Don't Talk About Mentoring

October 3, 2011

I was recently in a meeting with a president, chief diversity officer and dean at a small liberal arts college. The president launched our conversation by confidently insisting that while lots of people talk about the importance of mentoring, nothing really works, nobody has figured it out, none of the existing program models have rigorous enough measures, and all any program really does is make people feel better. As someone who has run variety of successful mentoring programs, this is typically the moment when I glaze over and disengage because the implicit message is: go ahead and try to prove to me what you’re doing works but I probably won’t believe you anyway.

Contrast this with the fact that the very same day I met with a great many faculty members on that campus who were desperate for mentoring. Like most of the pre-tenure faculty members I meet while traveling to different campuses every week, they had a fundamentally different perspective on mentoring: the vast majority don’t have a mentor (and never have), want a mentor immediately, and want someone to help them figure out how things work so they can get on with actually doing their work.

I find this situation oddly curious and highly problematic. On one hand, there’s a pervasive sense that mentoring is some mystical, uncontrollable, unpredictable relationship between senior and junior faculty on a particular campus. As a result, administrators tend to assume that the best they can possibly do is randomly match senior and junior faculty, encourage them to have coffee and hope for the best. If some people get "mentored" and others don't, it's O.K. because nobody has really figured it out anyway. On the other hand are the faculty who want help, aren’t getting it, and are not as productive as they could be because of it. This has always struck me as organizationally inefficient and adds to making the tenure-track experience unnecessarily miserable for those left to "figure it out."

I'm launching this column series (Mentoring 101) to explore some of the widely held, but deeply flawed, assumptions academics hold about mentoring. Because I'm oriented to concrete strategies, I'm going to not only challenge these assumptions but also suggest some different approaches to mentoring that: 1) start with an assessment of faculty members needs, 2) empower individuals to both maximize formal programs AND also construct their own networks of support, mentoring, and accountability, 3) democratize the "secret knowledge" that faculty members need to be successful, 4) rely on empirically tested strategies, and 5) respond to the core challenges faced by all tenure-track faculty (regardless of discipline). And since I think the rigid resistance of the president I met with is both typical and unlikely to change, I’m writing this column for the mentor-less faculty members who are desperate to figure things out so they can do the work they were hired to do at their highest level of excellence.

Let's go ahead and start with the first flawed assumption: that mentoring is a reliable and valid construct. I’ll even go a step further and suggest that our insistence on using the very word "mentoring" negatively impacts professors for two reasons: 1) the term "mentoring" means so many different things to different people that it’s meaningless and 2) using the all-encompassing term "mentoring" focuses professors on connecting with a person instead of identifying their needs. Whenever we believe that something is critically important but nobody agrees on what it means, there’s going to be a wide variety of problems. In other words, whenever someone tells me that they need a mentor, or their college needs a mentoring program, I ask them what exactly they mean by "mentoring." There’s always a long pause as if it’s self-evident. But the breadth of responses that follow is staggering and ranges from a father/mother figure in their professional life to having coffee once a year.

So instead of talking about “mentoring” and hoping that everyone means the same thing (when we know we don’t), let’s shift our thinking and our language to focus on two questions: 1) What do I need? and 2) How can I get my needs met?

I work most frequently with tenure-track faculty, and over the past six years I’ve observed that the average new professor has some combination of the following needs:

  • Professional development (time management, conflict resolution, project planning, grant writing, basic organizational and management skills).
  • Access to opportunities and networks (research collaborations, funding , etc.).
  • Emotional support (to deal with the stress and pressure of the tenure track and life in a new location),
  • A sense of community (both intellectual and social).
  • Accountability (for research and writing).
  • Institutional/political sponsorship (someone to advocate their best interest behind closed doors).
  • Role models (who are navigating the academy in a way they aspire to).
  • Safe space (to discuss and process their experiences without being invalidated, questioned, devalued and/or disrespected).

Having this wide variety of needs is perfectly normal for those transitioning from one status to another in their academic career and it is literally impossible (and in my opinion dangerously unhealthy) to have all these needs met by one person in your department. As the director of a national center that serves over 4,000 faculty, there’s one thing I’ve seen over and over again: teaching new faculty members how to identify their current needs, ask for the specific types of help that will meet their needs, and pro-actively cultivate an ever-expanding network of information, support, contacts, referrals, and advisers that are both internal and external to their campus results in more productive and more satisfied faculty members.

In other words, shifting from a person-based to a needs-based framework allows tenure-track faculty to change the conversation about “mentoring” from one that is centered around your ability to find a relationship with a senior faculty member on your campus to one that focuses on identifying your needs and getting them met. This shift acknowledges that it’s normal to have an evolving set of needs throughout your career (that won’t end if/when you get tenure) and that those needs are most effectively, efficiently, and comprehensively met in the context of a broad network of information, community, support, accountability and ongoing feedback.

This week, I want to challenge all of the mentor-less faculty reading this column to the following:

1. Every time you feel the urge to use the word “mentor” or “mentoring” stop and ask yourself: what do I need right now? What’s holding me back? And what (specifically) would help me to be more productive and effective?

2. Go through the previous list of typical faculty needs and specify what would be helpful to you in moving forward. Don’t be afraid to name your need. If you don’t know how to write a successful grant, get un-stuck in your writing, or are floundering in the classroom, it’s okay. Name it so you can the help you need.

3. Ask yourself: how can I get _________ (insert current need met)? If you don’t know, state the need to someone else and ask them to help you brainstorm how to get your needs met.

4. Once you know what you need and have identified possibilities for getting it met, ask for help widely without shame, insecurity, or the belief that such a request means you are incompetent.

5. Release yourself from the limiting belief that all you need is to find a single guru-like figure who will care for you, protect you, and lovingly guide you through your academic career. Repeat after me: there is no guru. Instead, see what opens up this week for you when you replace that limiting belief with the idea that you can get your needs met from a wide variety of people and action in that direction

6. Be sure that you are taking advantage of whatever "mentoring" programs your department, college and/or university offers, as well as any that may be offered by your professional organizations. They may not meet all of your needs, but they will increase the size of the network of people you can call on to assist you when you need it.

I hope this week brings each of you the clarity to shift your framing from the desperate search for a mentor to an empowered reflection on what you need and how you can get it.

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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