how ‘who you worked with’ doesn’t work
“Who did you work with?” It’s a question applicants get all the time on the job market, and for good reason: if you know someone’s dissertation advisor, you probably know a bit more about how that person works, the kinds of questions they study, the sorts of methods and theory they use. Of course, the American job market doesn’t want to hire disciples, so a student can’t be too close to the teacher: there has to be some difference, theoretical or methodological, creative or substantive. Yet there needs to be some commonality too, if nothing more than a commonality of competence. Knowing someone’s mentor has chops is supposed to translate into knowing that person has chops as well. Those of us who have grad students have them because we believe that being a good sociologist can be taught, and that skills—even excellence—can be reproduced. And so status moves forward, down the genealogical line: begat, begat, begat.
There are a lot of problems with this focus on individual-level mentoring, with an advisor’s status functioning as a high-level credential (eg: “Oh X is solid. She worked with Y”). First off, the sociology of it is not at all obvious to me. It’s simply an empirical question how much a mentor matters in the formation of good scholars: we are, after all, a big wide community, and why can’t it take a village to raise a sociologist? That “village” might extend beyond a graduate school to the discipline as a whole: think of a student at a low-prestige grad program whose mentor is not well-known nor super invested in the discipline (or grad students). Yet this grad student reads widely, attends conferences, and networks assertively, finding other people to read her work. She doesn’t have the currency of a high status mentor, but she might well have some good publications. It’s interesting how much the status of the mentor still matters when I think about that student’s chances on the market (and the status of her university).
I’m not saying anything new to say that it’s deeply ironic how a discipline so committed to fighting inequality in the world at large maintains such deep inequalities in its own house. And a focus on mentors as tokens of worth, while important and understandable, can have a significant role in maintaining those inequalities. What if, instead of thinking of ourselves as a guild of masters and apprentices, we thought of ourselves as a community of practitioners, eager to help everyone get better at what they do? I have no idea how that would work out practically, but it’s worth thinking about, and I’ll write more about this. If you have any thoughts, do please let me know in the comments or over e-mail.