Two white female university professors discuss in private

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on how to constructively define a faculty mentorship.

Philosophy professor Kevin Richardson’s recent Twitter thread on the lack of clarity around faculty mentors had many academics nodding along. There’s huge asymmetry between the support given to mentors in the academy (and the accountability demanded from them), and the importance of mentors to graduate students and new tenure-track faculty. Sometimes, these relationships work out; sometimes, they become toxic; sometimes, they start with a well-intentioned coffee and peter out into nothingness.

So, how can conscientious faculty members who find themselves in the position of becoming mentors to graduate students or younger colleagues change this dynamic? There are a few ways.

Make your plans for mentorship clear to your mentee

The mentor-mentee relationship is often extremely unstructured, and that puts some mentees at a disadvantage. “Many minority and first-gen folks find it especially difficult to navigate these informal mentor-mentee relationships,” Richardson points out. It helps to be very specific about what you can do to help the new student or faculty member succeed. Strive for an ethos of transparency, rather than untouchability.

Act like a coach, not a guru

In an Inside Higher Ed series on mentoring new faculty, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, a specialist in faculty development, argues for for more coaches and fewer gurus. The “coach” mentor performs the functions of a good teacher, who tries to help students figure out how to direct their own learning and progress.

  • A “coach” can break down tasks with his or her mentee, keep them accountable for finishing those tasks, and ask provocative questions to help them reframe problems.
  • A mentor for a new faculty member, for example, could help that faculty member strategize ways to continue to research and write during the semester, and then check in (in person, or over email) to make sure the mentee is on track.
Think about where you’re both coming from

How does your prospective mentee’s background compare to yours? Are there things about their biography and history that you think may affect the course of their integration into your program or institution? Do you feel equipped, for example, to advise a new tenure-track hire from an underrepresented group when they’re trying to determine how much diversity- and inclusion-related service they should do? Do you feel equipped to advise a young parent on the department’s policies around sickness and school snow days? You might not be! But they still need that help.

Figure out how to get them connected

Rockquemore argues that mentors should be helping mentees build a network, rather than simply answering their questions when they arise. Part of the mentor’s job should be to identify what help the mentee might need, and to strategize ways to connect her with it. Consider the examples above. If you’re not from an underrepresented group, you may want to suggest that another faculty member who is could be a good person to ask about this particular issue. Provide contact information, and suggest angles of approach. The goal is to provide your mentee with a distributed base of support in your institution, rather than trying (and, usually, failing) to give them all of that support yourself.

Resist the urge to wax anecdotal, or pontificate

This temptation can be strong, especially when somebody younger is looking to you for wisdom! But your own experience, or the experience of your advisor, or the experience of your graduate cohort, may or may not apply in this different time and place; your opinions on departmental and university politics may or may not be relevant. Try to stay humble, and helpful, when you can.

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