New Kid on the Hallway posted today about the Chronicle article on mentoring. It's an interesting piece, with examples drawn both from the humanities and from the sciences, as well as the corporate environment. Ultimately, the author strikes a middle ground -- neither for or against mentoring, but pointing out the differnet forms it takes, and the different effects it can have. New Kid's discussion, and the comments there, usefully highlight the complicated terrain for mentees. She suggests some of us have to learn how to be mentees, as well as mentors for future generations.

My own experiences with mentoring are pretty mixed. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to find two outstanding faculty who really pushed me intellectually and supported my wish to go to graduate school. One of them later became a friend, in part due to geographical proximity for a while after I'd graduated -- we had to really work to transform the student-prof hierarchy, but it did eventually happen. The other has remained a sort of mentor figure to me, although we are rarely in touch now. I'm still intellectually very much in his debt -- and only wish I could have studied with him as a graduate student rather than just as an undergrad. This kind of mentoring was (and sometimes still is) exciting, challenging -- but also gives me butterflies in my stomach even now, when I think about sending him a current article of mine. I wish I didn't care so much about what he thought, but I do. I suspect that response is in part because I was so young when I met him -- but it feels uncomfortable now as I'm nearing my own middle age.

My first experience with graduate school didn't provide me with any mentor figures. I found a couple people willing to write me letters when I left that program for a different one. If I'd stayed past the MA degree things might have been different.

At my PhD institution, the politics of mentoring seemed far too bound up with the politics of bootlicking. There were several Big Egos in the department only too happy to have crowds of grad students to stroke them (figuratively but also occasionally literally). Never being a good follower or bootlicker, I walked a different sort of path. My diss committee was formed because of my intellectual interests, and basically left me with only one person to be my advisor. He suited me just fine -- of an older generation, but up on current scholarship, he let me develop my project pretty much free of his influence. He answered questions when I had them but didn't interfere with my choices. He was instrumental (in a subtle way I only recognized years afterwards) in getting me to submit a proposal for my first major conference -- something which set me off on the right foot in my field but also let me feel that I was doing it at least partly on my own merits, not his.

There were other faculty I admired and worked with in one way or another during those years, but none of them quite reached what either of us would consider "mentor" level. I think in part because I was a lousy mentee -- bad at what I perceived to be sucking up; awkward and unsure about what they expected from me; interested in pursuing my own project and my own professionalization as a teacher. I was busy teaching classes, working in a non-academic job, and training new TAs. I wasn't interested in playing the subservient role in what I saw in a lot of the so-called "mentoring" relationships around me.

With more distance (and perhaps clearer sight) from my graduate school experience, I'm able to better evaluate some of those examples. For myself, mentoring at the graduate level ought not to be about bootlicking. I'd like to think it was about introducing the profession; helping someone figure out his/her own viewpoint and goals; and eventually assisting with the transition from "student" to "colleague." But for some people bent on becoming star players themselves someday, some of that social grooming in the clique system might be exactly what they need.

During Large Urban's general Faculty Orientation, they issued each of the incoming faculty a book called Mentor in a Manual. I guess they figured that would take care of the issue. My department chair tried to start a mentoring program for junior faculty, but it never really took off. I think there's a sense that we all should know what mentoring is, and be good at it already -- but no one exactly knows what that would entail. Is it about the content or methodology of your work? is it about navigating the politics of the institution? is it about figuring out what academic life/work is all about? It could be any of those things -- but I imagine that it would be the rare "assigned" mentor who could provide those kinds of support. Gradually over time I developed friendships with some members of my dept who were able to advise me on some aspects of life within our department etc.

The idea of mentoring as it is often taken up in corporations or academic institutions assumes the old-style hierarchy: that power and knowledge are passed down from the elders to the newly-initiated. I'm not convinced that this model entirely holds true today in all aspects of academic life. Certainly, I can learn about the politics of my institution from its senior members. But because of my training and experiences as a graduate student, I actually know a lot more about the current state of academic publishing than someone who published their book 10-15 years ago. Large Urban U is not a top-tier institution; but increasingly, like many other mid-level or low-level research universities, it is staffed with people with degrees from top-level places. This is changing the landscape of knowledge in ways that the conventional mentoring dynamic doesn't address.

The Chronicle article mentions peer-mentoring dynamics as an alternative model, and I think that's really important to consider -- not as a replacement, but as an accompaniment to the hierarchical model. I learned a tremendous amount from someone who was only 2 years ahead of me in the tenure system -- and I'm trying to do the same for someone we just hired a year ago.

Why the long essay? Our blogs offer a way to make sense of our own experiences, but also offer them up as part of a way to change the knowledge landscape of academe. Academic institutions vary tremendously, as do the disciplines; but overall one consistent factor is that a lot of the "rules" of professionalization go unsaid. By the time you've learned how things work, you forget that you didn't always already know that stuff. I made a commitment when I was in graduate school to try and not forget what the experience of being a PhD student was like; similarly I've made the commitment to not forget what the experience of being a junior faculty member is like. Only by remembering can I hope to create some positive change in the system for people after me.