon which to land.
One of my former colleagues had a monthly dinner at her home for all of her dissertation students, in which they reviewed one another’s CVs and cover letters, in which she worked with them to locate openings and cast their research into the best possible language for that specific program. On the other end, she got them behind some doors that would otherwise have been closed to them, making introductions, building alliances with senior scholars in a position to hire. And sure enough, her students did far better on the job market than those of any of her colleagues. The work of mentorship is knowable, and should be approached with the same rigor as all of your other intellectual life.
So let me say this. If you are clearing out some old papers, a forgotten corner of your desk, and you come across the name of one of your former doctoral students or post-docs… and you think to yourself, “Huh, I wonder what ever happened to her…” and then let that fleeting sadness wash away as you go to lunch with your friends…you have committed academic malpractice. You have sealed your legacy as an intellectual scam artist, selling your students an expensive property and then letting them be foreclosed upon while washing your hands of the whole affair.
As the town hall protesters around the country are saying this week to their elected members of congress… Do. Your. Job.