On Mentorship and Godparents: An SNS Interview with Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle, Associate Professor at The College of New-Jersey, discusses life after the PhD, the transition to the professoriate, and the expectations set on emerging scholars, but most of all, on continuous mentorship in academic lives.

Maria and Orly first met with Lisa when the three presented on a panel at the IABA Americas Conference in 2015. The energizing, generous, caring, and committed energy of that panel stayed with us, to the extent that for the next two years we kept thinking together. Maria and Orly are wholeheartedly thankful to Lisa who agreed to share parts of the following conversation which was threaded in different locations across the Atlantic.

Resonating Conversations

Our interview with Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle began on a walk in Nicosia (during IABA 2016 in Cyprus). That walk sparked a conversation between Maria and Lisa about life after the PhD, the transition to the tenure track and professionalizing demands set on emerging scholars (during grad school as well as the tenure track). 

Lisa: During that conversation, Maria shared her deep concerns over the academic job market as well as her struggle through a health crisis the year before. This led to the question of personal obstacles. She asked me to elaborate (if I was comfortable doing so) on what I faced when I was ready to graduate and was curious about how I identified and worked through these obstacles.

All my toughest obstacles happened in the beginning and the middle of my career path. I had fallen in love and found it hard to leave my home-state to study for the PhD. My now-husband was in New Jersey (NJ) where all our friends and family lived. I was alone in Michigan. I broke my neck taking summer classes, naively trying to hurry and get to the part when I could find a job that might bring me back home. When the time came, I ended up with interviews and offers everywhere but in the Northeast. Within a week of accepting a job near Minneapolis and leaving my family, I was invited to a lecture where I saw a last-minute posting for a position. A failed search left an opening in a college minutes from where my family lives in NJ. I sent my credentials and learned that they could interview me in a matter of days–the day before my dissertation defense! The job offer in NJ changed my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but by the time I would earn tenure, I would  become a caretaker for my terminally ill mother. As a new mother with my own chronic health concerns, and when my whole life would hit this plateau where all that mattered was making it from one day to the next, I felt as if I was meant to be close to home. After my mother’s passing, it was a long time before I could think of anything else but surviving. But every time I stepped into an IABA conference, it was like no time had passed at all.

This casual afternoon chat resonated with us for the better part of a year. So when we met again, at IABA Americas in Toronto, Orly and Lisa sat down to share their take on this conversation.

We met for coffee at York University’s Keele Campus on May 17, 2017. The last panel of “Lives Outside the Lines: Gender and Genre in the Americas” had just come to an end, and after three days of a remarkably generous, gracious, and thought-provoking symposium in honour of Marlene Kadar (organized by Eva Karpinski and Ricia Chansky), the two of us had mentorship, collaboration, and community on our mind. So, in the spirit of spontaneously inspired conversations, what follows is a record of our chat rather than a more traditional Q&A interview.

On Mentorship: Finding My Tribe

Orly: Over the past few days — and longer in terms of our personal experiences — we’ve witnessed the ways in which the IABA community has fostered and nurtured a tradition of mentorship. On the first day of the symposium you mentioned in passing the idea of mentors in this community as godmothers, or godparents. Something about this metaphor feels very apt to me, precisely because it interlaces the personal and professional aspects of mentorship in a way that is sustainable, accountable, and caring.

For us — the SNS directive — it happened when we came back from Banff and started working together. And I came to Julie Rak after a couple of months of working together with Emma and Maria, to tell her about our emerging collaborative work as SNS, and she said “you’ve found your people.” To be honest, that’s exactly what it felt like.

Lisa: Look at what you’ve done together.

Orly: It’s because of the mentorship tradition that has been fostered and nurtured in this field, what you were talking about, this idea of godmothers. That really echoes for me here.

Lisa: For me it happened in West Virginia. Tim Dow Adams sponsored a residential summer seminar that was called “Getting a Life” after Julia Watson & Sidonie Smith’s edited book (Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography, 1996 U Minnesota Press). The subtitle for the seminar was something like “Genders, Genres, and Bodies”. As a doctoral student, I had begun, through auto-ethnography and folklore studies, to think about who gets to tell a life. Self-authored stories of experience were on my mind, but I didn’t have the language for it. I hadn’t begun to do research outside folklore studies. I saw this picture of Julia [Watson] and Sid [Smith] wearing Sunday southern-belle type of hats, and they laughed at it later, [saying during the seminar] that the picture was supposed to be kind of ironic, and they felt that instead of Smith & Watson they were Smith & Wesson — these dangerous intellectual weapons of resistance and rebellion.

When I got there, I thought, this is my tribe. We met there for this life-writing blitz, and I felt like I kind of found family. I ended up spending a lot of time talking to everyone after that experience. Attending all the seminars, and the talks, and the workshops was the start, and I came out with so many notebooks and pads which curated all of the things that I didn’t know had a language, and are now my bible. I met people that were doing things so similar to what I was doing, but I was looking at things that I considered to be fiction or ethnography, and didn’t have the language to think of them in other terms.

It ended up in these very generous email exchanges, especially with Tim (Dow Adams) and with Julia (Watson). The highlight for me, at a very young stage in my life and career, was coming back five months later to West Virginia for an auto/biography conference, also sponsored by Tim & his department, with Julia as the keynote. During her keynote she quoted me from an email exchange we had, and she named me. I was recording her because I wanted to remember everything that she said, and when she said my name I thought, “oh my goodness, it’s kind of reciprocal”. I mean, I thought there was no way in the world that she could think of me as highly as I thought of her and all her work, but I also thought “wow, the acknowledgement”. It wasn’t just an email exchange; she was not just being kind and entertaining my messages, she was thinking about the things I was saying. I also remember how generous Tom Smith (Life Writing Annual) was to me when he picked me up from the cheaper flight at the Pittsburgh airport and drove me to West Virginia just so that I could afford the trip to that conference on a graduate student budget. We kept in touch for years after that and joked about that long drive and the life writing conversations we had as two strangers who met minutes before getting in the car.

It’s truly like having godparents who are part of your family but also stand around you in a much larger circle that holds you up and keeps you plugged into the world in a way that is both inside-out and outside-in. It’s hard to explain what I mean, but it feels like since finding this community, I’ve been a part of an on-going mentoring process – one that doesn’t stop just because I earned a PhD, found a job, or was granted tenure.

That support keeps going – like the support of your inner circle – and keeps you accountable to your potential at every level, which is a very outside-in kind of awareness and encouragement that we all need all the time. Often, people come to expect that one needs less and less mentoring as a career progresses. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Orly: Your story models a genuine exchange of ideas. It’s this ideal that we all have about what scholarship can be like. And this — IABA — is perhaps the only setting where I see it actually taking place, in such direct and sustained ways.

Lisa: It goes on taking shape as we sit here. And I hadn’t known anything like that before, certainly not with someone who was a leading scholar in their field. I’m sitting here talking to you about it and once again I get energized and excited (even my body language changes, suddenly I don’t feel so tired after a full day of panels). That summer — in West Virginia — I met Joe and Becky (Hogan, long time editors of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies) who ended up publishing my first essay and inviting me to share my first review, Tim helped me setup my first opportunity to interview, and so it continued… It was that summer when I was probably halfway through my graduate program, and to this day the reciprocity continues, because I can walk into a conference and Sid (Smith) can say “where have you been, why didn’t you go to Banff, why didn’t you come to Puerto Rico?” and I’ll know that I’m still on her radar, and still part of a community. Julia (Watson) supported me not too long ago on a publication.

And now, with Tim (Dow Adams) gone, I was given the opportunity to talk about him and what his mentorship meant to me for a brief memorial during the [2015 IABA Americas] conference in Ann Arbor when he was honored. Tim was one of the most generous mentors ever. No question was ever too foolish and no idea was ever too ambitious. He let me go on and on when we talked. He and his wife, Gail, made me feel so welcome at times when I was surrounded by people I barely knew. I keep thinking back to that memory of first being invited to be a part of a conversation, being asked to come and sit in the front of the room instead of fade in the background because I was a shy student.

To see it happen, to be on the listserv when people started to talk about the first (IABA) conference, seeing the first pictures; that’s probably what it was like for everyone during the 70s and 80s to see the first printed issues of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, the ones that we now tend to think of in an archival form, and how many others there are today that we all enjoy subscribing to and contributing to. 


Orly: One of the things that resonated for the three of us — Emma, Maria and myself — was the moment we came up with this really half-baked idea to create a graduate network. I say half-baked because the SNS came up after we all clicked in Banff and Maria sent us a message a couple of weeks later, saying “so I’ve been wanting to do this crazy thing for a while, and I think you two might be the people to do it with”. That started a few weeks of Skype sessions where we ended up going back to the idea that we want to be a part of the future of this community and invite more people in the early stages of their careers to join us. At that point we were like “ok, let’s create a vision statement, think about a couple of projects we can do without money, send it to the IABA directive and see what they say”; and the moment we sent it we got such an incredible response, which took up our idea with genuine reciprocity and accountability. Immediately Craig Howes said ”yes, you can use the Listserv”… and that’s the thing, there is a response; an actual dialogue and investment.

Landing, Collaboration, & Mentorship: Life Writing Keywords

We asked Lisa to respond to a few keywords as they relate to her experiences in the field of life writing, its origins, and where she sees it going.


Lisa: I’m thinking of a conversation I had with a respected colleague and friend, in a university near where I live and work, who always points out that the language that I use is too academic, and when another academic tells you that you know you are in trouble… She likes to soften her language quite a lot, and she works in clinical psychology so I feel like in her practice she feels like she has to handle her patients and subjects, and so she is always asks me, even if she invites me just to sit and chat over a glass of sangria “so how did that land on you?” I tried to use it recently in a conference paper when I was talking about impact, trying to thinking through the language of “landing on something”. I don’t think something is lost in this language, but it really transforms what you want to say. 
I think it’s graceful to think of something as landing on you – you are not absorbing it. There’s an aggressive and adversarial approach to impact and to taking something in, but landing can be very soft, coexisting, we’re sharing this space for a minute, making impact as secondary.


Lisa: Collaboration is my goal. The funny thing is that it has its roots in a disciplinary avoidance of anything that sounds like it’s not going to end with a single signature, whether it’s authorship or an effort to bring an initiative or a seminar or conference. Listening to today’s and last night’s speakers [during the SNS Roundtable on Collaboration], thinking about what it could look like and seeing it taking shape in different ways here, has me thinking that this has to be on my list of things to do, to maybe be fearless and try it anyway. 

I was so inspired by what Ricia (Chansky) said in the Roundtable. The notion that what we do when we write together, conference together, teach together is a form of activism is so motivating for me. She is right when she says it takes a certain fearlessness to be willing to do this work – to do what doesn’t fit into established categories, what may not “count”, is taking a risk at any career level and we have to do it anyway. I left the room with a short list of things I’m about to do “anyway.”

Orly: I think this resonates across the board, and is certainly an issue that exceeds the tenured community. For me co-authorship is a life-line — it’s a way to develop ideas, develop a voice and take a stand that resists the isolating and paralyzing structure of the PhD stream. It’s perhaps one of a handful of ways in which grads can resist their precarities. But in grant applications or review committees collaborative publications — no matter how high-ranked the venues are or even if we are invited to contribute — always count as half of a single-authored essay, because our discipline is really not open to having an ‘et al.’ or thinks of it as ‘less than’.


Lisa:We can change that…


Lisa: I’ve never really experienced what people would consider a traditional kind of mentorship. Even through the grad school process, I think of being trained, and taught, and evaluated, but I can’t recall being mentored through the process, except through a larger community outside of my personal process of coming to the dissertation. And it happened only in the community that we consider now to be the IABA community. 

I think it has become more important for me now than it ever could be as a brand new scholar or grad student then, because there is that certain point at which people believe that you stop needing mentoring. I don’t know if it is when you get “the job”, or when you get tenured, but there is a sense that the further you go as a scholar, the less you need the support of an individual or community, and so there isn’t this idea that a contemporary or someone senior to you reaching out can be a kind of experiential mentorship. There isn’t an opportunity to say “here’s my bag of tricks, come sit down and share it with me”, but I have definitely found it here. Even this week.

Landing, again

Lisa: I’m thinking about landing again [after mentorship and collaboration], the potential of inhumanity in these processes of “arriving” in our fields and our careers; processes and moments like oral exams, job interviews, tenure and promotion reviews in which mentorship is crucial. 

Sharing your experience with a committee, summing up your life in a cv, these are forms of storytelling about your academic life – a kind of autobiography. Putting that story up for evaluation makes you feel vulnerable because there’s a life in there behind it all
Orly: It’s funny that there is even the assumption of a moment of arrival, and that the moment of arrival is the day you get your degree, or the day you get the job, and then tenure — it’s always about the next moment of arrival rather than the next (arduous) process of landing… The arrival is just a single moment. 
Lisa: It’s always about the move from one single-authored book or job to the next, always a forward-reaching linear process, it does not permit any kind of regression or diversion, it’s never a plateau but always an ascent before landing. But I don’t always experience my career or my life that way. I don’t learn in ascending, I learn in the digressions and the regressions, and in the plateau, which seems to be an invisible space where a lot of necessary human and professional moments of necessary failures and lessons take place, and it is inhumane not to recognize those, or acknowledge those as part of the process. It takes away the humanity of a lived experience as an academic person.  
Orly: Perhaps that’s part of why this field is so unique — because it allows mixing all of those up to one bundle — we get the space to have the personal and the professional in one fold. 
Lisa: We’re lucky in that way, because it’s what we do when we do what we do.
Orly: You’re right, it’s inherent to the practice; and I think it is a shared experience. We all have deeply personal reasons that brought us to do the scholarship and pedagogy that we do in this field, and the way we practice it.
Lisa: It can be a painful process when it is evaluated without a consideration of that humanity. 

Lisa Ortiz-VilarelleLisa Ortiz-Vilarelle is an Associate Professor at The College of New-Jersey who specializes in 20th-century Multiethnic and Inter-American literature and autobiographical studies with specific interest in narratives of exile, immigration, and dictatorship throughout the Americas and their Diaspora. She regularly teaches courses on Latino/a/x literature in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Lisa’s work has been published in the Journal of Haitian Studies, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Short Story Criticism, and The Journal of European Life Writing, with forthcoming essays in Life Writing Annual and a/b: Autobiography Studies‘ special issue on “Embodiment” (edited by Sarah Brophy). Lisa is currently completing a book about Latina and Latin American women’s life writing on dictatorship tentatively titled Overwriting the Dictator: Americanas, Autocracy and Autobiographical Innovation.

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