Keeping an Eye Toward Service and Demystifying Mentorship

Gantcher Professor Heather Nathans is all about making service to her communities a priority and shares one out-of-the-box way she humanizes bonding

If you’re ever at a conference with Heather Nathans, it’s best to keep a straight face when she eats the frosting off a cupcake and then blatantly discards the cake. Pre-pandemic—and hopefully soon again—Nathans had become well known for going on cupcake runs to help foster bonds over a shared love of sugar.

“At these gatherings of colleagues, it has been just lovely to have a group of women—junior scholars, senior people, middle-career scholars, everybody—gather for the cupcakes but also just check in and ask “How are you doing?” Nathans said. “To me, this is that perfect blend of collegiality and opportunity for mentorship, and a reminder to not take ourselves too seriously.”

But, beware, Nathans doesn’t enjoy the entire cupcake. “Usually, the cake is dry or there’s not a lot of flavor, so really, what's the point? I'm just in it for the frosting,” she said. (One of her fellow conference attendees once bought her a round of frosting shots, small containers filled with only frosting.)

Cupcakes aside, Nathans, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher Professor in Judaic Studies and the chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, is all about service and guiding students and aspiring academics. Over the last year, Nathans, who is the editor of the Studies in Theatre History and Culture series from the University of Iowa Press, joined forces with a group of colleagues and graduate students to launch a website and series of online support groups and boot camps to demystify the whole scholarly process from writing articles to making book proposals to finding fellowships.

Gantcher Professor in Judaic Studies Heather Nathans shares some of the strategies that she employs in her efforts to make her field accessible—and more welcoming—to aspiring academicians. Video: Meredith Berg 

“I think about service as the demonstration of someone's commitment to making their field better for the people who are around them and coming behind them,” said Nathans. “What’s important to me is making people’s paths easier, making things more accessible, and really understanding that it is much better to be a star in a galaxy of stars than one lonely star in a big, blank sky.”

Tufts Now: What wisdom can you share for women coming of age today?

Heather Nathans: I would focus on service, which very often lands at the bottom of the heap, in terms of the way that people think about how you build a career in the academy. It's very often prioritized in the order of “research, teaching, service,” or “teaching, research, service.” Service is just left lying on the floor getting stepped over. Very often, women and faculty of color bear a disproportionate service load.

But to me, service is why you're in a field. You enter the academy to pave the way for others, hopefully, through your contributions in teaching, through your contributions in knowledge, through your contributions in leadership. Leadership doesn’t mean you have a fancy title and a swanky office. Leadership means that if you see something that needs to be moved or cleaned up, if you're the leader, then that responsibility also falls to you.

How should people find service opportunities?

Put your hand up, that's all it takes. When there's a call for volunteers, put your hand up, even if you think you might not be good at it. If you're the person putting your hand up, you're the best person for the job and you will learn as you go. People will then start to see you as the person they can count on.

I always say, “Why not start small… and maybe fail?” Then just keep trying ideas. The best way not to have anything new happen is to not try it. You will have the opportunity to bring your ideas into organizations or into institutions to make the kind of change that you hope to see.

I remember once having coffee with a scholar I revere. She said, “You should think about running for president of this organization eventually." I thought: Me? But you, revered and amazing scholar, have spoken, so I must do it.

Now I really love being able to see someone else’s work and ask, "How can I help? How can I help you see yourself as a leader? How can I help you make your book proposal better, or how can I help you feel better about your upcoming job interview process?"

Can you share a challenge you have overcome and what you learned from it?

How do you encourage people to take leadership positions when they identify leadership negatively? People might imagine, “It's not something that I want to commit time to, I have other things that I'm being told I should be putting my focus on.” That issue can really drain a potential leadership pool and have a negative long-term impact on a field.

When you’re trying to cultivate new leaders, you don't want to overlook the very real challenges of workload and responsibilities that people may have beyond their job: whether it's little ones at home or aging parents, or they may be the sole breadwinner in their home. You don't know their circumstances, and they're not obliged to disclose them in order to get a “pass” on performing service.

But shifting the paradigm of the value of service in a field would be tremendously helpful. As long as a discipline, an institution, or an organization doesn’t prioritize service, people are going to put it last on their list, because they're not going to be rewarded for it professionally. By “rewarded,” I mean in some cases literally the security of tenure. If somebody is thinking, “If I do this, I put my job at risk,” of course they're not going to try it. It would be unreasonable to ask them. But if a paradigm can shift in a field so that it becomes as important to make a contribution in leadership, in service, that's the way you actually transform a conversation in a discipline.

How does the celebration of Women’s History Month intersect with your own research?

When I think about how my research intersects with explorations of race, gender and ethnicity, I often think about how to disrupt that narrative of “firsts.” To continue to single out firsts—the first woman to do this, the first person of color to do this, the first Jewish American—is to continue to erase everything that's happened before that set the stage.

If we keep telling stories of firsts, then we keep saying, "Well, this person's exceptional," rather than, "This person is part of a community that is struggling for visibility and recognition." But everyone in the community is making a contribution.

For example, I have a graduate student who's doing some exciting research on the history of women in the 19th-century Boston theater scene. She’s been uncovering histories of the women beyond the stories that we usually hear. For example, she's found one actress who takes over the management of the Federal Street Theatre after her husband's death and runs it for 30 years. She becomes a really well-known local figure, but is not super-famous by any stretch. She’s also found an actress who travels from Tennessee to Maine, with her husband and ever-increasing brood of children in tow. Again, not a famous actress, but a working actress whose career and struggles can tell us a lot about what it meant to be part of the theater in that era.

Archival research like hers often feels like panning for gold and compiling nuggets of information flake by flake. It takes time and incredible dedication, but then you have the reward of unearthing and uplifting long-forgotten histories and honoring the memories and contributions of those who came before to pave the way.

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