Advice from Helen Ingram on Being in Academia for Early and Seasoned Scholars

In 2017, a double special issue of the Journal of the Southwest was published that celebrated the career of Dr. Helen Ingram (pictured) as a scholar, mentor and colleague. The special issue contains a number of essays written by world-class scholars in the U.S. and around the world and is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject of water policy and politics. Here is a recent review published in Water Alternatives about the Special Issue — a nice starting point to know what to read.

I would especially recommend the Special Issue to young early career scholars who need some support to understand various styles of leadership and mentoring in academia, and perhaps broaden up their understanding of their own situation. One of the most remarkable essays is the auto-biographical one by Helen Ingram about her struggles and life as a critical and interpretive woman-scholar. Below are some key quotes from the piece which appealed to me and that I find remarkable and would like to share with the readers of this blog.

On taking positions and not being afraid not to fit in

As my daughters recount in their essay, the school was a poor fit, but subjected me to very useful life lessons. How fine it felt to be at the top of the class, and later on when academic expectations got higher, mine rose as well. Fitting in got a lot less important to me as I survived being profoundly unpopular among my junior college classmates. Having no social status to lose among my peers relieved me from fears that my ideas and opinions would be badly received. If invisibility was the price of acceptance, I was not willing then, or now, to pay it.

On being able to take life’s injustices lightly and continue the struggle

A male colleague and I took a first-year seminar together. He never did the reading in preparation for class discussion, but I explained the literature to him during long walks we took before class. When my male friend got a better grade in the class than I did, I decided to congratulate myself on being a better teacher than our professor.

On how research interests emerge

Again, being underestimated paid off. Senator Clinton Anderson’s legislative assistant was embarrassed when he spilled coffee all over me during my interview with him at his Senate office. After stating, “You are just a school teacher, right?,” he told me many details about the process of legislating the Colorado River Basin Act that I could not find in the Sierra Club’s or Congressman Udall’s files. My focus in this early research was on the politics of water resources, but I noticed that there were consistent losers in the process: Native Americans and the environment. Equity became a prominent theme in my work. Standard political science studies power and slights fairness, and water resources scholarship and practice favor physical science and rationality over communicative and symbolic meanings. I am sure that my familiarity with marginalization made me sensitive and also bold.

On being un-orthodox and going for breadth in one’s career

The lessons I had learned surviving a poor fit in junior college resurfaced. My own experience taught me how to appeal to bright undergraduates and to help neglected and dispirited graduate students. Because so few in the political science department shared my interests, I welcomed students from other departments, particularly geography, history, anthropology, and engineering. Crossing boundaries was a lot more rewarding than staying in my place, and I pursued joint appointments in engineering, business, and law.

On being underestimated and, still, making it to the top

I became a candidate for the permanent directorship after several years of failed searches, and against the advice of the university president, who told me, “You must understand we are looking for someone really good.” When I got appointed, I figured that had to be me.

On the importance of support to junior colleagues who will blossom if only they get recognition, advice and some opportunities

In academic life, recognition often comes long after the point when a scholar is in desperate need for reinforcement. I know from experience that “late bloomers” are usually mythical, and that people with great potential are frequently neglected in favor of those with pedigree who fit preconceived models of success. I am grateful to have been taught through experience that students and junior colleagues can thrive when given respect and encouragement.

On conducting research being an interpretive scholar

I am acutely aware of the arduous and consuming challenges of an academic career, and the notion that a young colleague would divert their attention to serve my own research is wrong. As an interpretive and critical scholar, I believe it is better to be involved in doing my own interviews and collecting my own data.

How to mentor graduate students and junior colleagues

Had I been strongly mentored in graduate school and by senior colleagues once I started teaching, I probably would have been advised to stay closer to the standard academic script. Consequently, I avoid directional advice, and instead encourage self-confidence, risk-taking, pursuing subjects and questions one cares about, and above all persistence and hard work.

On being an accomplished scholar

Deciding when an academic career has been successful is a tricky business. I have talked sufficiently with eminent scholars in my field to know that even people at the top of the game believe that they could have done more or that their work should have been better recognized. Certainly, a lengthy vitae does not assure success.

These quotes are very valuable to those trying to make their way in academia, or those who are trying to find strength in themselves to remain true and genuine in the climate of academic insecurity and struggles. I welcome you to read the review essay mentioned above and the special issue itself (available on academic search engine — Muse).

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