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?