Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia

Laleh Khalili on an academic agony aunt who advises on everything from sex to seminar etiquette

March 12, 2009

My first reaction upon dipping into the hilarious Ms. Mentor was a surprised and pleased guffaw. Emily Toth, a professor of English and women's studies at Louisiana State University who has written books on Kate Chopin, the soap opera Peyton Place and menstruation, has now "channelled" her agony aunt Ms Mentor for more than a decade, although she tells us that "Ms Mentor is much taller, has a deeper voice, and is a heavy metal fanatic".

Ms Mentor provides a great deal of advice, some pithy and some very lengthy, meant for North American academics, and originally published under the auspices of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Although some of the advice deals with uniquely North American phenomena such as the tenure track and community colleges, much of it is very useful for those of us ensconced in our anglophone ivory towers. The book is bursting with questions that bring on a knowing nod, and the sly Ms Mentor has a lot of cheeky answers, delivered with perfect look-down-her-nose-and-smirk sarcasm.

Written in "third person haughty", in the words of an earlier reviewer, the book is a fabulous compendium of advice for new and seasoned academics. Toth takes a resolutely egalitarian approach to problems, thereby allowing all sorts of dilemmas to be aired: everything from how to negotiate the conflicting demands of marriages and academic jobs, to surviving uniquely uncollegial departments (a sunny disposition helps), to - more mundanely - what to do if the lecturer in the class scheduled immediately before yours refuses to wipe the whiteboard clean (the solution is to stop being neurotic about such ephemeral and petty concerns and just forbear until the end of the term when class bookings will inevitably change).

Chapters take on everything from the trials and travails of doctoral students, "love and sex in academia" ("Once academics meet in person, public speaking ability helps: they can try a rip-roaring discourse on an esoteric subject, and see who refuses to flee"), teaching, collegiality, tenure, life after tenure, and all the small and large concerns that we academics have. "If your workplace calls itself a family, is that a sure sign that it's dysfunctional?" is one query; in another, "Rosie" asks: "When my Very Annoying Colleague is having a hissy fit because he needs copies quickly but the copier needs a new toner cartridge and the secretary is home sick, do I have a moral obligation to inform him that I know how to change the toner? Or may I keep the knowledge to myself and enjoy the show?" Ms Mentor, incidentally, polls a number of academics, who unanimously advocate "tough love. Rosie should keep the knowledge to herself."

The chapters for the doctoral students are particularly useful - and brutally honest. All written with Toth's reliably knowing, tongue-firmly-in-cheek tone ("The young often find it comforting, even seductive, to think of their advisers as all-knowing: not only world-class experts in literature or biochemistry, but also infinitely wise in matters of heart and soul"), Ms Mentor nevertheless doles out nuggets of practical advice that may seem pedestrian, but that make excellent good sense (setting up writing critique groups, writing "one lousy page a day", or timing one's "job talk" presentation).

And even if there is a world of difference between British and North American funding processes and finances, her advice on what sorts of jobs to take while finishing a PhD is absolutely on the mark no matter where you ply your trade.

There is much else to enjoy, even if one doesn't want to take the advice, or knows the answers already. The sense that one's suffering is not unique (for example, the tortuous delicacies involved in negotiating departmental power politics; the sorrow of drowning in committee work; "the secretaries hating me"; "exile in the provinces"; how to team-teach "with bozos" and "the torment of teaching evaluations") at least alleviates some of the solitary anguish that is so often our lot.

The advice is mostly sensible, although I thought that Toth too often recommends the more conservative path to a career or self-representation. Although Ms Mentor recognises that the academy is one of the few places where eccentricity is allowed to survive, she nevertheless tells a budding academic with "striking, unusual hair" to "snip" it, tells another scruffy academic always to dress in a suit for a job search, and warns all academics to stay off Facebook.

Elsewhere, she takes the academy's hierarchies of power and position as givens, even if she is scathing about them. On the other hand, she shows exquisite sensitivity to questions of gender and of race. As with much other US scholarship, however, discussion of class is conspicuous by its absence here.

More than anything else, this is a very good book for doctoral supervisors and academic mentors to give to their more junior colleagues, and a comedic breather for the jaded and disillusioned among us.

Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia

By Emily Toth

University of Pennsylvania Press 2pp, £13.00

ISBN 9780812220391

Published 24 October 2008

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