Sunday, October 01, 2006


I've been thinking a lot about mentoring lately, in no small part because so many people have been posting about it lately. (I'm sure there are links I'm missing, too, but those are the ones that immediately jump to mind. Edited to add: Here's another link that I think participates in this conversation that seems to be cropping up all around.) Oh, and I also read something about mentoring on the CHE forums in the context of junior faculty needing mentors. (My long-dormant obsession with the forums has been rekindled by the job search. And it's not even that they're that interesting, but still I can't stop myself from reading them. In some cases I'll read the same threads over and over again. It's a sickness.)

But so I want to write about mentoring because I've been thinking so much about it lately.

First, I should say that I have since college most often been in situations where I've had to seek out mentors as opposed to having people volunteer mentorship. Luckily, I did have the good fortune to get unasked for mentorship in how to seek out mentors (if that makes any sense), and so I wasn't just left to flounder not knowing how to go about doing so. But still, my undergraduate and graduate experiences generally included a great deal of benign neglect. I was never really "the chosen student" whom a teacher took under his/her wing without me asking to be taken under. I think that this has a great deal to do with how I view mentorship now that I'm actually in a position to do some mentoring myself.

So what do I think makes a good mentor?

1. Good mentors push you to do things that you believe you're not capable of doing.

My best example of this relates to the encouragement that I got from my undergrad thesis advisor to submit an abstract for a conference - a "real" conference, not a student one. Yes, it was a small conference, but at the same time, it wasn't just "practice" for when I became a scholar if I got accepted. And I did get accepted. And my thesis advisor also attended the conference, and she introduced me to people, and she made my first conference experience one that was about interacting with professionals as a professional. It was not filled with intense anxiety. This experience was terribly important in my development as a scholar and as a professional, in no small part because it gave me the confidence to put myself out there even if I was afraid of rejection. What I learned from that experience was that even if you think you might not be accepted or that you might not be good enough, there is no way to know that unless you try. And often when you try you will be successful.

2. Good mentors guide you, and while they may critique your work, they do not impose certain kinds of authority over you.

The truth is, my greatest mentors have not been my teachers. As a teacher, one must exert certain kinds of authority. A power differential is built into the teacher-student relationship, which in no small part has to do with grading. I'm not saying that teachers can't be good mentors, but I do think that the mentoring relationship can only happen when your mentor relates to you as a kind of "junior peer," if that makes any sense. My undergrad thesis advisor whom I mentioned above? She never taught me in a traditional course setting. I was directed to her when my undergrad advisor (who would have been the logical choice for a faculty member to direct my thesis) denied my request that she be my director. She just handed me the name and contact info, and sent me on my way. And so I was directed to my thesis advisor, who was not a t-t or tenured faculty member in my department but rather in an admin. position, but I think that perhaps she ended up being able to be such a great mentor in part because I went to her as an adult with a request, and she was interested in what I wanted to do, and so she said yes. From the beginning, the power differential that was omnipresent in my relationship with my faculty advisor had nothing to do with my relationship with my thesis advisor. Similarly, the mentors I've acquired since starting on the t-t are my peers. Yes, they have wisdom to offer me, and yes, they have more experience than I have, but when they help me, it's help freely given and has nothing to do with a service obligation or whatever. I think that's key.

3. Good mentors really respond to your ideas and to your work.

This goes for teaching or service or anything in the profession, really, but I'm going to focus on research here. A good mentoring relationship seems to depend on the ability of the mentee to trust the advice of the mentor, and that can only happen if the mentor offers you real critique while at the same time offering positive feedback to your work. Now, my diss advisor wasn't a particularly... attentive kind of guy in many ways. But you know what? I have never had anyone read my work with the kind of focus with which he read it. And he never sugar-coated his criticisms, and that only made me value his praise more. (And the praise was not frequent - he often began our meetings about chapters with the statement, "I'm not going to tell you what's good about this because that won't help you and that will just waste our time." But even with that statement, there was an indication that anything we didn't discuss was pretty fucking good. And when he offered real praise? It was always very specific. I never doubted that he read every word that I submitted to him. Even all of the crappy words in those two chapters that are not in my dissertation.)

4. Good mentors honor their commitments to you.

They meet when they say that they will meet. If they agree to read something for you, they actually read it by an agreed upon date. If they can't do something that they've said that they'll do, they let you know, and they help you to get what you need, either from them at a later time or from someone else. This is another instance where I think mentoring is to some extent distinct from teaching. I know, I know, good teachers should do these things, too. And I think that for the most part, they (we) try. But how many of you have ever taken more than a week to get a set of papers back? Maybe even lied and said you left them at home but that they wer already graded and you're just scatterbrained? How many of you have had to reschedule a meeting with a student at the last minute because something else came up? How many of you have been unable to help a student and didn't direct them to somebody else who could? I think as teachers that we've all done at least one of these things, and while it's not good to make such actions a habit, when you're dealing with 70 or 80 students in a semester, sometimes these things are going to happen. And the bottom line is that because the teacher has the power of the grade, the teacher has the power to do those sorts of things. If that kind of thing comes into a mentoring relationship, however, it entirely undermines it. The mentee can no longer count on the mentor, trust the mentor, and since the mentoring relationship is informal, why should it even continue at that point?

5. Good mentors are genuinely excited when good things happen for you, and they support your endeavors and positively reinforce those endeavors.

This last one may seem obvious, but from what I've heard from so many people, this is something that many people don't experience from senior people involved in their work. Rather, I've heard a lot of stories about how supposed mentors respond to good news with derision or to a new project with disdain. This is so fucked up. I can't think of anything more to say about this one than that.


Looking at that list, it becomes clear to me that I've been very lucky to find mentors who embody most, if not all, of these qualities. Looking at myself, I think that I have been a good mentor to some students, though I am not always as good a mentor as I could be to others (but who is?). I suppose my point in writing this post, though, is that I really don't think that those who need mentorship are passive in the mentor-mentee relationship. Yes, good mentoring has certain characteristics. But I also think that it is up to those who need mentorship to seek out the kind of mentoring that they need. The characteristics of what you need in a mentor for the relationship to work may change over time, and those characteristics are not the same for all people. Or we may need different kinds of mentors in different contexts. For example, in terms of my research, I tend to work best with people whom others might find a bit harsh in the way that they respond to my work, but when it comes to mentoring at my job, I would rather have more smiley, positive, happy mentors. And maybe that will change if I get a new job, or as I am in the profession longer. But the point here is that whatever the differences are, all of the people whom I count as mentors respect me and I respect them.

I think that when we try to impose certain edicts about how faculty are supposed to mentor students or how senior faculty are supposed to mentor junior faculty or whatever, that we're kind of missing the point. The thing that has been so valuable to me about the mentoring relationships that I've had is that there weren't any rules. Those who've agreed to mentor me do it because they want to, because they think that I'm worth mentoring. And I have chosen them because I want their input, because I think they have things to say that are worth listening to. I play a role in defining the relationship. I'm not saying that we shouldn't talk about mentoring, or that it's not important to shine a light on bad mentoring practices. But I also think that if we try to regulate it too much, it ultimately infantilizes the mentee and takes away the mentee's power.


Kate said...

I think the points you outline of what makes a good mentor are great.

In my experience, unfortunately, the power dynamics of the university are themselves infantilizing. When you are in a position where you are made to feel worth less, I don't know how much of a role you can play.

I've had no direction in the pursuit of original research and a doctorate. That could be mistaken for agency, and in some ways I did have agency. I did get to decide to do my research the way I wanted to, and I'm a pretty headstrong person, so who knows if I would have listened to a mentor who wanted me to do it any other way.

But in the places where I was less certain, where I tried to solicit mentoring, the people I thought I could count on scattered to the wind. No one had time for me, because they were in the field, writing a book, doing the last bits of an administrative position, or coming up for tenure.

I don't think I didn't get the mentoring relationship I wanted because I didn't fight for it, nor because I wasn't worth mentoring. With a few faculty (unfortunately not my advisor), I'm also certain they wanted to mentor me.

I think the reason I did not get the mentoring I wanted was that academia -- particularly the institutions I have been in which are private institutions -- beats people into such a pulp that no matter how well-intentioned they are they cannot have the attention and mentorship they want to have. They are so freaked out by publications, keeping a lab running, and getting tenure that the simplest, most human things got left behind years ago.

This is why some institutionalization needs to happen, why mentoring needs to be made a more explicit component of faculty jobs, why we need training. For many people I know, if they are not reminded to be human and do the basic things for their mentees they are supposed to, they won't. If the shit doesn't hit the fan and the student stumbles through, that's good enough for them. That's just not good enough for me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for your comment, Kate. I think you make some good points about how institutional politics/structures can (negatively) affect even a well-intentioned faculty member's attempt to mentor students. I'm wondering, though, after reading your commment about the following:

1) I wonder how much of this is discipline-specific. I have the sense that in my discipline there may be more of a "culture of mentoring," maybe because of the influence on composition on the discipline? Because we work independently and so the only way to get feedback on our work is to have strong relationships with mentors? That is NOT to say that there aren't some really shitty mentors in my discipline. It's just something I'm thinking through.

2) I also wonder how mentoring works in different disciplines where faculty need to go off and do field research, etc., which is pretty unusual in my discipline. yes, profs get sabbaticals every now and again when they're finishing a book, but the norm is that they're pretty much available, unless they're super-duper-famous. If I wanted to talk to my advisor about something, all I had to do was go out and smoke with him. (Of course, this meant that in order to be mentored I had to smoke, which means that I had to kill myself in order to get what I needed, but nevermind that :) )

3) I'm also wondering how much of this has to do with the structure and politics of individual departments. I did my grad work in a fairly small department, and I think that to some extent this contributed to the positive mentoring experiences that I had there. Now, that's not to say it was a touchy feely department. Professors did not take grad students to conferences, mentor them through publishing, etc. In some respects, they practiced a kind of "grow up and figure it out" approach, which worked for me, but it didn't work for other people in my program. Anyway, I'm rambling, but my point is, I'm wondering how much we should talk about "fit" with students when we counsel them about going to grad school. I think most of us tend to tell students to go to the "best" school they get accepted to, but maybe that's actually bad mentoring if we want them to get good mentoring later? Depending on the school that is?

Anyway, my thoughts here are scattered. But I'm really glad that you responded to the post and offered your perspective.

Kate said...

I agree on all points. There's wide variation in the social sciences, but it's at a different point along the spectrum than the humanities, just like the physical and life sciences likely fall along a different part of the spectrum. In my field we have two models: have your advisor hand you a project and micromanage your work as a subset of his/her own, or set you free to do your own thing; both have advantages and disadvantages. My advisor is of the latter model, which is similar to what you describe in your field, in that we can only get feedback when we have strong mentoring relationships. But those really aren't valued in my dept.

Always glad to have more people thinking well about this issue -- I don't think we'll ever overdo it!

History Geek said...

I wish I could find a good mentor where I'm at, but I'm not sure I even know how to go about it (our advisors are pretty useless sadly).

This also reminds me I need to start thinking about sumbiting an abstract (not to mention figuing our all those lovely things like 'how to write one', 'how to sumbit one', and 'can I really do this'?)

Anonymous said...

i'm doing a whole post on this, later today I think.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmm.... I think I might do a post about finding mentors, too. What I will say to your specific question, HG, is the following:

1) mentors don't necessarily need to be faculty. Is there someone in your program who has written an abstract to submit to a conference before? Asking him/her to see it is a good start.

2) If you're thinking of submitting an abstract that relates to work you did in a particular class, make an appointment to meet with the instructor of that class. Go in with a rough sketch of your idea for what you would present/include in the abstract, and explain to the prof. that you had done the original work in his/her course and were wondering if you could get feedback about how best to develop it into a conference presentation and about how to present that in abstract form. If you go in armed with having already done some work, people are always more helpful.

But yes, I may write a bit more about the mentoring and how to find good mentors....

luolin said...

See Jane Compute has a post up about mentoring undergraduates. I mention it because it (along with profgrrrrl's post) made me think about my own experience with my senior thesis advisor. The relationship is very different when the work is independent rather than collaborative.

I had good mentors, and I do not think I have lived up to their example with my own students, but I am also at a very different type of institution than the ones I attended.

Kate said...

One final thing and then I'll shut up. You said in your comment:

my point is, I'm wondering how much we should talk about "fit" with students when we counsel them about going to grad school. I think most of us tend to tell students to go to the "best" school they get accepted to, but maybe that's actually bad mentoring if we want them to get good mentoring later? Depending on the school that is?

I meant to point this out before -- I think it's an excellent point. I went to the "best" school rather that had the best financial package and best name of the places I got in. Another school, with a poorer financial package and less famous name (though I now realize, really a good dept) would have had better mentoring opportunities.

The problem is, I felt I had to choose the better financial package. Looking back, my advisor actually did tell me to think harder about the other place I got in and not let the prestige of the place I got in get to me. But it was via email, half-hearted, and with no justification.

Of course, in hindsight, I have all the justification I need... sigh.

Dr. Crazy said...

No need to shut up at all, Kate! I'm enjoying the discussion, and I think others are getting something out of it as well.

Re: PhD programs, what my best mentor told me was the following:

1) Go where they treat you well during the application process. If they don't treat you well then, you can be certain they'll treat you poorly once you're actually in the program. (Advice I give my students as the first consideration in deciding between acceptances)

2) Do not go into any PhD program that doesn't fund you. (Sound advice I think, and advice that I pass on to my students when they're even thinking about where to apply, because the reality is that in English you will most likely have a tough time getting a job when you're done, and it's dumb to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt.)

3)Go to the best school that funds you.

In that order.

Now, after reading your comment, I realized that while I took that advice, I did not choose the best financial package over #1. Nor did I choose the best school without regard to #1. Instead, I really took all three into account, and that meant I went with the not-best (though not-worst) financial package with what I thought would be the best school for me (I was looking for a small program with a lot of self-direction/not many hoops to jump through). Part of the reason that I think I was able to think about it in the way that I did was because of the sound advice I got from that mentor - and that he really talked with me about my options, even though he knew that if I got into my #1 it would mean that I would leave that institution (where I got my MA). I wonder why more people don't have experiences like that to recount. It's really a shame.