Galentines and Mentors

Well, that last post hit a nerve didn’t it?

One of the points in there was about mentors- and a particular mentor who didn’t do the Batman slap thing when I wanged on about being post-feminist in 2008, when it was royally deserved by 20 year old me. So, seeing as it’s Galentines, and I didn’t manage to catch her today when I stopped in at Southampton (my usual routes home were a total traffic shitshow), I wanted to write about my PhD supervsior, Yvonne Marshall.

I first met Yvonne when she led the first year module from hell “Emergence of Civilization.” This was basically the archaeology of the entire world squashed into semester two- essential to do but hard work. And with Yvonne in charge it absolutely was the entire world- not Europe or Near East centric but with great attention paid to the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, everywhere. It was a whirlwind tour with great projects- 1500 words on the domestication of a plant or animal of your choice and the archaeological evidence for this (I did llamas). I think I came to her attention through being a total pain in the arse- I would miss lectures to play rugby then try and be a smartarse in seminars. Yeuch. Still, Yvonne was warm and friendly and funny and didn’t tell me off and as I grew up a bit (a bit) I took more modules with her- Object Matters (materiality to the max) and then Feminism and Archaeology (third year course of dreams). Then I did my MA Social Archaeology, a programme she co-led with another lecturer, Etruscan specialist Vedia Izzet. Vedia and I had only met when I applied for funding for that MA, and sparks flew. We quickly plotted and executed a plan for a PhD in Etruscan archaeology that she would supervise. I would have a year of “Skills Acquisition” learning Italian, German, Latin and to read Etruscan while she was on research leave.

The problem was, life intervened, and Vedia didn’t come back. I had a funded PhD position and no Etruscan specialist supervisor. I panicked. The whole thing could have gone tits up, but Yvonne saved me. She persuaded a wonderful Roman archaeologist to be my adviser, introduced me to a brilliant prehistorian and Italy specialist (another fab mentor) and took me under her wing, telling me that while she didn’t know much about the Etruscans, she knew about good arguments and how to supervise a PhD. My god, she was right. Over the next three years she slowly and carefully helped me create a thesis totally unlike the original funding application but far braver, bolder, and more original. She spent hours (often at a local garden centre cafe) with me chiselling my prose to make it stronger, untangling overly complicated sentences, turning what she called “broccoli” into pointy “carrot” arguments. I still find reading my work a bit icky, but I’m proud of that first book/thesis and she is the only reason it exists and is any good.

She always encouraged and supported me, sharing her own experiences of the vagaries of academe. When I submitted two articles, one of which was accepted without corrections and the other returned without reviewing with a cruel email, she helped me focus on the positive by sharing her own rejection letter. That article was accepted with no corrections in a different journal, because it’s brilliant- the journal wasn’t. When I wrote an absolutely stinking pile of rubbish she gently said “well, it isn’t very good.” When I wrote strong arguments her smile and “we’re getting there” filled me with pride.

As I think I implied in that last post, I’m one of the “lucky” ones who has never been sexually harassed by another archaeologist (briefly stalked for a while by another postgrad who did that awful thing of stopping his horrible behaviour when he met my boyfriend, because obviously he can respect another man’s property but not a woman’s wishes, he was a philosopher though), so Yvonne never had to try and support me through that crap. But I know she was a pillar of support for so many, doing that typical female academic emotional labour that gets unpaid and unrecognised. On some days her office would be filled by people (usually women) in tears, sharing their problems of all kinds and getting the help they needed. Problem with your supervisor? Talk to Yvonne. Problem with your undergrad teaching? Talk to Yvonne. Feeling your mental health under strain? Talk to Yvonne.

I was so lucky to be able to talk to Yvonne so often through my PhD. I’m gutted I missed her today, even if I did see a different and also fabulous mentor. I owe her for every word I’ve ever written. Especially if it makes sense.

Thanks Yvonne. Happy Galentines.

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