i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI like many, many things about my department. But I am a little frustrated about the lack of formal-ish mentoring present. It’s a little awkward — we had a couple of regular opportunities, like monthly lunches with the department head, or the senior faculty chatting with the junior faculty at a breakfast every so often, but these seem to have disappeared, for some very good reasons that I’m not going to get in to here.

The point is that I need some help, I’ve been asking senior faculty for help, and nothing continues to happen.

Okay then. So in November, I started working on my own idea, which came to fruition over spring break.

After one of our disciplinary conference last November, I realized how I kept spending time saying to colleagues, “wow, we should really try to get together sometime, we seem to have a lot of similar interests,” and not actually *getting together* to talk about those similar interests. At the same time, I was having sidebar conversations with folks about where we found intellectual stimulation, what ideas we were really interested in, how could we collaborate, how could we find new places to publish, and so on.

So shortly after I returned home, I emailed all these folks a (slightly edited) email:

I have an idea. I’ve had conversations with some of you over the last little while about trying to find ways to collaborate across institutions with engineering education foci, departments, programs, or research interests. Others of you I think are interested in doing creative, out-of-the-box research and finding a source of intellectual sustenance outside of our regular journal. Still more of us want to help each other professionally, particularly in this weird gig we’re calling the discipline of engineering education. I wonder if we couldn’t accomplish some of all these aims without too much additional work?

Here’s the idea: a working retreat, somewhere in the eastern midsection of the country that a lot of us could drive to without too much difficulty. A B&B or retreat center somewhere that we take over, and a weekend of conversation and renewal. I know some of you have kid responsibilities, and others of you are further away, and everyone is too busy to think, and there are lots of details to figure out, but I wanted to throw this idea out there to see if any of you had any interest.

I’m thinking a weekend in late winter or spring, I’m thinking a dozenish people (to keep logistics manageable on my end, and so we all can have some focused conversations), I’m thinking something that combines work and play, and probably something that doesn’t break the bank (as I’m not sure I can get travel funds to pay and others might be in the same boat). And I’m thinking some kind of vague outcomes that help us all advance our careers but that also simply treads down some paths between us to make it easier to collaborate in the future. Maybe it should be kid/partner friendly, maybe it should be at a different time, maybe more people should come. Let’s talk about these things.

That’s what I’m thinking. What do you think? Copy everyone if you’re willing to share your thoughts. I hope we can work out a way to see lots of each other soon…
Thanks for considering this idea.

I was shocked to find that all the people I emailed were into this idea. W00T!

We kept having an email conversation over the next few months about what would be useful, where we should go, when, and who the “we” should be. We decided at this point the “we” should be the people I had contacted, with the idea that if this “thing” worked out, we could expand to some larger circles. We agreed that the purpose should be to support collaboration and community, and should organize the time to facilitate developing these.

We ended up deciding on a resort state park in Kentucky as it was driving distance for most of the folks who said they were interested in participating (longest for me). Once I put out the call to book rooms, half the folks said they couldn’t participate this time, although to keep them posted about future possibilities. That’s okay — we ended up with 5 people committed to showing up for 1.5-2 days at the end of spring break.

It was GREAT. We rented a “host” cabin, and everyone brought food to share; we planned to have dinner at the lodge, but it was pretty fried and meat-related, so we limited this. Everyone brought a thorny work-related problem that they were thinking about, including how to mentor graduate students, how to write a specific grant proposal, how to work out how to tell one’s “story” in their P&T documents, how to make clear connections with more traditional engineering disciplines, and how to manage large grants. All of the problems were specific, full of detail, and requiring the help of caring peers.

We met in different places around the lodge, including outside, on the host cabin balcony and in the living room, in the lodge lobby, and so on.I thought of the day as broken up into chunks “between breakfast and lunch”, “between lunch and tea”, “between tea and dinner” and “after dinner.” After lunch, we broke up for naps, hikes, or working on projects needing some focus. One colleague and I arrived early and got some talking done before the others arrived, and it seemed as though we had enough time to talk about everyone’s problem.

The best part was how we put our cards on the table. It might have been risky, airing dirty laundry about our departments, but we agreed to a blanket caveat that we respected and valued our colleagues and programs, but needed some time to talk through some issues honestly, and these concerns shouldn’t be interpreted as being dissatisfied or as disrespecting colleagues or environments. It seemed to work, and I felt we had some pretty honest conversations, reassuring even from the listener’s side as I started to realize I wasn’t alone.

I left feeling as though I could call up these colleagues and ask them for help by phone in the future. We agreed at our final breakfast together to try to expand this model to more “groups” of folks, that expansion based on relationships might be a good idea, and let’s plan to do another retreat together in May of 2010. I’m hopeful that we will be able to manage this.

Two other very helpful models junior faculty organized in my department: one was a writing group that my colleague Monica Cardella organized, we met every few weeks last year, sometimes it devolved into “just talking,” (but clearly talking that needed to happen too); and the other is an accountability group, again of a couple of junior faculty who agree to show up at the same time, same place, and write together (that I mentioned here – sorry, Chronicle firewall).

I share these ideas with you (with my collaborators’ consent) because they form a set of models for how you can find your own peer mentors in the absence of a more organized program in your department. While I think it would still be helpful to have some specific mentoring in my department, specific, for example, to my own P&T committee, it felt empowering to feel I didn’t have to wait for someone else to take the initiative to organize it.

We could organize it ourselves.

Photos, sans collaborators to protect the innocent, from the Kentucky trip.


  1. #1 Amy
    April 6, 2009

    What a great idea Alice! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. #2 Female Engineering Professor
    April 6, 2009

    This is very smart. Good for you for making it happen.
    I think it’s important for people like me (tenured) to remember how the new chickens on the block (untenured) feel. It’s important for us to create informal situations like this to vent, discuss, ruminate, and support one another.

    A few years ago I started making a point of inviting new female engineering professors to lunch. It sort of evolved into a once a week thing. Very informal. We go off campus so we don’t have to chance sitting next to our department chair. We brainstorm solutions to problems such as bad evals, kid stuff, interdepartmental squabbles, etc. Once of my lunch buddies said the other week, “I learn something new every week.”

    If good mentoring isn’t happening in your world, everyone should follow Alice’s lead here. Don’t sit around and bemoan the fact. Make your own connections. It doesn’t have to be a trip … it could be just meeting for coffee.

  3. #3 gymlabrat
    April 6, 2009

    What you organized, Alice, probably is more useful than mentoring you might have gotten within your department. It gives you a greater range of opinions and experiences, and by all being “in the same boat,” a greater sense of comraderie.

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    April 6, 2009

    This sounds like an excellent idea. I’ve often heard of senior researchers getting together in an isolated place to “crank out” a collaborative paper. I don’t see why co-mentoring couldn’t also be effective this way.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 6, 2009

    That sounds fucking great!

  6. #6 ecogeofemme
    April 6, 2009

    I know that some journals in my field sponsor grants for workshops on particular topics. My understanding is that individuals can write proposals to get money to have a tiny meeting on a relevant topic of interest, and I guess the idea is that eventually there might be a synthesis paper or special issue in the journal as a result. Perhaps you should look into such options if your engineering education retreat grows.

  7. #7 D. C. Sessions
    April 6, 2009

    As the saying goes, “I wished somebody would do something — and then I realized that I am somebody.”

    More power to you.

  8. #8 Zuska
    April 7, 2009

    Ah, when I sent off for college as a completely naive 17-year-old, that’s more or less how I imagined collegiate life to be all the time – a group of your peers, gathered together to share ideas and support, talking into the wee hours, sharing food and drink, generating ideas. Alas, such heaven on earth rarely materializes for us. Amen to you for making it happen! (Don’t you just imagine that the Gordon conferences got their start in something very similar???) Alice, I hope I live long enough to see all the astonishing things you are going to accomplish in your career.

  9. #9 A Peer
    April 7, 2009

    As one of the peers … yeah, it was “fucking great” to quote the immortal (immoral ;> ) Comrade PhysioProf. And helpful. And important. And encouraging.

    But I have to say, ecogeofemme’s suggestion kind of depressed me – the reason it worked was precisely because we weren’t trying to “do” something together. We were “just” supporting each individual in whatever she was trying to do already. Maybe some day we will write a grant and have a meeting and write a paper or something totally productive, but for a while I hope we just help each other.

  10. #10 Alice
    April 7, 2009

    Thanks y’all.

    Zuska – OMG, are you going somewhere? :-S

    Peer — you got it. 🙂

  11. #11 Successful Researcher
    April 9, 2009

    Great idea!

  12. #12 Posicionamiento
    September 13, 2009

    It’s weird…. but clever!

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