Mentoring Madness

In my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the topic of Mid-Career Mentoring, one of the comments cast aspersions on mentors and mentoring. I wanted to follow up on this point here and probe the opinions of blog-readers.

The specific comment includes this statement:

"Mentoring," I learned, is an intense form of the summer camp buddy-system premised on the bizarre assumption that presumably adult persons who freely choose to go into a profession are under no obligation to find out for themselves how things work."

Discuss.

I must admit that there have been times in my life when I have said the word "mentor" (as a verb or noun) in a somewhat disparaging way. It is one of the words that certain colleagues and I use when we are making fun of some aspects of modern academic jargon, of the type we get in memos from administrators; for example, "We are tasked with mentoring the stake-holders to empower them to create deliverables."

And yet, I think mentoring is overall a good thing. I think certain academic citizens have always been mentored, even if we didn't call it that back in days of yore. In particular, those who were part of the system -- the so-called 'good ol' boys' network -- were mentored, whereas those who were not as plugged into this network were not. In the past, and to some extent even today, the unmentored were typically women and minorities in most of the STEM fields.

Academia can be mysterious, even if you try to find out for yourself how things work, and there's nothing wrong with creating a system that tries to demystify this. It may be fine in the abstract to have a sink-or-swim attitude about tenure-track professors, but, aside from the human issues involved, institutions invest a lot in new faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, and it makes sense for us to help our tenure-track colleagues succeed.

I think even those of us who had to walk 7 miles to school in the snow and cold with only old newspapers for shoes and a raw turnip for lunch can appreciate that there were things about the "good old days" that were unnecessarily harsh. Academic careers are still quite challenging, even with all the mentoring going around.

That said, I can still relate a bit to the sentiment that inspired the anti-mentoring comment, especially if it is rephrased as an anti-whining comment, rather than specifically being against mentoring. I think that mentoring has its limits -- both from the point of view of the mentor, however well meaning and engaged in mentoring they may be, and the mentee, some of whom tend to ignore the wise advise of their mentor -- and I have little patience with those who say "but no one told me that I'd have to spend so much time [insert major time-consuming activity]", whether or not they had an official mentor.

For the sake of discussion, perhaps it would help to give some concrete examples of advice a mentor might give a mentee, and then you can see if this constitutes some form of coddling of presumably adult persons who should figure this stuff out for on their own, or something more constructive. In the comments, you can leave other examples to illustrate the use or disuse of mentoring.

Real example 1: Years ago, a tenure-track colleague asked me if they should submit an NSF CAREER proposal that year or the following year. I gave my opinion, but mostly we discussed the pros and cons of each scenario. Back in the last millennium, no one ever told me when (or if) to submit a CAREER proposal; I just did it. That worked out fine for me, but does that mean my "mentoring" conversation with my younger colleague was a "summer camp buddy-system" kind of thing? I think not.

Real example #2: A common question asked by people putting together their lists of potential letter-writers for the tenure evaluation is whether to include their advisor or other people with whom they have worked closely (explanatory note for those who need it: the candidate typically lists some names, and the chair can pick some of those names, but then also asks for letters from people not on the list; in the end, there may be a few letters from colleagues/advisors, but the majority are from "unrelated" people). This is a good question to ask of a more senior colleague or administrator because the answer may vary considerably from place to place, and even within different units of one institution. In some places, there is always a letter from the former PhD advisor and it would look strange if this were missing; in other places, the former advisor is considered too unobjective and is not asked to write a letter. How do you know which is the case? Does the distinction between being mentored and being a rugged individual lie in whether you know to ask about this or whether you are simply told?

So: it's time to confess your true feelings about mentoring and being mentored -- do the 'm' words indicate weakness and lack of personal responsibility, or do they signify progress in humanizing the academic system?

 

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