Written by Nicholas Forster
What can we ask of an academic mentor? What are the political possibilities of professors invested, not just in research, but also in building bonds with graduate and undergraduate students that will continue to re-sculpt the limits of our disciplines? For Vicki L. Ruiz, Distinguished Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies at University of California, Irvine, the answer seemed pretty simple: “for me, it all boils down to mentorship.” After all, it was the very real mentorship of a professor that encouraged Ruiz to pursue graduate school in the 1970s.
One of the few Mexican-American women in the 1980s to receive a Ph.D. in History, Ruiz visited Yale on April 18 where she spoke to a room full of faculty, undergraduates and graduate students. There was much to talk about, in part because Ruiz’s list of accolades stretches longer than most single-scroll blog rolls on the internet. Born in Georgia, she attended Gulf Coast Community College before enrolling at Florida State University. From there she began her Ph.D. at Stanford in 1977, working with professors like Estelle Freedman and Albert Camarillo. In 1987 her first book, Cannery Women, was published, elucidating the life-giving and life-saving activist work of Mexican American women’s unions. In the thirty years that have passed, Ruiz has continued to write, teach, guide and shift the methodological possibilities and imaginaries of students studying history and ethnic studies. A dedicated administrator and program builder, Ruiz has also served as the president of the American Historical Association and in 2015 she was notably awarded the National Humanities Medal by then president Barack Obama.
On Thursday, Ruiz brought that legacy to Yale and her insights extended across a variety of topics. The focus of the event, however, was diversity in the academy. And to talk about the diversity meant addressing how the shifting landscape of university education was an especially insecure endeavor at this moment of rising adjunct and contingent faculty, the possible de-funding of federal and state research programs, and the diminishing number of history majors at a number of universities. As Ruiz explained “the pipeline is in peril.” Noting the role that universities play Ruiz urged that institutions not only partner with the people and spaces they inhabit but also build sustained relationships with them. Rather than community out-reach, Ruiz called for “community in-reach.” Though constructing such connections can be difficult, there was a simple idea behind her vision: to occupy land should mean that institutions honor that land the people who live in and around it.
For Ruiz, the best mentors and colleagues revealed ‘how to give criticism in world of unconditional support.’
Still, Ruiz remained hopeful, if concerned. The challenges facing the academy were evident in and could be shifted by, as she argued, “cohort,” “community,” and “climate.” Networks of scholars, staff and students needed to work together to create a strong foundation of support both for their research and for their work. Of course, support did not mean careless praise or empty celebration. For Ruiz, the best mentors and colleagues revealed “how to give criticism in world of unconditional support.” This was a lesson Ruiz learned in her own relationship as a student of the feminist historian Estelle Freedman.
Mentorship was not merely a philosophical call either. Ruiz detailed the generations of graduate students she has served throughout the last three decades. And her dedication was evident both in the individual interactions and within broader programs at universities such as UC Davis where she developed the Mentorships for Undergraduate Research in Agriculture, Letters, and Science (MURALS) initiative.
Such collaboration is especially poignant now as institutional memory seems to erode, a condition of man who would rather shut their eyes and plug their ears as “traditional disciplines” change. Now, more than ever, Ruiz called for historians to receive media training and make their work known beyond the iron rod gates of so many universities and the invisible borders of others. And she was quick to point out that it is also in the present that we must hold on to “the sense of wonder in the archives.” This was the charge of research. This was the call Ruiz clearly made. It was an urgent one to heed.
Nicholas Forster is a Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies and Film and Media Studies. He is also one of the editors of the RITM Center’s blog.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration advances work related to Ethnic Studies fields; to intersectional race, gender, and sexuality research; and to Native and diasporic communities in the United States and abroad.