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A Virtual Dialogue on Feminist Mentoring
Cynthia Mahaffey
Sandra Meade


Editors' note: As they explain toward the end of their piece, Cynthia and Sandra used Blackboard software as a venue to discuss their mentoring relationship The transcript of their dialogue, in which topics interweave and each refers back to the other's previous postings, appears below.

Cynthia Mahaffey: My name is Dr. Cynthia Mahaffey. I am a 52-year-old teacher of first year writing, women's studies and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH. I am also an out lesbian, a single mother, a gay rights activist, a poet, and a partner. This is my 17th year of teaching college writing.

Sandra Meade: My name is Sandra Meade and I am a sophomore at Bowling Green State University. I am a journalism major and have recently declared a minor in women's studies. I am 19 years old and I am originally from Taylor, Michigan. I grew up in a middle- to upper-middle class family in a middle-sized suburb of Detroit.

Cynthia Mahaffey: I grew up in a single mother, essentially working class background and hold that class-consciousness. I have worked over the years in boycotts against multinational corporations and in pacifist organizations against war. I currently spend a great deal of my non-teaching time as an educator/activist in the university and community, and in my scholarship, in gay rights issues.

Sandra Meade: I met Dr. Mahaffey while I was still a senior in high school in February 2003. Although I saw her after that I really did not get to know her until I took her English 112 class in spring 2004. I then went on to become a TA for her during fall 2004 in the freshmen composition class, English 111, and am currently involved in an independent study about women's rhetoric with her. This independent study has allowed me the opportunity to research areas of interest including Victorian women's magazines, advice columns, and the effects of magazines on both teenagers and women, coming up with my own definition of feminism and so many other topics. What I like most about the course is that I have a lot of control over what topics I research. Dr. Mahaffey has given me many resources to complete my research.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Sandra enrolled in the first-year college composition course required of all first-year students. Sandra is bright, articulate, and writes beautifully. In her first year, she wrote a fascinating researched essay on advice columns for teens. A journalism major, she hopes to eventually work as an advice columnist for a teen magazine.

Cynthia Mahaffey: In Sandra's second year, she worked as a teaching tutor with my writing classes, and we discussed doing an independent study in women's rhetoric together in preparation, eventually, for her capstone project in the honors program. This was to be an extension of her work on advice columns and the women's rhetorics behind these columns. In the course of the semester, we have branched off into looking at internet sites and teen 'zines which have advice columns, early American women's writing on advice columns and the place of women in society, as well as into song lyrics that reflect feminist issues and concerns.

Cynthia Mahaffey: We have discussed definitions of feminisms, definitions and issues of identity, and what that might mean for her as a straight, white woman of a certain class and for me as a lesbian, white, working class academic.

Sandra Meade: During this independent study, one of the things that I have enjoyed the most is the conversations we have about the various topics I have researched. During these conversations, I have always felt like I have been treated like an equal because I feel like Dr. Mahaffey is genuinely interested in what I have to say. That says a lot to me because sometimes you can go and visit someone and even though they pretend to listen, really you know that they actually could not care less about what you're saying.

Cynthia Mahaffey: In the course of this independent study, we have met once a week to run down avenues of research together--online journals and teen 'zines, books and articles, online dialogues, advice columns and their history. We even found a professional organization for advice columnists. Sandra has begun her own advice column online. The varieties of these texts have served to teach us the possibilities for feminist research.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Since I came to women's studies fairly late in life--there were no programs at my university in 1970--I have shared with Sandra some articles I view as important texts that I have read within only the past 10 years--authors such as Mary Daly, Marilyn Frye, bell hooks. These authors and others in my own field of rhetoric mentored me in my doctoral program, shedding light on my own life as a formerly married woman newly coming out as a lesbian and as a scholar. The discussions of patriarchy and patriarchal abuse were especially useful to me at that point in my life and continue to be revealing as I seek to introduce these texts to younger women and men in composition, ACS, and women's studies classes.

Sandra Meade: Dr Mahaffey made a comment about how the texts that we have studied have taught us the possibilities for feminist research. The keywords in this comment are "taught us." That is what any relationship is all about, especially one of a mentor/mentee. The fact that we have both had the opportunity to learn from one another and to explore and research a vast variety of topics together has helped both of us. Just one person should never benefit from a relationship, or otherwise it is not a real relationship. The fact that we are both benefiting from these opportunities is a unique aspect of our relationship.

Cynthia Mahaffey: While I suppose, from the outside, our relationship might look like mentor-mentee, I have viewed Sandra's and my relationship from the beginning as two equals looking at areas of women's rhetoric together and building a knowledge base together. While my field and my PhD are in feminist rhetoric, it is primarily focused on lesbian teacher subjectivity, not on the rhetoric of advice columns. She is an able researcher and has a scholar's mind for asking good questions, so we have explored many areas together.

Sandra Meade: When I think of a mentor-mentee relationship I think of a relationship where two people work together to inspire one another and to help each other grow as a person. A mentor is someone a mentee can look up to and go to when they have questions about something they might not necessarily understand.

Sandra Meade: Until we started writing this article, I never thought of our relationship as one of a mentor/mentee. Essentially that is what it is, but I think it is also something much more than that. In high school, I was involved in several different mentoring programs with both elementary and junior high students. The relationships that I formed with these students are quite different from the one that has formed with Dr. Mahaffey. Maybe it is because this time I am the mentee, not the mentor, but I also think there is more to it than that.

Cynthia Mahaffey: I agree with Sandra's definition of a mentor-mentee relationship. My mentors in the past have been teachers, usually women but occasionally men, who have guided my reading with suggestions, explained theory, asked me questions to clarify my own thinking and give me direction in my study.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Mentoring, to my mind, differs from more traditional female relationships in that it should necessarily offer complete freedom to both parties. While a mentor, by definition, is ideologically constructed with "more power," particularly between a teacher and a student, a feminist mentor-mentee relationship should work at setting aside that power to work at mutually held goals. For instance, while I might suggest to Sandra that she look at Victorian agony columns, she should be able to say to me, "I'd rather look at more recent columns and see how those compare to online columns or teen 'zines." It is HER education, her choice to learn what feeds her feminist sensibility.

Cynthia Mahaffey: If she DOES decide to look at Victorian agony columns, hopefully she does it because she finds something of interest there. I did, in fact, show her a Mary Daly article, with the comment that I'd like to hear what she thought about it. Her reaction to it was interesting and informative, even though she probably found it less than useful to her ultimate project. If she had said to me, "Cynthia, I hate this stuff and won't read it," that has to be all right.

Sandra Meade: There is a difference between the relationships formed during feminist mentoring and the relationships formed due to traditional female bonds. In a mentoring relationship there is always an aura of professionalism that never entirely fades. However, I also think that traditional female bonds still play a role in a mentoring relationship. A feminist mentor-mentee relationship has to be an equal balance of both. There has to be a professional working side, but there also has to be a certain level of comfort and friendship in order to help strengthen the relationship. There also has to be room for both or all parties involved to voice their opinions without being afraid of consequences.

Sandra Meade: We should be able to make suggestions to one another about different areas of studies, but we should also be able to reject these suggestions if that we are not interested in pursuing them.

Cynthia Mahaffey: I agree very much with Sandra's comment--she speaks really here about "boundaries"--the feminist mentor-mentee relationship includes courtesy and civility as between friends and also the willingness of both women to say "This does interest me" or "This doesn't interest me. Can we look at...?"

Sandra Meade: One thing that I have learned during the time I have spent with Dr. Mahaffey is that it is okay for me to voice my opinions. Whether it is within a paper I am writing or to someone I am talking to, I should never have to hide what I think. There have been so many women who are unable to voice their feelings or opinions within society. For a time I was one of these women because I was afraid of what might happen if I actually let people know what I was thinking. However, with time comes change, and now I am not as scared as I once was to stand up and speak out. I realize I have a voice--why not use it? If for no other reason than to speak out for someone else who cannot speak for themselves.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Sandra's comment about voice is so powerful--that's the very point of women's studies, isn't it? To give each woman a voice that can be heard, loud and strong. Women's studies is about, in the words of a speaker I heard once, "giving women the space we need in society." Coming out of an abusive marriage, I desperately needed that space for myself. It is humbling to work side by side with younger women who are also working to find their strong voices in the world.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Relationships of inspiration seem to be to imply some sort of differential of power--one person "inspires" another person because of her "greatness," or because of her writing. For example, textual relationships of inspiration have included writers and scholars like Natalie Goldberg, Audre Lorde, bell hooks. In these cases, their writing makes me want to write. They are powerful in their words, they have gone before me in their writing, in many senses they hold more power, as anyone does who is published and recognized over one who is not.

Sandra Meade: Relationships of inspiration and relationships of mentoring are very similar to one another. A relationship of inspiration can serve as a mentor to someone. Although it may be through texts and records about this person, rather than interaction, this does not mean that this person cannot have the same effect as they would if the relationship were one that took place face to face. A relationship of mentoring in itself can be a relationship of inspiration because usually a mentor is someone who inspires the mentee.

Cynthia Mahaffey: Relationships of mentoring, which could, of course, include power differentials, seem to me essentially more collaborative and interactive in nature, at least if they are done in the spirit of mutual learning. Sandra and I have spoken before about the mutuality of this independent study--we have both suggested courses of learning and have carried out each other's courses, if you will.

Sandra Meade: I agree with Dr. Mahaffey's last comment about how this course has turned out. As the course draws to a close I think that it is fair to say that we both have learned a lot, not only from the research that has been conducted but also from each other. This is another way that a relationship of mentoring is similar to a relationship of inspiration. Both relationships are based on the power of learning from others. To attempt to follow in someone else's footsteps, but with your own personal touch.

Cynthia Mahaffey: In writing this dialogic article, we have used "Virtual Classroom," a tool of the university's online Blackboard system for classes. We wrote back and forth in real time, sitting next to each other at separate computers, stopping to talk occasionally, to compare notes, to ask each other questions, and to tear our hair out simultaneously over our inexperience with the Blackboard tool we were using. We actually revised together because of our inexperience with Virtual Classroom. We didn't know to set the button for archiving and had to rewrite the first session we did completely from memory. This naturally puts the document and the relationship in a mode of process and discovery, what Kirscht et.al and Kurlioff call "a rhetoric of inquiry."

Cynthia Mahaffey: It is also puts our mentoring relationship in a mix of real time person-to-person conversation as well as cyberspace collaboration, in some ways a uniquely shared experience of learning.

Sandra Meade: Although there are significant differences between these two types of relationships as well. In a relationship of inspiration, there is the drawback of not having the ability to interact with the person who inspires you. This type of relationship is what the mentee makes it, however she translates the texts that she has read or information she has found out about the person she considers her mentor. In this case, the mentor or figure of inspiration cannot tell the mentee whether she is right or wrong. They can only guide the mentee from afar. In a mentoring relationship, however, interaction is what makes the relationship so strong. This interaction allows for the exchange of ideas, the realization that one or both parties may not be following the "correct" path, and the opportunity for both parties to learn from one another and their mistakes.

Cynthia Mahaffey: I am very interested by Sandra's comment here that a relationship of inspiration can be just as powerful as a relationship of mentoring. I can see what she means--when we read the early feminist texts of women brave in their writings, the Elizabeth Cady Stantons, the Grimkes, they give us, through their written words, the strength and power as women to go also to the courageous places we must go, now, in this 21st century.

Sandra Meade: Relationships of mentoring are unique learning experiences, as Dr. Mahaffey has stated above. Being able to have a variety of ways to communicate has helped to strengthen our relationship. Through the use of Virtual Classroom, we have been able to state our own opinions but also have the opinions of the other party available to comment on or to inspire us to continue writing about an aspect we may not have thought of otherwise. In addition, I agree that it was very frustrating when Blackboard decided to eat the conversation, but this incident did strengthen our relationship because we were both able to work through our frustration together, and we did not give up. Both of us became more determined to write and submit this article

Cynthia Mahaffey: Sandra's words about how the mentee translates the texts for her own purposes is very interesting and accurate, to my mind. I think, in my case, about my coming out as a lesbian, and the queer readings I made of many scholars and writers, especially the way I drank in the words of strong lesbian feminists like Joan Nestle, Audre Lorde, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Adrienne Rich and others. That textual support and inspiration of what I was finding in my own life gave me a more "lighted path" than I had been able to see for myself before, indeed, made my life more possible.

Sandra Meade: Recently I read an article by Susan Wagner about the influence of the Iroquois women on the early ideas of feminists. The article suggested that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage and Lucretia Mott looked on in awe at the lives of the women of the tribes and how many rights they had. This in itself became both a relationship of mentoring and one of inspiration. It inspired the women to begin their pursuit of equal rights for women and it gave them someone to turn to help advise them in their pursuit.

Sandra Meade: Although the Iroquois, both women and men, were unable to understand the lack of women's rights in white society, they still served as models of inspiration for white women as to how the world might be for them one day, once the battle for rights was over. Although the battle is not completely over, we do now share many of the same rights Iroquois women have always possessed.

Cynthia Mahaffey: A great thing for me about this relationship with Sandra is that has given me much good energy for the real slogging I lately feel myself doing in all the first-year composition classes I teach. This is my 17th year of teaching first-year composition. My students often come very ill-informed and uninterested in the basic assignments I am required to teach them in this particular university writing program. I have struggled this year with motivation, but I have always looked forward to my class time with Sandra and with my other independent study student. They give me hope for students' desire for real intellectual inquiry. Many professors say that doing independent studies with students is too much additional work. For me, the mentoring relationship is itself a relationship of inspiration and good psychic energy for me in my ongoing professional and scholarly life.

Sandra Meade: Dr. Mahaffey commented on how she looks forward to the time we spend together during our independent study, and I must admit that honestly this is the one class that I actually enjoy coming to. Many of the general education classes I am currently enrolled in are simply to fulfill requirements mandated by the university, but this is a course that I chose to take on my own with the help of Dr. Mahaffey. I never walk away from our meetings without having learned something or feeling inspired to want to learn more. This course has been academically, mentally, and spiritually enriching. These three elements are often not present in many of the other classes offered here on campus. However, I believe that when a student truly enjoys the class, she will take the most away from the course and she will continue to use that information within her life long after the course has ended.

Cynthia Mahaffey: It may be worth looking at the pragmatic results of this mentoring relationship Sandra and I have. We both know how to use Virtual Classroom, and therefore, I will try using it in future articles and classes. And now we both know how the other works under pressure. Sandra is a smart, gifted young scholar--she is in the Honors program, active in the residential learning community we are both part of, is a journalism major, writes for an online student magazine here at the university and probably a hundred other things I don't know about. But she is the personification of grace under pressure. She knows I have her back and I know she has mine.

Sandra Meade: Dr. Mahaffey was finishing up her doctorate during last fall semester. I know that was a very stressful time for her, but she always made time for me whenever I wanted to talk about something--whether it was continuously talking about my role as a teaching assistant or about the possibility of creating this independent study. I hope that she knows that during that time I did have her back. If she ever needed someone to talk to about the frustrations of the doctorate writing process I was there, and will still be there to listen to whatever frustrations she may be facing in life. That's what a mentoring relationship is really all about. I know that I can go to her if I am having a bad day and just need someone to talk to, and she can do the same with me. The relationship is really about listening to what the other has to say and responding to what has been said.

Cynthia Mahaffey: In reading Sandra's words about what she takes away from the course, I think of the Chicana scholar Dr. Laura Rendon. I once heard her speak at a national learning community conference in Seattle. She talked about bringing our hearts, as teachers, to our students in the classroom, and allowing and encouraging them to bring their hearts to us. This may be what Sandra refers to in the mix of spiritual, intellectual and academic, yes, and very real, friendship Sandra and I have worked hard on together this semester. She has brought her heart to the mentoring relationship and I have mine. Much has been written about the burden of feminist mentoring relationships--that as women we take on much more than our male colleagues with regard to students, and particularly, with women students. This has not been a burden, this work between Sandra and I. It has been a fluid, ongoing learning process between an older lesbian feminist and a younger straight feminist. Sandra, I know, will continue to bring her heart to her work as a feminist writer, journalist and advice columnist. Think of the possibilities for such a person bringing heart to the world, to healing the pain of the world.

Sandra Meade: Though my last comments may make this relationship seem more like a friendship than one of mentoring, a mentoring relationship is about building trust and a solid friendship between all parties involved. In addition, within our relationship there has always been an aura of professionalism. The first day of her composition class, she told us that she would not become our friend. She would always be a professor first, and while friendship may develop, there was always a line that she would not cross. I admire and respect her for that statement, and she has not crossed that line.

Works Cited

Kirscht, J, R Levine, and J Reiff. "Evolving Paradigms: WAC and the Rhetoric of Inquiry." College Composition and Communication 45.3 (1994): 369-80.
Kuriloff, P.C. "What Discourses Have in Common: Teaching the Transaction between Writer and Reader." College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 485-501.
Wagner, Sally Roesch. "Is Equality Indigenous? The Untold Story Iroquois Influence in the Early Radical Feminists." Reading Women's Lives. Eds. John M. Clark Ann Westrick and Sherri Wahrer. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson, 2001.

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