Publication Date

January 1, 2012

Some of us have become generational "bridges"—we raise our children while caring for aging parents. A few are professional bridges—hired into a position that overlaps with a senior colleague on the edge of retirement. But virtually all junior faculty are mentoring bridges, simultaneously mentoring students, accepting the mentorship of new senior colleagues and, in many cases, remaining under the mentoring gaze of graduate school advisers. With new roles to play and old roles continuing, it's not unusual for wires to get crossed.

You Are a Mentor: It's Not about You

Teaching, advising, and mentoring are activities carried out with progressively smaller constituencies. We teach more students than we advise; advise more than we mentor. At the same time, each is grounded in a similar teaching strategy: to empower students, not control them; to engage students as partners in dialogue, not speak at or for them; to encourage them with productive questions, not provide all the answers. Mentorship, as opposed to teaching or advising, is a relationship defined by its mutuality. Students enroll in your classes; they are assigned to, or select, you as an adviser; but you and your mentee select each other, even if this remains unacknowledged. One doesn't sign on to become a student's mentor—you realize for any number of reasons that you have committed to that student; this holds true for the student as well. More so than other teaching or advising relations, mentoring is unscripted. Mentees may ask about classes, but more often the issues that enliven a mentorship exchange are about learning and life, not what courses to take to finish a major.

With this in mind, and based on my own experiences with students in the traditional age cohorts (18–22 years) at a selective liberal arts college, here are some suggestions for colleagues beginning their careers in teaching and undergraduate mentorship:

You are the role model you once looked for in your own teachers. What you say and what you do matters to your students. I’m continually reminded of the impact we can have when seemingly casual comments I made years ago crop up in conversations with former students. Many of my students are strangely intimidated or in awe of me, or, more accurately, of the position I occupy. So, be mindful of your capacity to influence mentees. What you say and how you conduct yourself will provide students with their most visible, and memorable, mentoring experiences. Your mentees will long remember the productive questions that you have encouraged them to think about, not the “correct” answers you have supplied.

Mentoring has its limits. For all the guidance we provide to undergraduates, we are not counselors or social workers, nor are mentees our “BFFs,” even though I have found that many have become close friends after they graduate. This can be confusing to new teachers since conversations with mentees often veer off from purely academic topics and, as in the case of counselors or friends, a key part of good mentorship is careful listening. But mentors have to be particularly aware of the boundaries of the mentoring relationship and know when and if other help is called for.

Mentoring relationships between students and faculty of color, or from other underrepresented or at risk groups, deserve special attention. Faculty from underrepresented groups are regularly called upon to absorb more advising and mentoring than other faculty, and they often feel a greater responsibility to act as mentors to underrepresented and/or at risk students. But rarely will they receive any institutional support for this critical work. In this context, perhaps the best way to achieve a reasonable balance between the responsibility of mentoring and the need to advance your scholarship and teaching is to "go public." Raise the issue with, and seek the advice of, colleagues, your chair, or your dean. Mentoring at-risk students is as critical as it is time consuming, and institutions must develop accommodations for faculty who are consistently sought out as caring role models.

Mentoring is not about you. It’s about your students and you would be wise not to think of them as “mini-you’s” even though some will go on in the profession. Your job as a teacher, adviser, and mentor is to cultivate the skills of all students who come your way, not (just) to prepare professional historians.

From Mentor to Mentee: It Is About You

As a junior faculty member you are likely to encounter a number of new mentors who are assigned to you formally or who you seek out either inside or outside your department on an informal basis. You need to be aware of the ways that this new relationship will work. In the first place, this mentor/mentee relationship is about you. You are now a member of the profession and your mentor should be there to help you avoid pitfalls and surmount challenges even as you assume responsibility for your own success. Secondly, you may also continue under the guidance of your graduate adviser. If you are teaching at an undergraduate institution, it is likely that no one in your department will be an expert in your field, and your graduate mentor will continue to help you through the early phases of research and publishing. Here are some ways to take advantages of your own role as a mentee:

Make good use of the mentors who have been assigned to you, but don't be afraid to find others as you get to know your colleagues. Because successful mentorship relations are arrived at mutually, you may not feel as comfortable with an assigned mentor, as helpful as he or she can be, as you would with a colleague with whom you have established a solid working relationship. Like mentor/mentee relationships with students, your mentorship relation with a senior colleague works best when you both feel it is productive and enjoyable.

Find the right balance. Particularly in the first years of teaching, you will wonder how to ask for the help you need without becoming a “high-maintenance” junior colleague. I can’t tell you where that line is, but a good mentor will help you find it. Mentors can be invaluable when it comes to understanding departmental expectations, what is actually (not just formally) expected of you. But don’t ask a mentor to divulge information that she shouldn’t disclose.

Build strong relationships with other junior faculty in and out of your department. Don’t feel that you are excluding the senior faculty when you socialize with junior colleagues. (OK, so you’re excluding us; we understand.) You are not in competition with your junior colleagues. When you get your feet on the ground, be there to help the next round of hires that join your department.

For historians, the process of researching and completing a dissertation is solitary and isolating work. Peers and writing colleagues can help, but most of us succeeded by relying on our own inner resources. As you move to your first continuing position, keep in mind both that you are now responsible for the success of others and that your own success is related to the guidance you receive from others. You will find that there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be gained by learning from your mentors in order to be a better guide for your own students. Enjoy both sides of the relationship.

Steven Volk is professor of history and director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, where he teaches Latin American history. He is a recipient of the AHA's Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award and numerous other awards for his teaching and service, including the recognition in November 2011 as a Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). He has published on 19th- and 20th-century Chile, U.S.-Latin American relations, and contemporary Mexico.

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