Vanessa R. Schwartz

USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Photo by Steve Cohn Photography

Because research is both the engine and product of any great university, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are our most precious resource. They are a remarkable form of human energy. Postdoctoral fellows are a relatively new feature of university life in the Humanities and they have elevated our research culture. They arrive fully formed like a junior colleague: with a dissertation that has already been defended and a future that is both bright and also somewhat unsure. Helping them get on the next step in the intellectual and professional path, in whatever direction they seek, is both a privilege and a truly worthwhile investment of time. I may have much direction to give but I also have so much to learn and they have so much knowledge to convey. It is an irresistible equation.

How to integrate strangers into a community in which they are only making a short-term investment requires offering them serious and engaged intellectual exchange about their own work as well as leading them out of the intensely individually absorbed phase of dissertation completion. While the pleasures of Southern California may enhance their off-the-job lives, I make our own intellectual community at USC visible and accessible to them. They need to meet faculty and current graduate students – and it is the mentor’s job to take on the responsibility of introducing them. The existence of the Visual Studies Research Institute, which I direct, helps in this activity. They also need to meet each other. USC’s commitment to growing a postdoctoral fellows program in the Humanities has assured that our postdocs do not work in isolation from other people in the same structural position. They are all turning dissertations into books, teaching for the first time, wondering where they will end up, asking whether our professional options seem to be narrowing. They have more in common with each other than with me in that way and I work to have them identify as colleagues, as a cohort, in other words, as a team – a winning team.

All good mentors have been mentored well themselves and I was fortunate to have remarkable parents, teachers and coaches: committed and of extremely high quality, who took the time to invest in me and to push me forward. I always make time, but why? As a basketball point guard in my youth, I identified the talents of my teammates and made them shine for the good of the order. I brought this skill to my own team when I coached and we won the championship. As a player and a coach, I learned to care about the success of others because I also know that we all rise in the process. Although we have many awards and prizes in academia, we need more trophies – symbols of collective success. Mentoring means holding onto that cup – together.