By Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings
Recently, a former doctoral student of mine who is now a professor grieved her need for a mentor as she heads into her second year at her institution. Let’s call this student E, for Excellent. E needs a mentor, she tells me, because she still hasn’t caught on to her school’s or department’s culture. She often feels like she’s putting her foot in her mouth for lack of knowledge of back story or stepping into “it” without realizing it.
I empathize, remembering my first year as a professor. I was expected to teach from Prentice Hall, a composition book so new to me that until I received my desk copy, I silently kept wondering, “Who is Princess Hall?” In other words, I had an academic environment that, like E’s, I believed would feel less painful if I had a mentor.
Moreover, it’s virtually true, especially when it comes to minoritized women, hoping—to say nothing of asking—for mentorship as I did back when, can feel improper, bold or unseemly, too risky, and certainly undignified. What would the right answer be anyway: that I needed a mentor (because I didn’t know what I was doing), or that I didn’t need a mentor (because I was surefooted)? Sometimes even now, when it comes to mentorship, I can hardly tell the “right” risks to take—sometimes I need a mentor myself to compare relative risks!
Also, I wondered if E could tell me, or I tell her for that matter, just what her wondrous mentor might look like. How would we know when we’d found them? How could E protect her dignity were she to admit aloud she wanted a mentor?
I wanted to help E, so I found myself musing as to what might a smart and sentient mentor do in E’s case. How could a mentor in the current iteration and image of the person help E? Contemplating E’s gloom, I thought more about our expectations of mentors. What do mentors do for us? What do we want them to do? In seeking a “mentor,” what was E hoping for?
Maybe “mentor” is a misnomer. Or a legit name that has lost its potency from overuse. A worrisome word because the lack of a “mentor” leaves many faculty feeling deficient, without a wise counselor whom other people always seem to have.
Maybe “mentor” restricts us, steers us off course while we quest for an illusory savior. What if we changed mentor to align more with our needs? Maybe what E lacked wasn’t a “mentor,” but a confidante who’s been around the block E needs to navigate, an informed colleague who can be counted on now and again to specify connections between institutional Major and Minor Players. Not gossip but an orientation that empowers E with greater clarity and assurance.
Most readers of this blog have likely heard multiple times that The Wise One is not so much a “mentor” as a colleague who themselves get bowled over by unexpected administrative moves and inane institutional politics, and as thrown off kilter as E. Even the savviest faculty occasionally trip and fall.
In those cases, The Wise One probably turns to a colleague—even to E—to express feelings of naiveté and frustration. Such sharing represents peer mentorship, despite professional differences, advantages, of one sort or another. Peer mentorship is just what it sounds like—sensitive comfort and perception from a friend. Peers respect one another. We might think of them as “mutual mentorships,” relationships committed to professionalism and emotionality between equals.
WellAcademic’s Roxanne Donovan, a licensed psychologist and mentor extraordinaire, cites a similar exchange of recognition and validation: “flash mentoring.” Developed by K. Scott Derrick, the neologism names a mode of learning from a more experienced person for even a few minutes. What’s key in this type of mentoring is receiving, or giving, chance wisdom from one more astute in some way. Crucially, flash mentoring can extend to Higher Ed when persons facilitate or participate in programs designed to foster academic professional development.
What inspires me about planned and serendipitous exchanges of proficiencies among colleagues is the work such interchanges can do to dispel another misnomer: the “Role Model.” Not that we shouldn’t venerate exceptional persons and (other) experts. The point is that persons worthy of awe and emulation actually surround us. Closely connected to us or not, “role models,” like “mentors,” reveal how much we can learn from other people in small, significant ways, and they illuminate how we might cultivate the traits we admire in them.
Until next time,