On Faculty Mentoring

One of the evergreen topics for academic magazines like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education is faculty "mentoring." It's rare for a week to go by without at least one lengthy essay on the topic, many of which recirculate multiple times through my various social media channels. The latest batch of these (no links, because this isn't about the specific articles in question) prompted me to comment over in Twitter-land that:

This didn't generate much response on Twitter (probably because it was early in the morning), but did get some discussion on Facebook. Which led directly to the thinking-things-out-by-typing-on-the-blog post you're currently reading. Or possibly about to stop reading in favor of something less noodle-y.

Anyway, my comment was prompted by the fact that I have an immediate and visceral negative reaction to the whole idea of formal systems of faculty mentoring, a reaction that I don't think is all that widely shared. At least, the sheer number of opinion articles and faculty-meeting comments calling for such systems suggest I'm in the minority when I think of this as something I actively Do Not Want.

The kind of thing I'm talking about is a system where new professors are paired up in some way with a more senior faculty mentor, who helps guide them through the adjustment process and ideally up through tenure. I've even seen occasional calls for mentoring systems that would guide newly tenured associate professors through to full professor.

And while there are some obvious positive features to that kind of relationship, the whole idea of doing this in a formal way just gives me hives. And always has, both when I was a relatively new assistant professor, and now that I'm a well-established senior member of the faculty. I don't mean any of this to disparage people who do want this sort of system-- this is very much my own idiosyncratic reaction, which is why the original tweet references personality-- but having been asked about it, I'm interested in trying to articulate why I have such a negative reaction. Which turns out to be tricky.

It's not that I was or am especially confident in my ability to navigate academia. I feel like I have a pretty normal level of insecurity and impostor syndrome going on. And it's not that I'm opposed to getting or giving advice-- for the former, I've pestered any number of colleagues with questions about this and that over the years, and as to the latter, even a cursory glance over my various academic blog posts will show that I'm not hesitant about offering unsolicited advice to total strangers over the Internet.

I think the reason for my reaction is that the formal, one-to-one nature of "mentoring" as it's usually described suggests a level of obligation that I'm really uncomfortable with, from both sides. I'm all in favor of getting and giving advice, but I'm not happy about having that advice be binding.

As a junior faculty member, I got advice from a lot of senior colleagues about teaching and research, and a lot of it was really bad, for me. I don't mean that my colleagues were actively trying to do me harm-- what they suggested was all stuff that works well for them-- but it just didn't fit with my interests and personality. To give a fairly innocuous example, one colleague told me that when lecturing, he made an effort to "break the fourth wall," by moving out away from the chalkboard into the room, among the students. I'm a whole lot larger and louder than he is, though, so when I tried to do that, it was really uncomfortable-- students were basically cowering in fear when I got close to their seats. Since then, I've mostly stayed back closer to the board, and we're all happier for it.

(More recently, I've started doing much more wandering among desks, but that's because I've gone to more of an "active learning" format where I pose questions and students discuss them and work them out on whiteboards. Which I adopted in part due to interaction with someone very much my junior, who wasn't even a tenure-track faculty member...)

In an informal advice sort of arrangement, I'm perfectly comfortable mixing and matching advice from lots of different people, taking what works for me and discarding what doesn't. A more formal one-to-one mentoring system, though, seems like it would carry much more of an obligation to follow the specific advice from your mentor. It would be weird and awkward to explicitly reject advice from a formal mentor, or to go seeking different advice from elsewhere.

From the other side of the tenure divide, I have the same discomfort with the obligation that a formal mentoring system would seem to imply. There's undoubtedly a bit of impostor syndrome-ing here, in that from inside my head it looks like I've just been phenomenally lucky and don't deserve to be giving anybody advice, but it's also a reflection of my junior-faculty experience. A lot of what I do in the course of my teaching and research with students is a reflection of my personality, and anybody I'd be mentoring is by definition not me. And I wouldn't want to feel like I was imposing an obligation on someone else to try to behave like me. I'm happy to offer advice to anyone who asks for it, but always with the caveat "this is what worked for me, do with it what you will."

Of course, to some degree, this molding of behavior already happens in other educational contexts. At DAMOP a few years back, I was struck by the degree to which the students of someone I knew in grad school sounded exactly like their advisor when giving talks, and on another occasion I noticed that I share a lot of mannerisms and even body language with my former advisors. And I'm fairly certain that at least a couple of my former research students come off sounding a whole lot like me when they give talks about their work. Some of this is self-selection-- students are most comfortable with faculty who share some personality traits with them-- and some is subtle indoctrination. (Or even not-so-subtle-- I'm pretty ruthless about advising students to give research talks in a style I find congenial...) It's all part of the process.

But I feel uncomfortable extending that process into a faculty appointment, with people who are supposed to be colleagues. To paraphrase a bit from Ethan Zuckerman's post about mentoring, that feels to me like the appropriate point to start being a peer.

There are a bunch of other things wrapped up in this, as well, some of which I can't really discuss. But I think my negative reaction is mostly due to the obligation that seems to be implied by a formal mentor relationship. That implied obligation is something that would chafe, for me, from both sides of the relationship.

But, again, I think that's largely a matter of personality, and I can understand (in an academic sort of way) why others might feel that the benefits of a more formal mentoring relationship trump the aspects that make me uncomfortable. So I'd be reasonably okay with a formal system on an opt-in basis, for those who feel they'd benefit from such a thing. Of course, then you get into the issue of how to avoid stigmatizing people who choose to use a mentor system, which can be a kind of backdoor argument for making it mandatory. But that's a whole other discussion, and I've already wibbled on for long enough.

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I will venture a guess that one reason for the attraction of one-on-one mentoring systems is that many faculty are accustomed to such systems--in particular, the relationship between advisor and graduate student is exactly this sort of relationship. But it often has exactly the kind of failure mode you describe: mentor and mentee may be sufficiently different in personality, etc., that what worked for the former may not work for the latter. And the latter may not feel comfortable pointing out, for a number of reasons including power imbalance, that the former's advice may not be good advice.

A many-to-one mentoring system has a much better chance of success because, as you point out, the mentee can pick and choose from the advice from each of the various mentors what works best for her. Well-run large research groups actually do operate this way: the postdocs and senior grad students help mentor the junior grad students (as a side effect, the professor in charge doesn't have to spend as much time with each student, reducing the risk that he'll be spread too thin. But not everybody comes from a large research group, and some professors with large research groups feel too much of an urge to micromanage the research.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Feb 2016 #permalink

A theme that ran through your comments hit home with me. The best and most important advice I ever got about teaching was to be myself, not someone else. And, as you alluded to in one of your examples, it didn't come from an expert or a supervisor, it came from a fellow grad student.

Mentoring happens.

Meanwhile, next time you want to give some unsolicited advice, I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences with whiteboards and learning when (and when not) to use them, what group size works best, and what to do when half the class is bored waiting for the other half.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 19 Feb 2016 #permalink