Being a Better Mentor

ProfHacker 2018-08-02

Figurines of force ghost Obi-Wan Kenobi and holographic Jor-El While it’s customary–for! good! reason!–to lament the long list of awful things about 2018, one thing that’s legitimately good is that Tenure, She Wrote is up and running again. This week’s post, by the arguably-pseudonymous beckymcboatface, is a good example of TSW’s return is exciting: “An Elephant in the Room: How We Set Ourselves Up to Be Bad at Mentoring” is a really clarifying & helpful post, with printable good/bad templates to boot!

There’s a lot of discussion online, still, in 2018, about the idea that graduate students aren’t taught how to teach. This claim is pretty college- and discipline-dependent. For example, I had 6 credits in pedagogy classes, 2 different week-long bootcamp-type situations, teaching mentors, and then a postdoctoral certificate. I accept in advance that this is not the normal experience; for example, doctoral students in the sciences at some of the schools in question only got the bootcamp. But I think we can all agree that few of us got (or get) much direct training in how to be a good mentor to advanced undergrads or grad students.

As beckymcboatface explains, “The lack of training in mentorship brings with it a lack of general agreement about what ‘mentorship’ means. For some, it means that the mentee can expect weekly meetings and availability for deep personal conversations. For others, it means that the mentee can expect a spot at a lab bench and funding to do projects, which will be coauthored with the mentor, though little other interaction will take place.” And sometimes, of course, these meanings can shift for unpredictable reasons. It’s really not great.

beckymcboatface is especially good about laying out the easily-forgotten privilege gap between even the most amazing mentors and mentees:

And the operative power differential is not the one we perceive—privilege foreshortens how we perceive this differential: it’s like there’s a spyglass between us, and for us the mentee appears close, but to them, we seem to be very, very far away. So for us it may seem like just two people having a discussion on some random day, for our mentee it could be That Day That My Mentor Made That Joke About Me And I Was So Ashamed That I Decided To Not Take That Class I Was Considering.

To be fair, she’s putting all the burden on the mentor, here, whereas it would also sometimes help if the mentee decathected a bit from the relationship and recognized that even mentors are just people. *That said*, she’s correct to suggest that the power differential means the vast majority of this burden should probably fall to the mentor.

And she’s great at explaining why the proper question about “what makes someone a good mentor?” isn’t “do they care about their mentees?,” but rather are they able to help their mentees find success, broadly construed. (So, not just–”well, they’re ‘successful’ but they’re a wreck.”)

As promised, she ends the post with a couple of suitable-for-printing sheets of “good mentoring statements” and “bad mentoring statements.” It’s a really interesting post, so do read the whole thing! .

Do you have a favorite resource for learning how to be a better mentor? Let us know in comments! Also, there’s an obligatory Friends reference when discussing mentors, so here it is.

Photo “Spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Holographic Jor-El (9/365)” by Flickr user JD Hancock / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0