At the CTL this semester, I have the opportunity to run a workshop alongside my co-facilitator Stuart Duncan in which we will explore a teaching fellow’s role beyond the classroom. One of these roles can and likely will be developing a mentoring relationship with our students and that’s what has inspired this blog post that you’re reading now!
In preparation for this workshop, I wanted to see what others had been saying about mentoring especially as it pertained to academia. As it turned out, the last few years have seen much discussion of mentoring in academia. Time and again, authors discussed the same two questions: how does one mentor well, and how does one become a mentor? From this pair of questions, there has even arisen a debate about what we mean when use the word mentor. Are we discussing an active verb, to mentor, or an inactive noun, a mentor?
I want to think about that debate for a moment. If we conceive of mentoring as a verb, that puts a lot, if not all, of the agency in the hands of the mentor. This idea gives me pause because it turns the mentee into a passive recipient of the mentor’s guidance. Shouldn't our mentees be active learners? And yet, I don’t believe an effective mentor can ever be, like a noun, entirely inactive.
In the end, what I concluded was that trying to define this word as noun or verb was insufficient. Mentor is too rich a word. We need to embrace that mentor can be either active or inactive as the situation demands. A student seeks out his or her mentor. In this, the mentor is inactive. However, once in the role of mentor, the mentor transforms into an active participant in the mentee’s life.
But if we can’t solely discuss mentoring as a verb, and if agency in this relationship is divided between mentors and mentees, how do we become mentors? If students need to seek us out, we need to show that we are ready and willing to be found. That means we need to be approachable. We need to show them that we are here, we are present, and we are listening.
So, as I read through various articles, I compiled a list of the things that we, as teaching fellows or as professors, can do or keep in mind to show our availability in fostering meaningful mentor-mentee relationships:
· Chatting with students: This may not always have to do with academics and may not be a formal meeting in your office, but consider accompanying a student to their next class to continue a conversation or grab a coffee with them one afternoon.
· Confidence, trust, and unanxious expectations: Your mentee needs to find that they feel these elements in their relationship with you; working or meeting with you should not be cause for added stress.
· Commitment: Following up with students and following through on your word shows your investment in your mentee.
· Seeing the student holistically: They are not just students in your class, but people with a host of factors affecting their lives.
· A student-centered relationship: It’s easy to tell a student your opinions, but mentoring really happens when we listen to our students and help them hear themselves.
· A collaborative and dialectical relationship: We as mentors must try to learn from our mentees just as they are learning from us—what do they need and how do they work?
· Time: It takes time to mentor someone, so you’ll need to put time into getting to know your mentee.
· Cyclical: Good mentors inspire new generations of good mentors.
We consistently see in course evaluations that those instructors who genuinely noticed and paid attention to a student stood out and often factored into a student’s reflections on the university as a whole. What this shows us is that when our students look for a mentor, they are looking for a genuine connection with another person who they trust, respect, and admire. Students are searching for authentic interpersonal relationships everywhere on campus. Our students are seeking connections to people and these relationships are the memories students will carry with them for a lifetime.
If you are interested in reading more about why we should mentor, the state of mentoring in academia, and other instructors’ experiences, I would encourage you to take a look at some of the following links:
“Waiting for Us to Notice Them: This is how we can begin to practice a ‘pedagogy of presence’ in our classrooms”