July
16th 2009
Mentors and mentoring: whose responsibility?

Posted under: jobs, students

gray_wolf
Were you mentored, or raised by wolves?

Whose responsibility is it to mentor junior faculty?  Some departments assign them an official “mentor” in their department, whereas others don’t.  There is some good do-it-yourself advice on “Finding Mentors” at Inside Higher Ed today that should be read by students and junior faculty alike.  Come to think of it, it might be of use to tenured faculty as well.  The somewhat exhausting fact of the matter is that tenure and promotion–even promotion to Professor–aren’t the end of the line, if you want to be active in your field nationally or internationally.  Everyone needs to stay active, make new friends, nurture ongoing professional friendships, and self-promote, to some extent.  (Fortunately for me, that’s one of my favorite parts of my job!)

Does your department assign mentors to incoming faculty?  What do you think of that kind of system?  I was talking to someone recently about this, and ze thought that it was a really effective way to help people strategize about publications–the faculty mentors’ main charge was to keep their mentees engaged in research and writing, and to help them figure out which journals or publishers would be appropriate.  In my first job, the department I joined had considered instituting a formal mentorship program, because over 13 years they had failed to tenure any of the previous four occupants in the line I was hired to fill.  But as I understood it, their conversations devolved into concerns about legal liability–could an unsuccessful tenure candidate sue hir mentor?  Would the mentor or the department be liable for bad advice? 

I’ve always been of the school of thought that it was one’s own responsibility to seek out mentors in a variety of different places–within one’s department of course but also in other disciplines within the university, and of course outside one’s own university but within one’s sub-field.  E-mail communication made that easier than ever in the 1990s, and of course that’s always been a major feature of assembling panels and attending conferences.  That’s why I like the DIY approach of the linked article above–but then again, I came of professional age at a different time and place, in the early and mid-1990s, at a university where (as I have said before) “we were raised by wolves,” or rather, by other graduate students, so we didn’t expect much from our advisors in the way of personalized career advice, connections, or career development.

Tell me about your experiences, as a graduate student and (if you’re there yet) as a faculty member and/or mentor to junior scholars, officially or unofficially.  What are the benefits and drawbacks of an official mentor program?  How does it work in your department or college?  If you’ve gone the DIY route, what are your experiences (good or bad) in seeking out your own mentors?  Howl away!

31 Comments »

31 Responses to “Mentors and mentoring: whose responsibility?”

  1. anon on 16 Jul 2009 at 8:59 am #

    I was definitely raised by wolves, in grad school and beyond (still pre-tenure). While I had some help in grad school by my dissertation director, it was few and far between. I’ve seen some seriously hands-on mentoring and “grooming” (the latter almost exclusively reserved for white male students at Ivy League unis) – enough anyway to recognize I was not getting it myself. I spent most of my grad school career howling the moon, desperate for some kind of help, and made it out only through blinding good fortune (and again, a bit of help from my adviser, but he wasn’t great at advice). My partner also was raised by wolves, even more so than I was. That was definitely the ethic at our grad school – the institutionalized culture of “sink or swim” – like if they helped you they’d be doing you a disservice. Now that I have my own grad students, I’m trying to figure out what kind of adviser to be. Not easy to mentor when you’ve never been mentored. . . Between lack of mentorship and my own lack of skills at self-promotion, I’ve spent a lot of time in my early career bewildered, knowing I should network but not having any idea how to do so. I see other people being really good at it – people who get senior scholars to read their work, write them recommendations, etc, and I feel always lost and behind, struggling and fumbling. I did have a “mentor” at my 1st uni, but it wasn’t that great an experience, since I wasn’t really offered that much in terms of useful, concrete advice, beyond to work on my book ms (obvious things). At my new uni I have clearly been abandoned to find my own way out of the wilderness. It doesn’t scare me as much as before, but I’m often frustrated by the inequities of our business – ie some people get amazing mentorship and help, they practically have their hands held all the way to their t-t IL job, while most of us are helicoptered into the woods and left there, without even one of those embedded chips.

    I think universities should have mentors for their junior faculty. Whenever possible, I think senior female faculty should be chosen for young female faculty, because as we all know the gender aspects of our profession can sometimes be overwhelmed, demoralizing, shocking, etc. Worrying about legal responsibility seems silly & self-defeating to me (oh, wait, did I just define academia?). Mentors are important because departments *should* mentor their faculty – what I mean is that they should be invested in their junior faculty as a whole, they should see the success of the jr faculty as partially their responsibility and in their best interests. If nothing else, a well-mentored faculty member is more productive, because s/he wastes less time fumbling around trying figure things out on hir own. . .

    But I also agree with you that this is just a starting point – scholars are also responsible for building their own broader networks, an essential skill for long-term survival and success.

  2. GayProf on 16 Jul 2009 at 9:08 am #

    I agree with anon that departments do have a responsibility to mentor junior faculty. As the Inside Higher Ed article points out, though, junior faculty also need to take some responsibility for their own career. The ball is in their court to ask advice. They also need to be willing to take sometimes tough criticism from trusted mentors.

    I have been in departments with “official” mentor and those without. It seems to me that the “official” mentor isn’t any more likely to help out if they are the type who usually isn’t engage with junior faculty in the first place. In other words, the best official mentors are the ones who would have mentored junior faculty already.

  3. anon on 16 Jul 2009 at 9:15 am #

    PS to my first post – I just want to clarify something quickly. When I talk about mentoring junior faculty, I’m not just talking about how-to-get-tenure, strategic research advice, but nuts-and-bolts kind of stuff too about how the department works, what kind of service is expected of them, how to go about choosing service work, university grants to apply for, etc etc. These are simple things to explain to new faculty – obviously they can figure it out themselves, but if someone just spent 15 minutes talking to them about it, it would save them a lot of time, energy, etc.

  4. susurro on 16 Jul 2009 at 10:40 am #

    formal mentoring is critical for success particular along the intersections but also regardless of them. I’ve worked where they were formalized and yet the department got around not doing it and where it was informal and only the “chosen few” received it (which we have since fixed) and in my experience, mentoring makes better and more connected scholars. We always know when we get a candidate from the “sink or swim” philo and I recognized that milieu when I was on the job market way back when as well.

    I think the lack of mentorship is the reason why there was such an outcropping of mentorship based national organizations started in the last 10 or so years and why it is often a topic put forward by grads and new hires at the studies based conferences. Certainly the org I mentor for was started to correct disparities in guidance on research, writing, and networking, as well as provide a national level third party that could vouch for the scholarship of its mentees should tenure decisions go awry thru no seeming fault of the candidate. While these organizations have their own internal issues they’ve been a needed bandaid on a gaping wound. (and yes, I said band aid not sutures)

  5. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:06 am #

    anon, GayProf, and Susurro–I see what you’re saying. I don’t think official mentoring programs are a bad idea–but I think it’s good to get advice from a variety of sources. When anon says,

    “I’m not just talking about how-to-get-tenure, strategic research advice, but nuts-and-bolts kind of stuff too about how the department works, what kind of service is expected of them, how to go about choosing service work, university grants to apply for, etc etc. These are simple things to explain to new faculty – obviously they can figure it out themselves, but if someone just spent 15 minutes talking to them about it, it would save them a lot of time, energy, etc.”

    OK–but a mentor is only one person, and it’s good to seek advice from a number of different people in a department about how they see it all working. When junior faculty come to me, I tell them what I think, but I also tell them to be sure to talk to a lot of other people on the T & P committee especially, since I’m just one vote. I had the experience as a junior faculty member in my first job where a lot of people came to me to tell me all about how they thought the department worked and what I should do and not do for tenure–much of which conflicted with stuff I was hearing from other people. So, I think it’s important to remember that one person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion, unless and until you get a sense that hir advice reflects a consensus in the department. But, you must investigate this yourself and use your own judgment.

  6. life_of_a_fool on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:15 am #

    I was largely raised by wolves in grad school. The advice I did get, though, was very useful and I would have benefitted from more of it (including that I would have benefitted from seeking more of it out, especially earlier).

    In my current department, they are trying to institute a more formal mentoring system. I hate it. For a year, several senior faculty would drop by unexpectedly to do what I think they meant to be mentoring, but felt more like fly-by criticizing (and rarely consistent across them and rarely helpful). My “official” mentor largely ignores me (not really, but in an official mentoring capacity), which is fine with me. I’m much happier seeking out advice/feedback when I want it or feel I need it. That has been good — there are some people in my department (or outside it) who I think are very good for particular kinds of advice, and so I go to them for that. It is difficult when you’re new, especially in terms of mentoring within your department or U, because useful mentoring is very particular to individuals and depends on a relationship of trust. You can’t assign that, and it takes time to develop. I’d rather take on that responsibility myself though (of course I could be much better at it, especially in terms of networking on a larger scale).

  7. Dr. Crazy on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:26 am #

    I was raised by wolves in grad school, too, but having come out of an undergrad program at a big (25K+) regional university, I already had some skills that enabled me to find mentors among the wolves. Basically, I demanded mentorship in grad school, just as I’d had to do in undergrad. And I think that’s what the faculty in my department expected, actually – that we were supposed to ask when we needed guidance.

    In my current department, I think that there is a strong tradition of mentoring junior faculty to tenure. Basically, throughout my time on the t-t, mentorship came in three or four semi-formal forms.

    1. Each junior person was to choose a senior mentor in his/her first year. This person was mainly set up to be a point person to deal with any questions about the annual tenure/reappointment binder (we do it annually throughout the probationary period – not 3rd year review and then up). Because you had that first year to choose your own mentor, you had the opportunity to get to know people a bit before you asked somebody, which was good. It allowed me to choose a mentor whose career path looked like one I’d like to carve out for myself at this institution. This also meant that I chose a male mentor, which for me was positive. If I had been assigned a mentor I don’t think this relationship would have worked as well for me, particularly if it had been a female senior person. (I like and respect my female colleagues who are senior to me, but the shape of their careers doesn’t look like what I want for my own career. My senior female colleagues are all pretty much stuck at associate and slogging away at service stuff without a real commitment to research. I do not see how being mentored by any of them would have been of great assistance to me as I carve out the path I envision for myself.)

    2. Each year the chair of the department RPT committee met with me individually, to talk about the committee’s responses to my materials, to make recommendations about what I should work on as well as how best to present my materials.

    3. A few times (two or three?) senior faculty held workshops for junior faculty to talk about expectations for tenure and how best to achieve those expectations. This involved not only answering questions, but also sharing their own materials and giving advice about where to go from where we were.

    4. Our annual performance review with the chair is set up to talk about not only past performance but as a positive mentoring sort of meeting wherein the chair talks with us about goals and plans for the future.

    In addition to all of this, I’ve sought out advice from colleagues in non-formal ways about specific questions that I’ve had.

    Now, my department has done a much less good job about mentoring people to full, and I actually just had a meeting with my chair about how we might better facilitate that kind of ongoing mentorship. In my department there are only 5 people (men) at full professor, and a much greater number of people who are stuck at associate with no plans to advance. The likelihood is that I will be only the second woman in the history of my department to achieve full professor (the first one retired). To my mind, that’s bad for the health of the department. I also think it’s bad for individual morale, because after the strong mentoring toward tenure, we throw our mid-level faculty out to the wolves again.

  8. anon on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:36 am #

    Historiann, I agree with you about talking to more people and using one’s own judgment. But my experience of academia has been about constantly having to struggle against the indifference and disinterest of other people toward me and my career. I know there are many good folks who are happy to take an interest in younger faculty, to talk to them, meet with them, etc., but there are also lots of folks who close themselves in their offices, have no interest in getting to know anybody, and figure everyone is better off fending for hirself. I think working in a profession where everyone large goes one’s own way creates some institutional oddities, and the way we tend to throw each other to the wolves is one. I have less interest in designating people for specific offices (ie official mentoring) than I do in fostering an atmosphere that is generally more collegial, as well as nurturing to grad students and younger faculty. I think the profession would benefit from more of a “it takes a village” approach than ‘every man for himself.’ (What I mean by this is not to abandon the latter for the former, but to infuse the latter with tiny more doses of the other.) Creating a culture of mentoring for those who would like it. The problem I see with the “figure it out yourself” approach is that it puts the burden on the grad student or untenured faculty member to ask, plead, require, or insist that somebody take the time to sit down with them, give them information, or supply advice. The power dynamics in academia make this a difficult task, if it’s always supposed to be bottom-up somehow.

  9. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:56 am #

    life_of_a_fool’s (LOAF) and Dr. Crazy’s comments raise a lot of interesting issues, chiefly 1) perhaps the mentors are in need of mentoring, and 2) the role of identity politics in the assignment of mentors.

    LOAF’s experience with mentoring sounds like about the most annoying of possible outcomes, and indicates that in the event that a department wants to institute a formal mentoring program, it should spend some time thinking and talking through what exactly they mean by mentoring and what the goals of mentoring should be. Random unsolicited advice and/or criticism doesn’t sound very nurturing or inspiring to me.

    Dr. Crazy says that although she is an XX person, she didn’t want an XX mentor because of the gendered problem of being stuck at the Associate rank in her department. I think she is right that a mentor should be someone whose career she would like to emulate, rather than someone whose sex or ethnic identities or sexuality or class background, etc., match one’s own. Then again, depending on the environment you work in, it might be very valuable to get advice from someone who has negotiated similar minefields to your own. Again, this goes back to the question of the goals of a mentoring program: is it designed to facilitate career success measured by scholarly production and quality teaching, or is it designed to facilitate overall personal happiness and satisfaction with one’s job, or some proportion of each?

    This question of the role of identities in the mentor-mentee relationship also suggests to me (once again!) that it’s important to get advice from a lot of different people. Some people have valuable experience you can learn from in one or two areas, some have interesting different expertise in something else you need. It’s unlikely that one person only will best serve all of your interests, so learn what you can from lots of different people.

    I have to say that, although my career has not been hassle-free and totally without its major chuckholes along the road to happiness and job satisfaction, I have not had the problems that anon reports with “indifference and disinterest of other people toward me and my career.” It’s not because I’m special, I am sure! I’m lucky, but I also have tended to gravitate towards people with whom I have shared very specific intellectual and/or professional interests. My “networking,” such as it is, has consisted mostly of reaching out to befriend people whose books and articles I really like and have inspired me. I have never had anyone NOT respond in an enthusiastic fashion to e-mails that say, “I really love your book and have assigned it next semester to my students in my (whatever) class.” Maybe it’s a women’s & gender history thing, but all of the mentors I’ve reached out to outside of my institution have been incredibly friendly and generous with their time, and many of these women were women who truly were raised by wolves and then went out and invented a whole new subfield.

  10. Dr. Crazy on 16 Jul 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    H- you’re exactly right that this is why we need many mentors – not just one. I have a lot of senior female colleagues (both within and outside my institution) whom I count as mentors. My choice of a male colleague for my “official” mentor wasn’t a choice that was about him being able to help me navigate all areas of my professional life; rather, it was a choice rooted in the specific range of things that this official mentoring relationship was supposed to address. In that capacity, it has worked well. That said, my department’s culture is such that I never felt like because I chose y person as my mentor that I couldn’t go to a, b, and c other colleagues for additional advice. Rather, I felt like my department was invested in my success, but that y person was one who would be familiar with my particular case toward tenure as a whole, and who could advise on it as a whole in more substantial ways than a, b, and c colleagues who hadn’t read my entire binder, etc.

    Also, I just want to chime in that I think working on women/gender (in my case in literature) does make a huge difference, at least in my experience. The culture of such specializations just seems to be rooted in a spirit of collaboration and support. (Not because women are by their natures more collaborative or supportive, mind, but rather because such structures were facilitated by the way that scholarship on women – and women themselves – had so long been excluded from the academy.)

  11. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Dr. Crazy–yes, exactly, with your thoughts about women’s & gender scholars. It’s not essentialism–it’s outsiderism. I think other outsiders are very welcoming in a way that the real insiders are not (necessarily). Kind of like hobo camps down by the river: they’re a lot less particular about who sits to warm hirself next to their fire than the people who live in grand mansions are. It will be interesting to see/hear if that spirit of generosity and support continues or if it will decline. I’m doing my best (I think!) to keep the spirit alive, and itt seems like women of my generation (say, 35-50, people who trained in the 80s-early 2000s) are very open to new friendships and collaboration on feminist scholarship/professional issues. But of course, I’m approaching them as a peer, not as a student or junior supplicant, so I don’t know what younger/more junior people might say about us.

  12. life_of_a_fool on 16 Jul 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    To respond a little to Dr. Crazy’s comment (or really, more a way that it could be read, than what I think she meant): I think it’s definitely valuable to have mentors who have careers similar to the one you want. however, when I think of what I think I have to offer as a mentor to students, etc., a lot of it is in what I learned from my own mistakes and failures. I learned a lot through making mistakes, and I think some people who don’t have these experiences take a lot for granted. So, those female associates in Dr. Crazy’s department *may* have great perspective on how to have a Crazy-like career, *because* they didn’t.

    All of that really just reiterates the point that multiple perspectives are better than one, and a lot of it depends on personality/chemistry/trust/what have you.

    And yes, I agree that some people could use guidance on what “good mentoring” might look like. . .

  13. Buzz on 16 Jul 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    My department is supposed to assign every new faculty member a mentor. When I started, I noticed that nobody ever told me who my mentor was. I didn’t care too much; I have never felt I had a great need for mentoring, and when I need to know how something typically works, I’m not shy about finding somebody knowledgeable and asking.

    Anyway, I was able to guess who my mentor was supposed to be, but I didn’t get confirmation of it until near the end of my first year, when another more senior faculty member asked me whether it would be OK with me if he took over as my mentor. My original mentor went into a spell of depression early in that first year, and he still has not really recovered. The new mentor (who I see all the time anyway, since our offices are two door apart) checked in with me every week about how things were going, and gave me plenty of advice about writing grant proposals when I asked for it.

    So I am left with a mixed impression about the department’s mentoring program. I was initially assigned somebody who would have been only a mediocre mentor under the best circumstances. Our research interests are close, but his judgment isn’t that great, and I don’t think our career tracks will be all that similar. For me, this wasn’t a big deal, but it could have been more damaging to somebody who needed more mentoring early on. On the other hand, the department did pay attention to the situation, and when they realized that my mentor was not going to do anything for me at all, they found me a new mentor—somebody who was quite a bit more successful than my first mentor and much more similar to me in his temperament and goals.

  14. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    Buzz, it sounds like your department intervened when it became clear that your first mentor probably wasn’t doing much. I wonder if some of your colleagues agreed to make Professor Depressed your mentor, because they thought it might energize him, or they thought he might throw a fit if he weren’t assigned to mentor you, etc. In other words, one of my concerns about official mentoring programs is that I can imagine cases where it becomes more about the mentors than the mentees, and prospective mentors might feel “slighted” if someone else is chosen to mentor a new hire. (Faculty members can always make everything about them–ALWAYS! If given half a chance, anyway.) And it would be unfortunate, although not unheard of, for a spurned would-be mentor to hold it against the mentee down the road.

  15. Bertie Wooster on 16 Jul 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    Historiann, I’m constantly amazed at how you seem to post about things that I’m dealing [more often battling] with at the time. I don’t suppose that if I think enough good thoughts you’ll inadvertently write my dissertation in blog form?

    I’m concerned to hear that the issue with mentorship continues on into the world of the gainfully employed, and even onto this mythic tenure-track we grad students hear so much about (even as it begins to disappear before our eyes.) Being a white male at an Ivy League school, I was rather counting on waltzing into a fabulous and fruitful ‘grooming’ situation. Unfortunately what happened instead was that my interests continued to move in the opposite direction to those of my adviser. He, in any case, is a perennial high-flier and is seldom in one place for long enough to talk about my dissertation, let alone broader professional issues. I’ve tried to spread myself across a small group of faculty with intersecting interests (whenever they’re not all on leave), but it does leave me wondering whether I’m not missing out in not having an adviser who works at least on the same country as I do!

    Which leads me to wonder, the Inside Higher Ed article having been a bit broad in its recommendations, whether you, Historiann, or anyone else has any more concrete recommendations on how to get that kind of input? Even among the wolves, who in my department tend to be particularly vicious? And from the other side, how do you deal with the mentoring needs of graduate students? Increasingly I find myself sizing up everyone I meet at conferences and so on as potential mentors, which feels horribly go-getter-ish. How do you feel about being approached by graduate students looking for advice, etc? And is there a significant difference between dealing with these issues in graduate school and in the early- to mid-career level, when one has already ‘proved oneself’?

  16. PorJ on 16 Jul 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    I can’t imagine having a mentor in my own Department – that doesn’t make too much sense to me. Doesn’t it immediately put the junior faculty member in a difficult position, vis-a-vis Department politics?

    My University has a mentoring program in which you are mentored by somebody outside your Department [but in the same college] for this very reason. I appreciated it (perhaps because I worked with a solid mentor) and found it a useful venue for venting. I doubt that would have been possible had my mentor been a colleague.

  17. Dr. Crazy on 16 Jul 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    I’d only respond to PorJ that the way mentoring works at my gig, it is not designed as a relationship that fosters or encourages venting, and that was not the sort of mentoring relationships that I developed elsewhere in my professional life, either. I don’t vent to mentors; I vent to friends. And I can only speak for my experience, but I never encountered a problem with department politics based on the mentoring situation. It was very clearly spelled out what the mentoring relationship was for, and that was that. I was not seen as a student of my mentor or an ally of my mentor, and it was never something that came up in a negative way at all. I think a lot may have to do with dept/university culture when we discuss these issues.

    I also noted something in Bertie’s post: I think that being a successful academic requires one to be “go-getter-ish.” This doesn’t mean one has to do away with all subtlety, but yes, I think that a skill one develops in this profession is self-promotion, making connections with people even when it feels a bit awkward at first, etc. Or, put the way my grandmother would have put it, you can’t hide your light under a bushel and expect to get ahead.

  18. Indyanna on 16 Jul 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    I’d just echo Dr.C. on the second point. Self-promotion doesn’t have to be either obsequious or obnoxious, and the reception/response to it shouldn’t be either. Most people are delighted enough to be approached by ANYbody looking for advice or just to communicate. At meetings, everybody has some sort of an issue. Senior people think junior people think they’re obsolete. Junior people think slightly less junior people know a lot more than they do. People slightly on the edge of the subject matter think they should have read thirty more books before they even showed up. It goes on. Most people are just looking for a little bit of humanistics with their humanities. Or so I think; maybe that’s naive.

  19. Sisyphus on 16 Jul 2009 at 5:47 pm #

    Ok, this post inspired me to write my first Lesson For Girls:

    http://academiccog.blogspot.com/2009/07/lessons-for-girls-dont-just-ask-insist.html

  20. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    Indyanna–I don’t think you’re naive, I think you’re emotionally perceptive. And I think you’re exactly right, and express the intergenerational anxieties perfectly! There may be a few people who won’t respond to a friendly overture, but that’s their trip, not yours. I think you’re right about looking for the “humanistics with their humanities.”

    PorJ, you raise an interesting issue. I hadn’t heard of mentoring by anyone outside the department, but that sounds like an interesting strategy–with the upsides you mention, but also the downside of not being advised by someone who really knows your field. I would just suggest that anyone in any kind of mentoring relationship at work–formal or informal–should keep away from b!tching and venting for the most part. Dr. Crazy is right–and that’s what blogs are for, after all! Someone outside your department could shank you for being a complainer, too.

    Bertie, I think Dr. Crazy has the right idea here too, and be sure to heed Indyanna’s advice that “self-promotion doesn’t have to be either obsequious or obnoxious.” Bear in mind the flattery that many senior faculty will feel if they know you’ve read their book/s and liked it/them. Learn what you can from whom you can–sometimes you’ll learn some lessons that you don’t want to learn, but it’s all learning in the end. Try to network with other grad students, and get out to some grad student conferences–the established faculty who agree to appear at a grad student conference will likely be more open to meeting and talking with grad students than those you meet at the AHA or other conferences where there are mostly faculty on the program.

  21. Historiann on 16 Jul 2009 at 6:24 pm #

    and, p.s. to Sisyphus: awesome! Thanks a lot. I’ll get that logged in soon. (My power was out, and it’s dinner time out thisaway, so it will take me a few hours.)

  22. LadyProf on 16 Jul 2009 at 8:14 pm #

    My place assigns senior faculty to be mentors to junior. Somehow time ran away and I joined the oldster cohort! What I like about the practice (I am still new at this venue, year 3) is the baseline uniformity. People will have divergent experiences as mentees and mentors, but with Mentor in a Can, every junior person is guaranteed some minimum of attention. Like Historiann, when talking to my protege-in-a-can I try to express myself carefully–”That may be just me; you should find out what others think”–and also to do no harm, or as little harm as possible.

    @Sisyphus, I loved your post, but isn’t your stance another iteration of “women don’t ask” re: salary? If you insist on privilege (or equal pay) and the person you’re talking to doesn’t agree that you are entitled to it, you might get lucky, but you might also come across as an arrogant nut and get punished.

  23. Paul on 16 Jul 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    Back in my grad school days (’96-’98, in which I managed to get a Master’s and then went to get a job in an unrelated field to pay off my loans and because deep down I realized that I didn’t have the discipline or focus to go further), we didn’t have a formal mentoring program. Like you said, it was mainly a matter of making connections with fellow students and professors who you sensed might be able and willing to give you good advice.

    If I remember correctly, some of my fellow students said that they wished that there was a formal mentoring program. It might have benefited me, since I tend to be introverted and don’t make connections or network easily. On the other hand, if the assigned mentor was indifferent, unsympathetic, etc., it could be a disaster.

  24. squadratomagico on 17 Jul 2009 at 2:25 am #

    I have mixed feelings about mentoring. On the one hand, I recognize its value if it’s done well and non-intrusively. On the other hand, I hate the feeling that someone is peering over my shoulder, assigned to “keep an eye on me,” and make sure I’m doing things right. I know that’s not the intent of mentoring, but as LOAF suggests, it often can turn out that way. I would far rather bumble along for a bit than be watched, and my tendency as an assistant prof. was to hide my feelings of cluelessness whenever they arose, lest I be thought, well, clueless by my colleagues. OPU’s culture is worse than wolves… more like a sow devouring her young.

    On the other hand, my grad. school mentor was exactly what I wanted and needed. When preparing for prelims, & then writing my diss., I met with her infrequently, like every other month, for several hours at a time. We hashed out tons of ideas and problems and found new directions during those meetings. Then I would disappear into the stacks again until I ran out of steam and needed another charge of fresh energy from her. I *loved* that independent, yet available for in-depth meeting style. On the other hand, others of her students found her too hands-off, so here’s another problem to the mix: great mentoring for one student/prof. is poor mentoring for another.

  25. Historiann on 17 Jul 2009 at 7:40 am #

    Squadrato–excellent point that one style doesn’t work for all. A former student of mine is I think a bit frustrated that his Ph.D. advisor isn’t telling him what to write for his dissertation, but is just encouraging him to read widely and to think. (He thinks for some reason that he needs to decide after one year in a Ph.D. program what his diss. topic will be! I think he is intimidated by some of his classmates who *claim* that they already have a diss. topic, but I’m skeptical…)

    LadyProf, you raise an important question about the politics of an XX person demanding anything–I’m going to post on Sisyphus’s post later today, so as they say, “watch this space…”

  26. PorJ on 17 Jul 2009 at 8:06 am #

    I’ve miscommunicated about the mentoring relationship I described above.

    It was completely professional – my mentor asked to see my Tenure guidelines (unionized, state-university) and we went over the process in detail. She asked all the right questions – about the acceptance rate of the journals, how my teaching evals compared to the Department and the college, how I was getting along with others, any red flags? etc.

    As the year went along (one-year process for first year on tenure-line) it morphed into a more collegial/friendly relationship, where we’d go out for coffee and chat about common issues (i.e.: how the financial strain was affecting our Departments, etc.). It never really got into the realm of “bitching” about the Department, and I didn’t say anything that (I think) could haunt me. In fact, I think my mentor went first, saying something like: “What about that oddball we all know about in your Department? is he causing problems for you?”

    Also, I should note: the mentoring program was specifically set up this way (I heard) because it is designed to offer an alternative to junior faculty to the standard processes of reporting ethical and professional dilemmas. For instance: if you’re mentor in the lab is doing something clearly wrong that could damage your career but you don’t feel safe being a whistle-blower, this provides another avenue for reporting. Plus it also allows for reporting on sexual harassment – or gender discrimination – outside of the standard Departmental or HR route (both problematic for different reasons).

  27. Lessons for Girls #14: Don’t just ask, insist on help : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 17 Jul 2009 at 8:43 am #

    [...] post on “Mentors and mentoring:  whose responsibility?” got Sisyphus thinking about her grad school days, and the ways in which gender and class work in [...]

  28. Historiann on 17 Jul 2009 at 8:50 am #

    PorJ–your mentoring program sounds pretty effective. I don’t think you implied anything too inappropriate–I just wanted to make the point that junior faculty shouldn’t see a mentor as someone to b!tch to, but rather as someone there to offer specific career advice. It’s nice that you came to see your mentor as more of a friend than just a professional mentor–it’s always more fun when you can enjoy her company.

  29. Shaz on 17 Jul 2009 at 11:21 pm #

    At my research U we have a mentor within the dept AND one outside the departent for junior faculty. As someone who has been in charge of assigning the mentors outside the department, making a good match is a huge and non-quantifiable part of how successful the mentoring is. We ask questions of mentees before assignment: both about scholarship and other issues of import(work/life balance, family, commuting issues, diversity, etc). We also ask that chairs meet once a year with all junior faculty to talk concretely about process.

    Unfortunately, some chairs really resent anyone besides themselves providing information/advice to a junior faculty — usually those in the most repressive departments, who don’t want junior faculty knowing that there are alternative realities to what is being presented to them by the chair!

    I do think institutionalizing this goes a long way to resolving some of the class/gender issues. When I was in grad school, we surveyed grad students on their experiences, and the biggest discrepancy: male grad students were much more likely to stop by to chat with faculty than were female grad students, who only stopped by with very specific questions.

    Some institutional changes can help to level this playing field.

  30. Dr. Righteous on 28 Jul 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    Speaking of feeling like you’ve been raised by wolves, I just asked my dissertation chair for a reference, and she replied, “I don’t know you well enough.”

  31. Being a Student: Crazy, Mentoring, and Office Hours « Anumma on 30 Jul 2009 at 7:33 am #

    [...] Historiann: Mentors and mentoring: whose responsibility? [...]

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