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Thriving in Academe

Mentoring: Functions, Roles, and Interactions

Dispelling the myths and misconceptions that cloud our understanding of mentoring enables senior faculty to help new faculty gain insight into the academic world.

Article graphicHigher education seems to be in the throes of a “mentoring mania” where the term mentor and mentoring appear frequently in titles of books, workshops, and courses. Unfortunately, the overuse of the term has made it the “Zelig” of developmental relationships: chameleon-like and indistinct. Clarifying the various functions, roles, and interactions that are subsumed under the term “mentor” can help those who wish to assume this crucial, formative role.

Roles and functions
One useful way of understanding mentoring is to see it as a continuum with peer mentoring at one end and primary mentoring at the other. Peer mentoring tends to be less hierarchical—two junior faculty members meeting together regularly—and is typically limited to exploring career concerns such as advising students and strategizing about tenure and promotion. Primary mentoring tends to be hierarchical—the expert working with the apprentice—and is typically the most comprehensive developmental relationship, covering any or all of the roles on the spectrum: advising, guiding, collaborating with, critiquing, role modeling, and sponsoring.

In-depth, primary mentoring is not common, however, and in most formalized mentoring programs, senior faculty are more accurately described as advisors, guides, or sponsors who provide varying and sporadic combinations of support. This occurs partly because institution-mandated mentoring relationships are often time-limited, while a deeper mentoring relationship might require a period of years attending to various professional and personal aspects of the protégé’s development. Although every developmental relationship may not qualify as mentoring per se, each one can be beneficial, satisfying, and growth-enhancing for both participants.

Complementarity of needs
I’ve found that mentoring is most successful when there is a complementarity of needs between the senior and junior faculty member. The former has often arrived at a stage of life in which his or her primary professional goal is to resolve the tension between stagnation and creative production by caring for and about the discipline’s next generation. At this point, the senior professor has typically established a career and a network of colleagues, is reappraising his or her life, and is making or has made a shift in identity to that of senior adult.

Because the possibility for self-absorption is a danger at this life and career stage (Erikson, 1982), turning outward from a preoccupation with one’s own work to help a younger person signals movement toward a healthy resolution that Erikson believes is crucial to adult development. Mentoring, therefore, can thwart the twin perils of stagnation and self-absorption by stimulating personal self-reflection and providing an impetus for professional development.

These benefits of mentoring complement the developmental needs of the younger scholar-teacher who needs assistance and guidance in forming a professional identity, forging a successful career, gaining competence and confidence in his or her abilities, and seeking a supportive, caring professional community.

Qualities and skills
This potentially perfect fit between the needs of mentor and protégé works well only when both parties bring to the relationship the qualities and skills necessary to nurture and be nurtured. Protégés must recognize the value of mentoring and be receptive to the advice and counsel of a more experienced person whom they respect and admire. Mentors, in turn, need excellent interpersonal skills to challenge, empathize, coach, encourage, listen, and give feedback to protégés. Mature, conscientious, well-connected, and satisfied with their own careers, ideal mentors are also knowledgeable about unique institutional systems and so are able to guide protégés past the shoals of academic seas. Because effective mentors devote much time and energy to mentoring, they must be generous, deeply interested in their protégés’ progress, and willing to share their expertise.

Rewards and benefits
And what are the rewards for such dedication to the budding scholar-teacher? As noted, mentors are apt to be looking for and needing an infusion of excitement. A neophyte educator brings new perspectives on teaching, students, and the discipline itself. This can be precisely what’s necessary to start an invigorating dialogue that can revitalize the veteran pedagogue. As a mentor in one program put it: “Mentoring others forced me to think about my own career and teaching methods. Being a mentor lit a fire under me and got me excited about my own career and teaching. It reignited my efforts to share what I know and have to offer. I feel rejuvenated with a new sense of purpose.”

On the other side of the equation, mentors help new faculty members in a myriad of ways. Giving honest information about power relations in the institution is one of the most important of these. In one study of mentoring I conducted at a public college, mentees reported that the most valuable thing their mentors did was to give them insight into the academic world in general and to explain the culture of that college in particular. In one participant’s words: “My mentor taught me the ropes here and alerted me to the politics of the place. She knew the score on the system.”

Mentors provide feedback about instructional practices and learning activities and assist with course preparation and learning assessment. They guide the process of grant procurement, data analysis, writing, research, and publication. From their service experience on campus, they advise protégés on the appropriate type and amount of committee work they should become involved in.

Drawbacks and pitfalls
With so much to be gained from mentoring, it’s easy to overlook some of its adverse aspects. Mentors are mere mortals, after all, who can be eccentric, egotistical, or exploitive. With such an emotional investment in their protégés’ success, they may become overly protective or possessive. Protégés may experience the attention lavished upon them as stifling and infantilizing or they may become overly dependent on their mentors’ advice and approval.

The mentor should be wary of unconsciously projecting personal agendas or goals on the protégé. When mentor and protégé come together out of personal and professional affinity, an almost magical chemistry can guide the relationship, but in structured programs where pairings are assigned or forced, there’s a greater chance that mismatching will occur.

Another problem in systematized mentoring programs affects women in particular. Because these programs are meant to acculturate new faculty into an institutional status quo, they may simply replicate the hierarchical, paternalistic power dynamics that have traditionally disadvantaged women in the arena of higher education. To avoid such a situation, women should seek a power dynamic that is for them rather than over them.

Phases of mentoring
Like all relationships, mentoring follows an identifiable course that evolves over time. One research study (Kram, 1985) identifies four phases: initiation, a period of excitement and expectation when the relationship begins; cultivation, when all the functions of mentoring are at their peak; separation, a parting of the ways that can be stressful or amicable; and redefinition, a significant post-mentorship transformation in the relationship where a treasured friendship might develop or where the relationship may fade completely. The lesson here is: Expect change. Like any human relationship, mentoring has a life of its own, with ups, downs, and unforeseeable swerves. As long as both parties are committed, all change leads to growth.

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