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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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.