Graduate College

Donald L. Fixico

Distinguished Foundation Professor of History, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

On a sunny day in early June 1976 in Norman, Oklahoma, a 25­-year-old American Indian walked from the Memorial Union in the middle of campus with three fresh copies of his completed master’s thesis under his arm. Checking his watch, just after 1:00, he headed to Bizzell Memorial Library. As he looked up, the toughest professor in the history department at the University of Oklahoma was approaching from the other end of the sidewalk. I honestly thought about jumping over the green hedge bordering the sidewalk just to avoid Dr. Morgan. The hedge was about four foot tall, too high, too late—he already saw me.

Dr. Morgan was one of those professors that you always accidently ran into: in the library, in a hallway, in a stairwell, even in the bathroom. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, so I had to talk to him. Imagine losing every time at the O.K. Corral, but not today. He was fast on the draw, quick minded, demanding, brilliant, sarcastically witty, and very intimidating. And, he was on my master’s thesis committee. I knew what he was going to say; I had heard it every time we met.

“Mr. Fixico, when are you going to finish that master’s thesis?” he asked with his hand on his hip, like he normally did to assert his authority.

“Well, Dr. Morgan, I happen to have a copy for you right here.”

“Oh, well, … put it in my mailbox.” Then, he walked past me; I walked away towards the History Department feeling smug.

That evening the phone rang in my apartment at 6:00 p.m. “This is Dr. Morgan.”

“Hello, Dr. Morgan.”

“Mr. Fixico, I want to see you in my office at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.”

“Yes Sir, I will be there.” Click! I couldn’t sleep that night, wondering what I did wrong. Dr. Morgan never called me before, and I always had to work up my courage, to knock on his office door to ask him a question about my work in his seminars. At five minutes before 9:00 the next morning, I was at his office and waited outside until precisely 9:00 a.m. Dr. Morgan, who I thought was the meanest professor in the department had me move a chair next to his desk chair, and he went over with me every page of my 108-page thesis splashed with his red ink, telling and showing me how to write academically!

Since I have started teaching at the college level in 1978, I have been teaching my graduate students the same things that I learned from Dr. Morgan, a young endowed research professor at the time. From him, I also learned about life and how to be a professor, and from other mentoring professors and older colleagues. From my mentor, Dr. Arrell Gibson, also an endowed research professor, I learned to be a gentleman scholar.

I am a composite of all of them, but I also realized that I had to find myself, and discover over the years who Dr. Fixico was. I had to find my voice, and build my confidence in an academic world that had six American Indians with doctorates in history at the time. Most of all, I learned to be me and kept improving, accepting who I was, even when two students on different occasions did not accept me on the first day of class and asked if I was qualified to teach the course. After the semester, both asked me for letters of recommendation for something they applied for.

My philosophy on mentoring has two essential parts: helping graduate students to develop into scholars and treating them with respect while helping them to develop their confidence in “finding their voice.” Challenging graduate students to think big about important conceptual ideas is a sine qua non to their scholarship and demonstrating this practice in their analysis and writing history. This means helping students to think deeply about the facts and basic concepts such as place, power, othering, hybridity, symbolism, and other universals that are simultaneously a part of life and history. But how and when in historical context were these universal concepts perceived by people and understood in the past? And, how do we comprehend them today?

Specifically history is not merely a narrative of telling a story, but to deeply analyze and provide fresh interpretation from one or more perspectives. For example, frontier development in Arizona involved south to north settlement, then later east to west colonization, although indigenous peoples were already here. Arizona as a “place” has multiple layers of histories as “space” contested for people exercising leadership and power, plus other universal concepts. This mentoring of “thinking big” also means equipping graduate students with proper analytical tools and to learn the “process” of how history unfolds and life is lived at the same time. But also taking into account the non-living such as the natural environment. Deep thinking about history is not just entertaining human history, but inclusion of all things that impact the shaping of the past and studying change over time.

The second part of my mentoring philosophy involves spending quality time with students about their work. I hold weekly chats of 45-minute appointments, because I work with eight to ten students on the average and I hold office hours for my undergraduate students. Of course I am busy teaching and writing, but never too busy for students, who often need more time, thus sometimes phone calls during evenings. Helping them to find their voice while building their confidence is essential, but not to make students to depend too much on you. Building the trust relationship is also enabling graduate students to realize that they have a friend in you for the rest of their lives, during good and difficult times. Good mentors are “people” professors.

“Trust” is the cornerstone to mentoring. This means knowing how you understand trust and developing a trusting relationship with other people across differences of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and language. Building trust has been a part of my mentoring throughout my teaching experience that includes being a tenured professor at four institutions and a visiting professor at seven universities with two of them in England and Germany. Trust is a building block to academic integrity and personal integrity. A respected reputation is earned, but this is a two-way street by treating all people fairly, not playing favorites, even when you connect better with some graduate students than others. Being an effective mentor is effectively communicating with graduate students, and being available for chats and having an open door policy “my door is open and if you just want to visit, please come in.”

Positive mentoring is being more capable of listening than spouting unwanted suggestions, and giving advice only when it seems appropriate. An important part of listening is trying to understand the situation from the student’s viewpoint. But also anticipating “why” a student stops by during office hours and thinking about the big picture of what lies ahead in his or her life. Remembering that I was once a doctoral student, but not to bore students with war stories.

I am an information sharer with students. As a graduate student long ago on the research trail, I learned a lot from other young researchers about opportunities, professional associations, and different places like other universities, and how things worked in academia. I wondered why my professors didn’t tell me such things. I am the first one in my family to go to college, and also the first high school graduate. It seemed like I was always trying to catch up. I was naïve to the fact that many professors have professors in their family or they have relatives who are professors. I make sure that my students know how academia works, about publishing and how and where to publish, including why being in the loop is important by participating in professional organizations. At conferences, I introduce my students to key individuals to help them become a part of the professional loop. They also become friends with students at other schools.

I believe a good mentor is being a good example to one’s students, while supporting them, encouraging them, representing them, equipping them with the best tools and showing them the process of first rate scholarship. My job is seeing doctoral students beyond obtaining the union card, writing recommendations and helping them as much as I can to find jobs and talking to presses about my students’ dissertations becoming important books. This includes helping them to prepare for job interviews, job presentations, and even coaching them by telephone while they are at on campus interviews. My ultimate satisfaction is helping graduate students to make the transition to become deep thinking scholars who learn to write very well in order to be productive in their careers.

Farina King discusses her nomination of Donald Fixico for Outstanding Doctoral Mentor 2015-16 from Arizona State University on Vimeo.