Making the Most of your Mentors
Kenyon College has a formal mentoring program that takes a new faculty member through the first two years at the College, but the need for effective mentoring goes well beyond that. The best mentoring relationships, furthermore, are often those that develop informally, building on mutual affection and respect. This guide encourages you to find and cultivate effective mentors, both within the formal mentoring system and outside of it. It starts with the premise that a good mentoring relationship is as much the responsibility of the protégé as the mentor.
Mentors: Who Needs 'em?
A few critics of mentoring programs argue that new faculty have already gained all they need to know about teaching and being a member of a faculty from their graduate study and long observation in academic settings. Graduate schools are generally not the best places to find models for good teaching, however, and many faculty members begin the profession with little practical experience and little knowledge of educational theory.
Faculty members new to Kenyon often have had at least some teaching experience in graduate school; increasingly, newcomers to Kenyon have already taught at other colleges and universities. Does this mean they can do without mentors at Kenyon? A recent book,New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners, closes with this italicized sentence:
One of the most important challenges you confront as a new faculty member is to develop a sense for the performance norms to which your work will be expected to conform and by which it will be judged by others.1.
Even seasoned teachers coming from other settings may not be sure how much reading can be assigned for each class, whether Kenyon students must sign an honors code, whether one's office door should be open if one is there, and how his or her department regards conference presentations or publications with multiple co-authors. The written rules and regulations of each academic setting and each department, not to mention the implicit and taken-for-granted expectations, have to be learned by any newcomer. Hot tip: Each department at Kenyon has developed its own guidelines for what constitutes "scholarship" for purposes of our faculty review system. Find those here.)
Certainly, it is not easy to assess the long-term impact of mentoring in persons' development, but one set of authors who surveyed the literature on this topic were convinced of the benefits:
Faculty with mentors have been found to be more productive, to receive more competitive grants, to publish more, and they indicate higher career and job satisfaction, while achieving greater long-term success than those not mentored.2
Those who receive good mentoring exhibit greater political savvy, feel more confident about taking professional risks, profess to feel more confident about their teaching, and tend to be more prolific researchers, according to Christopher Lucas and John Murry.
What prevents some people from finding good mentors? Some new faculty want to avoid the impression of "remediation," as if needing advice indicates a deficiency. Others do not see how, given the demands of teaching and scholarship, that they could possibly find the time for it, fearing that such a relationship might demand more time from them than it proved to be worth. Some truly feel they don't need any help and will be able to figure out things for themselves well enough.
Many of us are attracted to academic life partly because it affords us great autonomy. Scholarship is often a solitary pursuit, and we often shape and teach our classes without significant collaboration with our peers. Mentoring programs are designed to counter this singularity so that new colleagues can more quickly adjust to the Kenyon setting, benefit from the lessons others have learned before them, and understand the standards against which their performance will be judged.
Full time visitors are eligible for the mentoring program and should take advantage of it. In addition to the benefit to the member, the mentoring should have a positive effect on performance of the visitor in the short term. Furthermore, 25 percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty in 2003-04 started at Kenyon in visiting positions, so developing visiting faculty members is in the long-term interest of the College as well.
Arriving at Kenyon, you will have ready contact with others in your department. Opportunities to meet people outside your department will be fewer, but there will be opening ceremonies and a reception, faculty meetings, and as the semester goes on, plays, concerts, and other events where you will encounter colleagues from across the College. As you share your interests with them and learn about their interests, keep in mind your need to cultivate good mentors. Invite someone for coffee and conversation about your scholarly interests, or ask if you can drop by their office to talk about something on your mind. Your department chair may also have suggestions about colleagues outside the department who have something in common with you or perhaps who practice a kind of pedagogy that you use. Drawing on these informal contacts and conversations, ask people to serve as your formal mentors. If they already have others to mentor, or other service commitments, they may have to decline your request. Therefore, in your early weeks at Kenyon, be outgoing, ask questions, and cast your social net as widely as you can.
Your mentoring group should be comprised of at least one tenured member of your department who serves as the mentoring group chair. You will need another member preferably from outside your department (this person may or may not be tenured), and your department chair is also a member by default. The names of your mentors should be submitted to the Associate Provost by November 1 of your first year in service to the College. If you have not selected one or more members of your mentoring group by that date, the Associate Provost will assign them to you.
What to Talk About
You will be asking lots of questions -- of everyone -- in your early weeks at Kenyon. Administrative assistants will be an invaluable resource as you learn how to order books for your classes, how to get things copied, how to access the Course of Study on line, and how to use the automatic e-mail distribution lists for your classes. Librarians can answer your questions about course reserves including electronic reserves. The Dean for Academic Advising and many others will be ready to help you learn the ropes of Kenyon as well. In this sense, mentoring is truly a community effort that occurs every year as new members enter the faculty. The annual orientation for new faculty that the Associate Provosts organize is where your formal mentoring starts in earnest. In this orientation and your one-to-one relations, it pays to speak up about what you need and what you what to know in these early days and weeks at the College.
With your faculty colleagues and formal mentors, regular contact is essential. While the mentoring group operates together at the end of the year, it may or may not meet as a group and with the member at other times. Most mentoring will take place through one-to-one dyads. A rule of thumb might be to try to meet with each of your mentors once a month.
There is plenty to talk about, and it is probably best to focus on only or a few things at each meeting. Useful topics of discussion might include:
- Why aren't students answering when you ask a question?
- There were 18 grades of C or below in a class of 25. Should you worry?
- You are three weeks behind your syllabus. Is this a problem?
- It was your favorite topic, but the students seemed bored. What to do?
- Few had done the assigned reading that day, and the class was a disaster. Could it have been salvaged on the spot?
- How much and what kind of comments should you return on student papers?
- How can you find time to write?
- Is it okay to turn students out of your office?
- The Associate Provost wants you to serve as a Truman Post-Graduate Fellowships liaison. Is this a good way to use your time?
Scholarship and Research
- Your experiments are hitting snag after snag, or not working quite as you thought they would. Talk through the purpose, assumptions, and design of your research.
- Ask someone to read a draft of your essay or article, then meet to talk about it.
- Ask someone to read a draft of your grant proposal and critique it - and be tough (you can be sure the grants panel that reads it someday will be!).
- One of your students is flirting with you.
- A departmental colleague is getting on your nerves.
- Worry about your ailing mother has diminished your spark in the classroom.
- Your department chair made a joking remark that embarrassed or offended you.
The Mentoring Progress Reports and Year-end Meetings
Near the end of your first academic year at the College, the mentoring group will meet with you to discuss your progress. The chair of the mentoring group is responsible for writing a report based on that meeting by June 1st. This report will be addressed to you, but all members of the group will receive a copy as well as the Provost. This report will not become part of the dossiers used in your reviews for reappointment and tenure, however. That is, the purpose of this report, like the mentoring process as a whole, is wholly formative, aiming to help the new faculty member develop as a teacher, scholar, and citizen and to prepare you for the formal reviews that lie ahead if you hold a tenure-track position. ( Hot tip : It pays to fill out your Professional Activities Record (PAR) at the end of each academic year. These PARs will go into your review dossiers. You might share a copy with your mentors as well.)
A similar meeting takes place at the end of the second year, although no written report is required of the group's chair. One of the main purposes of this meeting is to anticipate the pretenure review that typically occurs in the following year. The chair needs only to notify the Provost that this meeting has occurred by June 1st.
Beyond the Second Year
Cultivating good mentors is a habit to acquire in your early years and to keep as you move up the faculty ranks. Navigating the shoals of the tenure review process, and later that of promotion to full professor should prompt you to seek advice widely from those who have successfully passed that way before. Academic careers often span three decades, and beyond promotion lie still other challenges - staying fresh after you have taught the same introductory course 20 times, finding points of connection with students who seem to get younger and younger, staying current with developments in your field, finding the time and energy for scholarship, resisting the tendency to withdraw from collegiate service rather than move into the leadership positions merited by your rank and experience. Talking about these challenges and changes with others, and remaining open to advice and example are traits to cultivate early and keep for the duration of an academic career.
- Christopher J. Lucas and John W. Murray, Jr., New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 229.
- Lucas and Murray, New Faculty, 24.