Feminist Mentorship @ the Berks

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By Jennifer Hough Evans

Full disclosure I am very much invested in the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (Berks). My supervisor at the University of Toronto is Franca Iacovetta, the first Canadian President of the Berks. I am the Administrative Assistant for the Berks, finding answers for conference participants’ questions, inputting changes to the conference program and making sure information gets passed along to correct outlets. In 2011 in the lead-up to the Berks, I made a 14-hour round trip in a mini-van with five other historians to attend the Little Berks in Saratoga Springs, New York. From the beginning of plans to bring the Berks to Toronto, I have been witness to many of the conversations and efforts. I am confident the Berks will be a resounding success!

The question I get asked most often by colleagues and professors is, “what have you learned from your work with the Berks?” There are a lot of answers I could give in response, ranging from the mundane to the creative to the work-related benefits. But what I will take away from working for the Berks is the importance of feminist mentorship. Far from just “scut” work, graduate students and junior scholars have made meaningful contributions to this conference. In research for this blog, I had conversations with three colleagues about our work for the Berks and what we will take away from our experiences.

Camille Bégin is a recently defended PhD and the Program Coordinator for the Berks. Camille has been responsible for drafting the program schedule, coordinating the many moving parts of the program as well as helping with website design. Over a sushi dinner on Bloor Street in Toronto, Camille and I talked about her professional and academic exposure through the Berks. Her position has given her the opportunity to engage with scholars about the work they will present at the Berks, providing her with a stronger grasp of the historiography and new developments in the fields of women, gender, and sexuality history. As a scholar who employed gender analysis but was not engaged in feminist debates, her conference work has her thinking about her scholarship and career in new and exciting ways. Camille has also developed a close working relationship with Franca Iacovetta, a relationship Camille values as she seeks career mentoring and trust’s Franca’s advice.

Laurie Bertram is a newly hired faculty member in the History Department at the University of Toronto. Skyping from Iceland to Toronto, Laurie and I discussed the excitement surrounding the Berks as we will be exposed to new directions in scholarship and gain an understanding of how our research fits into other landscapes. We talked about how much we will learn from the workshop “Beyond Women’s Words” (4631), since as oral and memory historians we are both constantly thinking about new approaches to interviewing and ways of listening. Laurie has been curating a display in the bookcases on the main floor at Robarts Library, the largest library at the University of Toronto (130 St. George Street). This exhibit is designed to profile emerging scholars of women, gender and sexuality, as Laurie has worked with them individually to select an object that represents their work. This high traffic space enjoys 18,000 walk-throughs per day in peak season and offers an outstanding opportunity to publicize upcoming scholarship to the international audiences brought in by the Berks.

Sarah Amato is a lecturer at the University of Toronto, and is the Berks’ Cultural Coordinator. Sarah has been working tirelessly to plan the line up of tours and workshops at museums and galleries (http://berks2014.com/2014/02/17/tours-workshops-events/), conference sessions and workshops at the Art Gallery of Ontario (http://berks2014.com/ago/) and the Friday night line-up for the Berks, “All through the House: A Night of Feminist Art and Culture” (http://berks2014.com/friday-night/). Through her work, Sarah has met gifted Canadian-based curators, performers and artists, whose works will be featured at the AGO and throughout the halls of Hart House. In our email exchanges about mentoring, Sarah talked not only about her relationship with Franca Iacovetta but also the advice she received from various professionals around the city about how to stage the Friday night event. And indeed, looking at the product of all her work, collaborations, and relationships is amazing!

My own work as Administrative Assistant is a bit more practical, but it has also been a learning experience. Attending meetings, inputting changes to the conference program and responding to e-mails has continued to teach me about all of the small details you have to consider when organizing a conference—from funding to childcare to accessibility. In my work as Graduate Coordinator for the Berks, I’ve also witnessed Franca Iacovetta work hard to ensure graduate students have the opportunity to present their work. Asking graduate students to bring their Berks’ proposals to the working group on Gender and Global Scholarship (sponsored by the Jackman Humanities Institute), Franca brainstormed and worked with graduate students to ensure they submitted strong individual paper and panel proposals. She also put graduate students in contact with senior scholars in their fields, creating connections for generational panels and collaborations. As historians based in Canada, the Berks has offered us international connections and exposure that we might not otherwise have been afforded.

I am really amazed and inspired by the work of my colleagues! In discussions with colleagues, what also emerged was our mutual respect, appreciation, and genuine friendships. (How many people can say that about their work and colleagues?) As Sarah Amato said, working with such talented new scholars has been an incredible experience as we’ve all discovered new skills and continued to push our limits. We would all choose to work together again—as well as other members of our team including Ponni Arasu, Pamela Gravenstock, Elizabeth Jewett, Alexandra Logue and Noula Mina—although maybe after a brief break (and sleep) post-Berks. This camaraderie speaks to Franca Iacovetta’s ability to bring together a marvelous and collaborative team. It is also Franca’s willingness to give us creative and professional space to develop components of the Berks and assuming challenging tasks, which sometimes fall outside our direct expertise. And when we needed help, we as a team met to problem-solve and think about possible solutions.

We have all been given opportunities by the Berks to work with Franca Iacovetta, as well as the program co-chairs Aline Charles, Molly Ladd Taylor, Adele Perry, and Jayeeta Sharma. These mentors have engaged with us in meaningful conversations not only about what (and who) we want to see at the Berks, but also larger conversations as we think about the trajectory of our careers. They have given us opportunities to work independently and with them to take-on significant tasks and responsibilities, developing professional skills that will undoubtedly serve us well in our future endeavors. In my conversations with my colleagues, we all agreed that more than anything the enthusiasm of Franca and the co-chairs has been inspiring, reminding us of the generosity and importance of feminist mentorship.

Jennifer Hough Evans is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation examines the connections between food, identity, and space in women’s memories of post-1945 northern Ontario.

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