On Professionalization, Collaboration, and Mentorship

Conversations - The IABA SNS Blog
On Professionalization, Collaboration, and Mentorship: 
an emerging scholars’ conversation
From left to right: Jason Breiter, Julie Rak, Lucinda Rasmussen and Orly Lael Netzer
The three of us, Jason Breiter, Orly Lael Netzer and Lucinda Rasmusen, are far from the first to respond to the unique experience that is to attend an IABA conference as emerging scholars — Seraphima Kennedy’s review of “Autobiography in Transit” on the Oxford Centre for Life Writing website, as well as “Life Writing in the Canadian Rockies” written by Maria Faini, Elizabeth Rodrigues, and Alex Winder (published on our very own IABA SNS blog) are two wonderful examples. As others, we were struck by the commitment, enthusiasm, care and collegiality of established and emerging life writing scholars — life writing scholars are not only committed to this field but also to its people. In one of those conference coffee-break conversations, John David Zuern mentioned that he believes much of this energy and care is due to the fact that, in many ways, this field was established by feminist scholars and is continuously informed by feminist practices, ethics, and pedagogies. John’s words hit the mark. At the 2014 IABA World conference in Banff, we, (Orly, Lucinda, and Jason) were given the opportunity to become part of the conference team and fully partake in the editing process of the newly published special issue of BiographyAuto/biography in Transit”. 
This post summarizes a few conversational highlights between us during and after the conference. By writing, we wish to acknowledge the established scholars who continue to mentor us, while also emphasizing the rigorous and inclusive ways these critics do their work.

Lucinda: Being able to attend the 2014 IABA World Conference and to be involved in the process of selecting papers for Biography was an incredible experience. In terms of choosing essays for the special edition, the difficult part was, of course, not being able to include as many of the papers as we would have liked. As we thought through the selection process, I feel we aimed to incorporate scholarship on life narratives in a variety of mediums: there are people working in traditional print archives, but a lot of work being done in other mediums as well. We wanted breadth. We also wanted to try to include scholarship on life narratives situated in a range of social and historic contexts.

Jason: I think that as guest editors we were very fortunate to have so many strong papers to choose from. Among these papers were certain logical clusters that seemed to represent the kind of work being done in the discipline as a whole. Consequently, as Lucinda notes, we’ve aimed for breadth in this special issue while focusing on the conference theme “auto/biography in transit”. And I think it is pretty amazing to see all the work being done in the field, with a great variety of texts and methodologies, that deals so precisely with transit in auto/biography. 

Orly: The logic of breadth behind the selection process does not merely represent clusters of themes that emerged in the conference, but actually reflects the field which is (perhaps perpetually) in a process of transit — growing, evolving and introducing new methods, objects, and questions. Interestingly, I think that the focus on breadth also serves to unveil some liminal spaces in our academic field, especially in contexts of queerness, settler-colonialism and indigeneity. 
But, in addition to the process of selecting papers for publication, our editing work-process was, for me at least, a distinct experience because I discovered how rewarding scholarly work can be when practiced collaboratively. 
The collaborative work mode made me realise that Laurie McNeil was right when she said that having mentors is the best thing graduates students can do (Laurie mentioned this during the graduate workshop she generously initiated and organized for the 2014 IABA World conference). 
Julie Rak was certainly the right mentor at the right time — she not only introduced us (all three of us being first time editors) to scholarly editorial work in a generous and collegiate way, but made sure that throughout the process we were all actively and equally involved in the field. 

Jason: The collaborative work mode meant that we had a full team to think through both the process and papers constructively, each of whom brought distinct strengths in our collaborations. The experience of contributing to the editing team was really valuable, and I would recommend this mode of work for any new scholars getting acquainted with their particular fields and colleagues. Because our team was led by Dr. Julie Rak, we had a leading scholar (and a generous one!) to help us navigate the editorial process and the challenges that inevitably emerged.

Lucinda: Working with Julie, Jason and Orly has been a privilege. As someone with no prior editing experience, I want to give a special nod to Julie who could not have been a more wonderful mentor throughout this process. 
Teaching is a part of my job that matters to me a lot, and Julie’s guidance through the process of editing this journal issue has really caused me to think more deeply about the role educators can play when it comes to equipping students to thrive in academia, or just in their work lives generally. I think this realization was my major takeaway from this experience. Whether we teach undergraduate or graduate students, we can help to grow a field of study by being inclusive and by valuing what it is that students say—and by holding them accountable to deliver quality work. 

I would say that inclusion is something I’ve witnessed at all the IABA conferences I have attended: established scholars are very patient and welcoming to newcomers, but also respectful insofar as they expect students to contribute something of value and hold them accountable to do so. What I overheard Julie (Rak), Linda (Warley), Eva (Karpinsky), and Laurie (McNeil) saying at points during the conference was that it is important to support the learning and advancement of new scholars: this very gracious approach to learning and collaboration is one I want to carry forward as I continue to develop my own teaching philosophy.

Orly: For me, this experience certainly struck a cord as a teacher but also as a graduate student. I think that more than anything, as a yet-to-be-published young scholar this experience made me realize that a peer-review or editorial process can truly be a collegial conversation, rather than a top-down list of requirements. Our teamwork and correspondence with the scholars who contributed papers (whether they were more or less established in the field) enabled me to become more receptive to feedback on my own work, envisioning it as an ongoing-dialogue with my readers; it alleviated much needless anxiety.

Jason: The editorial process was both illuminating and invigorating. I learned so much about the field along the way, about its particular histories and established thought, that the editing was intellectually rewarding in its own right. It was also invigorating because we got to see the work it takes for even established scholars to put the final polish on a paper. 
As a new scholar, the bulk of my experience writing papers has been in the context of courses where we often don’t have time for peer editing and multiple drafts. Here, though, I could really see the how much my own writing can benefit given the time and support to really develop a paper to its full potential. 
Also, it has been an amazing opportunity to be able to professionalize in this way. It is an experience that will help us to advance our careers.

Lucinda: When we began the editing work I certainly felt a bit intimidated at points when reading and commenting on the work of many established scholars. It gets down to the sort of professionalism that scholars in this field consistently seem to demonstrate. The scholars who contributed papers were incredibly receptive to feedback from all the members of the editing team, and everyone was really courteous and respectful. 
Now, I feel as though I’m leaving this experience with a stronger commitment to this field, and a stronger appreciation for how broad it can be. I think that there are some exciting prospects for continuing to study the ways life narratives intersect with technology and the media. 
As Orly notes, there is work to be done elsewhere as well.

Jason: In terms of imagining the future of the field, if the papers have taught me anything, it’s that the future is going to be exciting and difficult to predict. Many of the scholars are paving the way for new methodology, new objects of study, and new ways to think about transition. The ideas are big and bold, and indicate a kind explosion in the field for new avenues of exploration. And you can feel that energy and rigor when you attend an IABA conference, or when you correspond with the scholars in the field; everyone is so thoughtful, generous, and mutually supportive that it’s no wonder the scholarship is so robust.

Orly: I would totally echo Lucinda and Jason, only to add that working on this special issue of Biography and being part of the 2014 IABA World conference in Banff, has allowed me to see life writing as a scholarly field in transition — a field that is emerging as a pivotal axis across disciplines, methodologies, and objects of study with incredible commitment to rigorous scholarship and pedagogy that always seek to unsettle or trouble identity politics, and are dedicated to critically engage with the ethics of studying lives.
What Academia Should Be All About

Like other life writing academics in Canada, I have been concerned for some time that we have to support and train the next generation of scholars. The challenges that all new graduates face in the current academic climate are enormous. It is never easy to get academic jobs in the humanities and social sciences anyway, and for life writing scholars, there can be the additional challenge of explaining what our interdisciplinary methods and unusual archives are, and why nonfiction in all its forms is worth scholarly attention. And so, when it was Canada’s turn to run the International AutoBiography Association conference in 2014, our conference team felt very strongly that not only did we have to provide support so that graduate students could attend the conference, but also we had to provide professionalization opportunities so that the field’s leaders in scholarship could teach new scholars about publishing and career management, and train new scholars in techniques like editing. 
We knew that we were all established because the generation before us had helped us to succeed, and we decided to take up that role for the next generation. If we did not, perhaps no one would come after us and our wonderful field would not survive!

I believe that hands-on mentoring by established scholars is vital as new scholars find out what it is really like to do scholarship. Work like this demystifies the profession too, and that’s a good thing. 
And it’s so rewarding: instead of doing things for students and new graduates, I got to do things with them. My eyes were opened to what mentoring could and should be.   

I am overwhelmed by and very thankful for the generosity, interest and excitement these new scholars have shown in their assessment of the editorial work done for the Biography special issue “Auto/biography in Transit.” It was a pleasure to work with them when they were the IABA conference local team and later on this project. It was often the best part of my work day to get to sit down with Jason, Cyndi and Orly and think through how the special issue would come together. I watched all three members of the team grow into their roles as editors, and use the skills they were acquiring with critical acumen. I’m so proud of them and the work we did together. This, to me, is what academia should be all about!

 Julie Rak
Jason Breiter is a doctoral student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Jason’s current research focuses on contemporary American literature and the emerging field of post-postmodern studies.

Orly Lael Netzer is a PhD student at the University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies, and a co-founder of IABA Graduate Student and New Scholar Network (IABA SNS). Her doctoral research focuses on contemporary cross-cultural Canadian literatures. Orly is a research affiliate at the Canadian Literature Centre / Centre de littérature canadienne (CLC).

Lucinda Rasmussen recently completed her doctorate degree at the University of Alberta where she currently teaches courses in undergraduate English and Writing Studies. Her dissertation examines contemporary women’s illness memoirs and is the result of her combined interest in (post)feminism, feminist media studies, contemporary women’s fiction, and auto/biography studies criticism.
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