logo crisis&critica

Enero de 2016

V - Imperialismo de la teoría y dos alternativas - Gombrowicz and I


Marta Kaluza





Authors who have occupied themselves with the topic of mentorship in the academic and non-academic worlds have defined a mentor as "an experienced adult who guides, advises, and supports an inexperienced protégé for the purpose of furthering his or her career" (Chandler, 79). While mentorship is intended as a means to minimize the anxiety associated with responding to the greater public and, at the same time, preserving one's autonomy, it is poorly defined and measured, especially in the academia. Unfortunately, at times, this results in injurious mentoring scenarios instigated by power struggle, gender dynamic, and/or poor ethics. In business and management sectors, there are two functions recognized within the practice of mentorship, one focused on career enhancement, the other on personal support (Chandler, 81). Both functions are strongly encouraged for personal and career development and are directly linked to employees' success. Meanwhile, in the academic world, mentorship is nebulously entered in the job description of a professor. With no definite parameters for what guidance, constructive criticism, and support understudies need, the graduate student/professor dynamic is reduced to a mere subordinate/superior relationship that is not evaluated in performance reports. For a graduate student, mentorship can be a crucial element and a deciding factor of the direction of his or her career. Given the largely solitary character of graduate work, the presence of an effective mentor in a student's academic journey provides the necessary emotional and intellectual support. Mentors have the ability to guide their protégés in achieving their goals. They can create opportunities for them to participate in academic life by helping them network and be engaged in specific relevant projects. Thanks to mentors, the understudies learn about the intricacies of the profession, its official and unofficial rules and politics (Wright and Wright, 204). The role of the mentor is not only to model and pass on knowledge, but also to promote a healthy self-image for the protégé and to aid in developing his or her critical thinking abilities. Conversely, mentors also benefit from undertaking protégés. In an effective mentoring relationship, the mentor's work is rejuvenated and, oftentimes, advanced. Many mentors draw personal satisfaction from offering support and guidance to students. They co-celebrate the growth and achievements of their understudies and thus experience a sense of purpose.
"Gombrowicz and I" delves into the literary world to draw parallels with real-life situations about the complex relationship of the writer with himself as a subject and an object. The struggle of an emerging writer, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969), as described in his biography and depicted in his novel Ferdydurke, spills over to my personal experience as a graduate student and a scholar of his work. Both stories bring to light the detrimental influence of bad mentors, who also happen to be professors (Pimkos), whose affinity for destructive criticism halts the progress of their understudies' work and career. Their negative impact extends to the personal sphere making the protégé question his or her abilities. Finally, bad mentorship sheds light on the deficiencies in the fostering and promotion of emotional and academic guidance in the educational system.
When Gombrowicz opens up his Diary with an audacious self-affirmation, it is to laugh in the faces of bad mentors:


He writes these first lines of the Diary in 1953, but the resentment can already be perceived in 1937 with the appearance of Ferdydurke, which becomes recognized as his novelistic debut. Intertwined in the storyline there is the divorce from literary experts whose criticism has been paralyzing the writer's artistic efforts. A scene representative of the unwelcomed scrutinizing of one's work is the one that takes place in the protagonist, Joey's, room. The unexpected entrance of a professor named Pimko interrupts the intimacy of the solitary work and subjects the young writer's every word to the opinion of this apparent "colossus" (19). Words that flowed easily into a coherent order in the writer's isolation suddenly, in the professor's presence, lose their potency and convert the young author's text into a pitiable literary attempt. Pimko poses for a mentor with, "Let me look it over, and encourage you..." (15). The next question already reveals the direction that his help will take, "What do you mean, a spirit?" (17). With that, he begins probing the young author and testing his knowledge of history and language with the sole purpose of revealing the latter's gaps in education and his imminent need to return to school. Perceiving the professor's intentions, Joey reacts, "I tried to run for it, but something caught me from behind and riveted me to the spot - it was my puerile, infantile pupa" (18). The bum, pupa, becomes a metaphor for belittling, infantilizing, and disciplining in a manner that a superior does to one that is perceived as inferior. The urge to run away will forever accompany the protagonist whenever pupa materializes itself in a given situation. The metaphor applies also to the author having to always respond to an inbred inferiority complex as a Polish author. Furthermore, his native country is portrayed as a victim of bum beating from its neighboring countries. So long as pupa remains exposed and accessible for reprimanding, there can be no talk of autonomy.
The tone of Ferdydurke is directly correlated with the negative responses that Gombrowicz's previous literary attempts generated. In the Testament (1967), he talks about the first novel that he had ever written, the one that preceded Ferdydurke. He was about twenty years old at the time and submitted the manuscript for review to an entrusted literary person, Mrs. Szuch. The woman refused to comment on the text and excluded young Witold from her life. Shocked by her response and giving her failed mentorship no reflection, the author burned the text. Following that, his collection of short stories, Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity, published in 1933, engendered unfavorable reviews and the book was hailed immature. It was not until several years later that the author confronted his critics in an overt way and thus established his à rebours philosophy.
Poor mentorship and rejection are not uncommon in academic settings, but they are understudied and usually result in the student becoming the beneficiary of unforeseen and injurious consequences. In the process of writing my dissertation I reached out to a professor of Polish literature and author of books on Gombrowicz seeking mentorship, to which he agreed and, in addition, volunteered to serve on the defense committee. While expecting guidance on topics relating to the convoluted sociocultural and historical makeup of Poland, I received no input. The topic of Gombrowicz was also never mentioned, despite the professor's self-confirmed expertise on the author. This same professor later withdrew from the committee and thus contributed to the cancellation of the defense on the eve of the very event. The letter of withdrawal that he forwarded to the rest of the panel behind my back questioned my integrity as a scholar at the most basic level: "Ms. Kaluza is a terrible reader of Gombrowicz." The choice of the descriptor terrible attests to the crutch that Burke, McKeen and McKenna discussed in their essay published in 1990, namely power disparity ingrained in the society at large. In the male-dominated academic milieu, it may be challenging to accept a young female scholar as an equal. Additionally, the ability of a professor to withdraw from the committee at the last minute testifies to the lack of protection being offered to graduate students. The bad mentorship resulted in the punishment of the mentee in the form of canceled defense and a recommendation to rewrite the dissertation, while the wrongdoer experienced no repercussions.
As an unprecedented event in the department, this incident contributed to a proposal of a greater involvement of the committee members with the work of the doctoral candidates, an added responsibility for which the professorial body was not prepared. This, of course, posed challenges on both ends. The graduate student was expected to stay in close communication with the committee members and respond to multiple and, at times, conflicting feedback (if such was provided). The professors, on the other hand, had to assume the role of effective mentors and offer constructive criticism in a timely manner, which put a strain on their already rigorous academic agendas. As with the first draft, my revised dissertation received no feedback (aside from my adviser) and, a few weeks before the second expected defense, I was presented with another letter of suggested changes for the rewrite of my dissertation. The recommended edits were unfeasible given the short notice, which put me in a vulnerable position once more and would have stalled my career if I had not addressed the issue of poor mentorship. The reactive revisions of the departmental practices were not as effective as expected in my case and a mentoring culture, although introduced, remains yet to be developed.


In Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz asks, in the light of rejection, "shouldn't a man pack his bags and leave, shouldn't he hide somewhere so he can't be seen?" (76). Anticipating attacks from his adversaries, he responds:
“But if notable scholars and connoisseurs, all those Pimkos adept at fabricating the pupa out of texts by pointing to the faulty construction of a work of art, reproach me... I will prove that my construction is in no way inferior, as far as precision and logic are concerned, to even the most precise and logical constructions.” (69)
It is alarming that even at the university level we find Pimkos occupying the most highly respected positions and practicing the antiquated method of teaching centered around dealing the pupa. In an environment where mentoring should form an inherent part of academic life, good mentors are scarce and poor mentoring is not properly addressed. For graduate students, especially in the field of liberal arts, negative criticism borders with a personal attack since literary analysis allows room for creativity and subjective scholarship. Negotiating between being artists and academics turns into an internal battle and the reminder of the stakes, the long-worked for title, adds to the anxiety. How different a student/professor relationship would be if it started with an inquiry, "What motivated you to do this particular type of work?" Next, a discussion of the student's aspirations could help establish context and keep specific goals in mind. A mentor capable of identifying a student's strengths will have the ability to advise on how to showcase them and will become better attuned to his or her weaknesses in order to eliminate them. A good mentor will also recognize gaps in his or her own knowledge of the topic and will make an active effort to bridge them, seizing the opportunity to grow as a scholar. A healthy student/mentor relationship lays foundation for the success and wellbeing of the intellectual community. This is why the universities bear the responsibility to ensure that a solid system of support exists on all levels and that this support is appropriately evaluated.
Works Cited
Blackburn, R. T., D. W. Chapman, and S. M. Cameron. "Cloning in Academia: Mentoring and Academic Careers." Research in Higher Education Vol. 15, No. 4 (1981): 315-27. JSTOR. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.
Burke, R.J., McKenna, C., and McKeen, C.A. "How Do Mentorships Differ From Typical Supervisory Relationships?" Psychological Reports Vol. 68 (1991): 459-466. Sage Journals. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Burke, R. J., C. A. McKeen, and C. S. McKenna. "Sex Differences and Cross-sex Effects on Mentoring: Some Preliminary Data." Psychological Reports Vol. 67 (1990): 1011-23. JSTOR. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.
Cameron, S. W., and R. T. Blackburn. "Sponsorship and Academic Career Success." Journal of Higher Education Vol. 52, No. 4 (1981): 369-77. JSTOR. Web. 25 Dec. 2015.
Chandler, Christy. "Mentoring and Women in Academia: Reevaluating the Traditional Model." NWSA Journal Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996): 79-100. JSTOR. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.
Clark, S. M., and M. Corcoran. "Perspectives on the Professional Socialization of Women Faculty." Journal of Higher Education Vol. 57, No. l (1986): 20-43. Web. JSTOR. 27 Dec. 2015.
Cronan-Hillix, T., et al. "Student's Views of Mentors in Psychology Graduate Training." Teaching of Psychology Vol. 13, No. 3 (1986): 123-27. Web. JSTOR. 27 Dec. 2015.
Gombrowicz, Witold. Diary. Trans. Lillian Vallee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.
---. Ferdydurke. Trans. Danuta Borchardt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.
---. Testament Rozmowy z Dominique de Roux. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996. Print.
Hunt, David Marshall and Carol Michael. "Mentorship: A Career Training and Development Tool." Academy of Management Review Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 1, 1983): 475-485. Web. JSTOR. 26 Dec. 2015.
Kram, K. E., and L. A. Isabella. "Mentoring Alternatives: The Role of Peer Relations in Career Development. Academy of Management Journal Vol. 28, No. 1 (1985): 110-32. Web. JSTOR. 26 Dec. 2015.
Levinson, D., Darrow, C., Klein, E. , Levinson, M., & McKee, B. The Seasons of a Man's Life. New York: Knopf, 1978. Print.
Nevill, D. D., and D. I. Schlecker. "The Relation of Self-efficacy and Assertiveness to Willingness to Engage in Traditional/Nontraditional Career Activities." Psychology of Women Quarterly Vol. 12 (1988): 91-98. Web. JSTOR. 26 Dec. 2015.
Noe, R.A. "An Investigation of the Determinants of Successful Assigned Mentoring Relationships." Personnel Psychology Vol. 41, No. 3 (1988): 457-479. Web. JSTOR. 26 Dec. 2015.
Wright, C. A., and S. D. Wright. "The Role of Mentors in the Career Development of Young Professionals. Family Relations Vol. 36 (1987): 204-8. Web. JSTOR. 26 Dec. 2015.