asecs 2006: women’s caucus roundtable: mentoring

I spent last weekend in Montreal, at the 2006 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I thoroughly enjoyed the Saturday morning panel where I presented my paper, “Evangelicalism, Periodicals, and the Public Sphere.” I also caught several other interesting panels, including a roundtable discussion on the topic of mentoring, sponsored by the ASECS Women’s Caucus.

Now “mentoring” is an interesting process. If a person is your mentor, then they are something more than your teacher or your boss or your colleague, but they are something less than your friend. It’s a professional relationship, but one that goes beyond what the profession requires or encourages. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if the profession were all it’s cracked up to be, then mentoring would be unnecessary because the already existing professional relationships would be fulfilling the needs of members of the profession. Is it wrong for me to think of mentoring as something that fills in the gaps created by a flawed profession? I’m still thinking these things through.

All six roundtable participants made interesting contributions, but two in particular have stuck in my head. And keep in mind that I may have missed key points in some of the discussion, so if anything below seems particularly wrongheaded, be kind and blame me rather than anyone I’m paraphrasing.

Laura Brown spoke specifically about the transition from graduate student to colleague and discussed the role that faculty play in teaching their graduate students about the responsibilities of “intellectual citizenship,” helping to maintain the intellectual culture of the department and the discipline. PhD students become responsible intellectual citizens by attending talks, asking good questions, actively participating in their graduate seminars, becoming engaged with the field. What I found striking was the emphasis Brown gave to graduate student responsibilities, rather than just, say, opportunities. This is, after all, what is expected of us by the larger profession of which we are a part. I always tell my graduate students to think beyond the boundaries of the university; it’s fine to want to please those of us who teach the classes they take, but once they graduate, pleasing us should be the last thing on their minds. I encourage them to attend some conferences, make contacts with people at other institutions, become aware of what’s going on profession-wide.

Kristina Straub addressed the issue of “horizontal mentoring,” the guidance that peers give one another in their careers. For example, one aspect of an academic professional’s job is to review grant applications or manuscripts for publication, and we should think of these as “horizontal” mentoring opportunities. The audience you address in such a review includes not only the editor or grant awarding agency who must make a decision about how to proceed, but also the person who has written the article, book, or grant application. The feedback that you provide can be highly critical, if necessary, while still providing that person with the guidance they need to continue to improve. You’re not just performing a gatekeeping function in which you merely say “don’t publish this” or “don’t award this grant”; you are also functioning in a way that helps the person make it through the gate. In short, mentoring need not be something you add to your already busy schedule. Rather, you can begin to think of the responsibilities you already have as opportunities for mentoring, for helping others get to where they need to be. As some of my acquaintances know, I’ve had some less-than-satisfying experiences with feedback on grant applications and article submissions, and I can’t help but think I’d be farther along if I had been given advice on how to move forward instead of just reasons for denial. The upside of those experiences is that as a result, I believe that I have become a very responsible reviewer of other people’s material.

Some relatively rough thoughts sparked by the discussion:

Sometimes a significant gap develops between the vision of an institution’s administrators and the vision of the faculty members, or between the vision of newer faculty members and the vision of longtime faculty members.

The first kind of gap, to take one example, develops at those colleges and universities where a corporate model of management has gradually taken hold at administrative levels while many, if not most, of the faculty have resisted such a model. The pro-institution rhetoric that administrators sometimes deliver can be incompatible with an honest discussion regarding the challenges, limitations, and problematic traditions that still linger at a given institution. And effective mentoring, by contrast, would require such honest discussion.

The second kind of gap can occur as a result of newly heightened tenure requirements for junior faculty. How can tenured faculty mentor their junior colleagues on publishing an academic monograph, for example, if no one in the department with tenure has ever done so?

What happens when faculty members think of their relationship to their institution, or to their colleagues, as somewhat adversarial? How does this affect the mentoring provided by those in power at such an institution?

Professional competence is an issue, too. Seeking a mentor can be accompanied by a feeling of anxiety. Who wants to appear ignorant, clueless, unprofessional. “Why don’t you already know how to do your job?” I wonder what the best way is to resolve this anxiety.

And we shouldn’t assume that mentors always know what they’re doing. “Who mentors the mentors?” Newly tenured faculty members may not be the most knowledgable or best positioned to provide effective advice. Yet junior faculty will often seek these newly tenured faculty for advice because they are less threatening advisors. Junior faculty need to be careful of shopping for the kind of advice they’re seeking while ignoring the advice that they don’t want to hear from those more experienced.

I’m curious, dear reader, about your experience with mentoring. Answer anonymously, if you like. Are you a professor or student? Do you have a mentor now? If not, why not? If so, has mentoring been helpful? Have you been a mentor to someone else? Has it gone well? What have been the most remarkable risks and rewards of mentoring?

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11 thoughts on “asecs 2006: women’s caucus roundtable: mentoring

  1. I thought about responding anonymously, and talking about my own experiences with mentoring, which by and large have been positive, both as a student and as a prof (I hope!), but then, I think a couple of general points are worth making too…

    First is that I wonder to what degree, in the humanities at least, the tight job market works against mentoring. I mean this both from a competition standpoint (which might work against horizontal mentoring) and from a “new prof” perspective. That is, we tend to hire people that we see as really having it together, people who may not seem as though that they need junior faculty mentoring in areas other than local politics and conditions. For example, if we’re looking at a set of finalists with several publications each, then it doesn’t occur to us that they might need additional mentoring with their writing. I know that’s been the case for me, as most of my feedback and advice comes from colleagues and friends at other schools.

    And that’s my second point–I think that we could do a much better job teaching writing. Jill Walker made the comment over at her blog recently that learning to write in grad school is largely a sink-or-swim matter, and that’s been my experience as well. We know a great deal more nowadays about teaching writing, but very little of it has actually penetrated graduate instruction. It’s too often assumed that our students already know how to write, and can translate that knowledge to writing for publication without any advice or assistance.

    I could go on and on, and have over cgbvb about some of this, but I’m interested to hear what others have to say…


  2. Those are both really good points, Collin.

    There is a certain logic to the idea that the person you hire should already know how to do well what you hired them to do (some combination of teaching, service, scholarship). But this logic runs up against the whole hierarchical structure of academia: why not go ahead and give them tenure when you hire them? Because you assume they’re not yet where they need to be.

    Furthermore, shouldn’t a new hire want to get better at what they do, and learn things they never knew before? I will one day be an old dog, but I will still want to learn new tricks. And I don’t necessarily want to teach them to myself.

    As far as teaching writing, I think the last time anyone actually went out of their way to teach me something about writing, I was in high school. (I tested out of first-year writing.) I could be exaggerating, though. I should think about whether that’s a fair statement.

    I wanted to acknowledge the strength of your comments (I’m trying to be better at responding to my commenters), but like you, I want to hear from others.

  3. I’m sorry that it’s taken me a bit to formulate what I wanted to say here, and I’m afraid that it’s still a bit rambly. The delay has come in no small part because I’ve never much thought of myself as having a mentor, though in fact, now that I stop and look at it, I think I do. During my first semester at my institution, a senior female colleague (then chair) arranged for regular Friday lunches with me and another colleague who’d joined the department at the same time. There was something a little disciplinary about these lunches — we were very much being kept tabs on — but they laid the groundwork allowed a more natural relationship to take root later on. As I became a bit more secure, I knew that I could turn to that senior colleague with any dilemmas that I was facing, as I knew that she trusted that I basically knew what I was doing but just needed the benefit of her opinions and experiences.

    Of late, we’ve had a number of new faculty join the department, and as one of the very recently tenured, I’ve found myself — I wouldn’t say mentoring them, but perhaps advising as called upon? In no small part this is precisely because I’ve (a) made it through the tenure process successfully, but (b) am not at the level of power at which I could be seen as threatening.

    One thing that’s interesting to me, though, is that both of these mentoring situations revolve primarily around questions of institutional culture and politics — how issues specifically having to do with life at the college should be dealt with. I haven’t felt the need, nor have my junior colleagues, to have much in the way of mentoring regarding teaching — though we do of course ask each other the “how would you deal with this situation” questions that help us think through knotty spots there. And though I personally would have liked more mentoring around questions of publication, I’m not sure that I could have found it at an institution as small as mine, given that there’s no one else in my field. I’m not sure whether my junior colleagues feel the same or not, but what I now feel the absence of is less mentoring than general conversation among colleagues about our work, a kind of conversation that is increasingly hard to come by.

    But back to mentoring: my mentor told me last year that she imagined that our junior colleagues were coming more to me for advice than they were to her, and that that situation felt a little strange to her, like a moment of generational shift that she wasn’t expecting. I told her that it was true, somewhat jokingly telling her that it was because she’s The Man now, an idea which took her a bit aback. What I didn’t say was that she was The Man when she started mentoring me, too, but there were no recently tenured faculty in the department to whom I could turn (we were all full profs, but for three assistants, back then). This seems to me one of the risks involved in setting up mentoring relationships in an institution as small as mine — that the very people to whom one goes for advice could turn out to be the people judging your accomplishment.

    Enough rambling. I hope there’s more conversation here, and that this comment makes some modicum of sense…

  4. KF wrote, “I knew that she trusted that I basically knew what I was doing but just needed the benefit of her opinions and experiences.”

    Yeah, this is well put. My thoughts exactly about what effective mentoring should be.

    The other points you make–which are not at all rambly–by the way, support the idea of having a mentor who is not in your department. I am working/have worked on developing mentoring relationships with colleagues who are in other departments at my campus, and I’ve done the same with people I meet at conferences or in the archives. It has generally gone pretty well, though I think it would go better if I were to take more time to tend to these relationships.

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  6. Good to see you back, and congrats on the new job!

    And just some scattered thoughts: I wanted to agree with Collin’s point about hiring people who seem to have it together and therefore don’t need mentoring – I think this happened to me in my first job, and a little bit less so at my current job, but my current school definitely prefers to hire folks with experience, which fits with what Collin mentions. (That’s a messy sentence, sorry!) One of the flip sides of being in a department in which the new folks get hired with more pubs than the old folks were hired with, is that the old folks don’t think they have anything to tell the new folks. (And sometimes they don’t, but the new folks generally still have a lot to figure out, if I’m any example.)

    Personally, I think my biggest problem is not with finding a mentor (I have had both official and unofficial mentors at both my jobs), but with learning how to be a mentee – I have thoroughly absorbed the idea that I should always look like I know what I’m doing, therefore should not ask questions (unless they’re the kind that make me look good, not genuine questions). Currently, my mentor is also my chair, and is very helpful and supportive, but as s/he writes my annual reviews, I do feel a certain need to maintain a very good image; s/he loves to be helpful, but I do worry that, for instance, discussing my teaching troubles with him/her can’t help but to affect their evaluation of me (you know, that they get to see the anxieties behind the scenes and not just the polished – okay, semi-polished – surface). And I get easily intimidated by my seniors, because I figure, why do they want to hang out with me? So I tend to rely a lot on the “horizontal” mentoring you mention – lots of supportive junior faculty and just-barely-no-longer-junior faculty.

    However, I feel much more comfortable BEING a mentor, because I love being the one who knows what’s going on. After all, that’s why I went into this field, right? ;-) But I worry that I like it because people thank me for my advice more than because I’m actually helpful.

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  8. The best thing I’ve done (or had the luxury of doing) is to cultivate multiple mentors, very few of whom are in my department, which has an odd culture of mentoring, having to do (I think) with what Collin describes: in conversations about hiring if someone says “with a little mentoring this person could be great” that’s basically the kiss of death.

    In any event, two of these were my advisors (different institutions for grad degrees), and a couple others were just people whose work I admired, and to whom I baldly wrote when I was a new asst prof to see if they’d read my stuff. One was someone who visited the classics dept and gave a talk, and then I approached that person to see about lunch possibilities. We’ve been in touch since. I now have two department heads, and they both mentor me to a degree. But only, thankfully, when I seek their advice. Unsought mentoring can be kind of awkward, don’t you think? And finally, I have a–get ready–junior colleague who I consider a wonderful mentor (if by mentor we mean someone with wisdom), whose down to earth, really solid perspective is eye opening, especially in terms of daily department life.

    Expertise is wide ranging around these parts, and it’s important to have a host of perspectives.

  9. New Kid: “I have thoroughly absorbed the idea that I should always look like I know what I’m doing, therefore should not ask questions”

    dhawhee: “The best thing I’ve done … is to cultivate multiple mentors, very few of whom are in my department”

    I think the second quotation above is in part a solution to the first one. There’s an inherent conflict of interest when your mentor is also evaluating you, even when there’s nothing but good intentions all around. For the mentee, it becomes difficult to ask honest questions. For the mentor, an honest evaluation of the mentee’s work becomes difficult. And open questions plus honest evaluation are an important part of any professional’s development.

    So the idea to “cultivate multiple mentors” –and not just ones within your department–is a good one. I’m working on doing this, myself.

  10. I don’t think I said this in my comment to your first post, but congratulations on your new job. I’ll miss talk of KC, but I know the new job is more geographically desirable for you. I look forward to hearing about the new place, too.

    Sorry to be coming late to the conversation, but like KF I needed to absorb a little and think about what I wanted to say. Part of what I would’ve said, New Kid has already said. Her institution sounds like mine — having been on a search committe I know the senior people in the department, at least, think we should hire someone who not only has publications already but has had a year of post-doc teaching or at least has the dissertation in hand. Why? Because they fear that someone fresh out of grad school will be overwhelemed by a 3/2 load and pretty ambituous research expectations for a place with a 3/2 load. And while in part I understand the practicality of such assumptions, it also implicitly says: We expect you to know what you’re doing already. There’s no mentoring program and while my colleagues are usually happy to answer questions or to give advice when asked for it, you need to ask first.

    On the one hand it’s flattering to be thought of someone who already knows what she’s doing and I definitely have the personality of someone who wants to do it myself. On the other hand, I’m not always quite sure of what I’m doing and kind of throw myself into things blindly, and I’m especially not very good at knowing what NOT to do. For instance, only now have I heard that maybe first year assistant profs shouldn’t speak up boldly in department meetings, but I did. In fact I came to the defense of the comp director against one of the old fogies (so old he didn’t think teaching writing was separate from teaching literature!). No harm came of it, but perhaps I should have been more careful.

    Then again, I was only imitating the 2nd year assistant professor, who is very outspoken. And, in fact, she has been my model and partial mentor since I’ve been here. In fact, she took it upon herself to show me the ropes of some of the little, bureaucratic, practical things because no one showed her when she arrived. Having a junior prof mentor your through the little things is extremely helpful. She’s also been a good model for some of the bigger things as well, because she seems to have had very good mentoring in grad school and is also an academic child. If you can find a person like that who doesn’t have any power over you — and assuming you aren’t in a cut-throat department where not all the asst. profs will get tenure — that’s a good substitute for someone with tenure and potential power over you.

    And George, you may be right that a person in another department could be ideal, even at a higher rank, but keep in mind that they too could be on the college or university level committee that grants tenure. So one needs to be careful there, too. Then again, at my university, that would make them more likely to be an ally on such committees, especially in explaining my work to non-humanities or non-arts and sciences people.

    Finally, I don’t know that I personally would have wanted a specific mentor assigned to me. Too often a quirky or idiosyncratic take on the profession or the institution could lead an individual mentor to give a mentee a skewed view. In my institution, in particular, there are some very accomplished, but very bitter and pessimistic people, whose advice I’ve learned to take with a grain of salt only by seeking out multiple people for information and advice.

    Whew. OK, I’ve said a lot and I’m not sure I said anything at all. I think in the end I’m suspicious of haivng particular mentors, but then I also see a need to get past the “sink or swim” aspect of academia. And yet, when you’re in an institution where jr. faculty are expected to do more than senior faculty ever were, how can you have effective mentoring at all? How can it be otherwise than “sink or swim”? In which case, it’s a bigger problem, endemic to the profession itself.

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