Notes From The Workfront: FSU History Alumna Vicky Hightower (PhD 2011)

Vicky Hightower

There are a few things you need to know about me: I did almost everything wrong, but I did a few things right and that made all the difference. I studied Middle East history under Peter Garretson beginning in January 2002. I earned three degrees from FSU (BA 2001, MA 2004, PhD 2011) and one from the University of Arizona (MA 2006). August 2020 I applied for promotion to Full Professor. I credit much of my success to the training I received at FSU and the importance of the relationships I formed there.

I was absolutely unprepared for graduate school. It was through the grace and patience of my major professor, my friends and mentors that I made it through the program. My first MA took almost double the time it should have. I received a C in Research Methods the first time around. At FSU, I learned the incalculable significance of friends, mentors, and the importance of collegiality. Therefore, I offer three pieces of advice that have sustained me as I have made the journey from ABD-hire to an almost Full Professor.

First: Mentorship is vital.  Sally Hadden’s timeless advice for newly minted PhDs of “don’t be a jerk” is as important in graduate school as it is afterwards, though this was a lesson I really only grasped after I left FSU. I cultivated mentors from within my field and beyond. This helped me immensely as I began my new job as a Middle East historian in a rural, Georgia university which is also one of the six Senior Military Colleges in the US. I came to University of North Georgia with a very R1-focused trajectory but realized quickly that not all universities are R1. My university needed more from me than a monograph—it needed a colleague, an organized professor, and someone willing and able to do service. As I shifted my expectations, I drew deeply on my mentorship relationships for everything from how to navigate a class of 25-40 students to how to deal with overzealous parents. 

Mentorship does not only come from above. Peer mentorship and friendship is invaluable and has taught me the types of collegial relationships I want to cultivate and those I want to avoid. Graduate school is competitive and underneath friendships is a dose of (occasionally un-) healthy rivalry. Camaraderie and necessity sustain these ties through rough patches, and these are some of the most important professional relationships I have because of their depth and breadth. My grad school friends exposed me to topics I’d never think to explore. The conversations over coffee, beer, or in the graduate reading room provide me with teaching fodder to this day. Lord knows, I did not always make it easy for my friends, but these relationships are vital and have become more so over the years.

I would never have applied for this job had it not been for the network of what I like to call, the FSU Mafia. FSU graduates are everywhere, and the more distant network of FSU graduates has been an equally powerful force in my life. I applied for my current position because an FSU alumna who was an acquaintance (now good friend and boss) encouraged me to do so. Through another, I started to grade for AP World History tests which helped me streamline my pedagogy and meet more FSU graduates. I have run into FSU grads unexpectedly all over the world and, in my own backyard. We really are all over the place and developing these connections in graduate school within and beyond your cohort can create unexpected opportunities later on.

Second: opportunities matter, and sometimes it is what we do outside of the classroom that can be just as important as what happens inside it. I would love to tell you I was a model student. I wasn’t. I worked hard, but I did not always learn the deeper lessons my professors tried to teach me and only since I left have, they really born fruit. My life at FSU was divided into scholarship (classes and research), service (the Middle East Center and clubs), and teaching. I was admittedly overworked but I could also make a strong case when I was on the job market that I was prepared for the rigors of the job. At FSU, I helped plan or staff a number of important events including a regional conference, two national ones, film festivals, national grants, and culturally informed community outreach. These experiences gave me insight into department, college, and university politics that were crucial to helping me navigate my first years in my current position. Through these experiences I gained a frame of reference and basis for comparison when my department discussed budgets, enrollment rates, completion, and student success. My mentors encouraged me to develop skills within and beyond the classroom and taught me how to identify and talk about those skills as well.

At FSU, I learned that teaching was only part of the job. When I was named the co-advisor for Phi Alpha Theta, I had a frame of reference for the position and experience with organizing student groups. I became involved with our Corps of Cadets and was recently recognized with a Army Commander’s Award for Public Service. I also began working with students on their scholarship applications and I was named the Assistant Director of our Nationally Competitive Scholarships Office. Mentorship, building relationships with students, and helping students achieve their goals was something I began doing at FSU.

Third: nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is permanent. I was at FSU in the aftermath of what graduate students then termed the Great Schism, a period of factionalization in the department. I watched alliances and coalitions form, reform, and break. I saw how damaging it could be for students to try to navigate this and how much stress it brought to faculty members. I watched treasured mentors leave the university. I sought out a department of colleagues who could laugh together and enjoy each other’s company and I was highly sensitive to departments that did not have this dynamic when I was on job interviews. My department has tea at 3 pm every Wednesday. It provides us with a moment to get together as colleagues, share news, get help, ask advice, or just debate which rock song best captures the week’s stress. This community of scholars is rewarding in ways that are intangible and unexpected.

Being a young academic can be difficult and I struggled with administrative decisions that seemed disconnected from reality, research and writing blocks, publishing delays, classes that didn’t gel, and personality conflicts that I could not navigate. The shift from an R1 to a four-year liberal arts university’s expectations has taken me a decade to adjust to, though whether I have adjusted is yet to be seen. In my current position, I am able to call upon my friends and mentors from graduate school and to use the lessons of FSU—cultivating mentors, being a collegial colleague, and creating networks of opportunities—to help me succeed in my position.

I received three degrees from a single institution and did not study under a renowned scholar in my field. But I learned important lessons and took opportunities to build skills that enabled me to enter my current position with advantages and with a network of people behind and around me that I could call on. Perhaps what I most learned at FSU is that academia is a team sport, and it is far more enjoyable when we treat it that way.