Monday, July 29, 2013

On mentoring of faculty, graduate students, and academic professionals

In today's Insider Higher Ed there is a provocative piece Be a Coach, Not a Guru.  Yet in reading it I became uncomfortable.  It cast the mentoring job mainly as coming up with ways to promote time on task for the new assistant professor (for research and writing).  I think of mentoring quite differently, as developing a sense of taste in the mentee. (What are interesting questions to research?  What makes those questions interesting?) 

In yesterday's NY Times, Frank Bruni's column was about personal trainers, both the demand for them and who does the work.  The demand has been growing dramatically over the past ten years or so, perhaps as a consequence of the rising inequality in society.  The rich and near rich are now inclined to have a personal trainer.  We teach in economics that increased demand begats entry, particularly when there aren't barriers to entry, and so it is with personal trainers.  It is a path to a good living without strong prior requirements, though there are institutes for training the trainers in appropriate method.  I mention it here because perhaps there is a need for personal trainers to do the sort of mentoring that Kerry Ann Roquemore recommends.  Certainly, it is not obvious from how she describes the mentoring function that it must be a faculty member who does the job. 

I have written elsewhere that the one sort of relationship universally understood by faculty is co-authoring.  I've had several different co-authors in economics.  Some were peers of mine in the economics department or elsewhere on campus.  Others were doctoral students under my supervision with whom I wrote a paper.  In both, unrestrained argument is the basis of the relationship - what should be in the paper, how to model it, the style of writing, the reaction of likely referees - all will be argued about.  Here argument might actually be an enjoyable thing.  It is good to get somebody else who cares as much about the paper as you do to offer up an opinion or to react to your own stated opinion.  If this is done with respect it works well.  Sometimes there is disagreement without an obvious resolution and sometimes egos gets bruised.  So it is not always pleasant.  But it doesn't work if you pull your punches.  You have to say what you think. 

Peer co-authorship, at least in my experience, is based on comparative advantage or, once in a while, prior friendship that leads to the sentiment - we should write a paper together.  When it works well both co-authors have ownership of the entire work and both grow from the experience. 

Co-authorship that is the byproduct of supervising a dissertation is a different animal.  Part of the function is to train the doctoral student how to do research.  It is thus in the spirit of the master and apprentice.  In Roquemore's terms, the master is a guru.  The dissertation supervisor will often play that role. 

There is the question: has the doctoral student learned the lesson in the process of completing the dissertation so is a fully formed researcher when starting in as a new assistant professor?   The alternative would be that the assistant professor is still a work in progress and requires fine tuning in his or her approach to research.  I think the alternative often is the reality.

Much of this would then happen in the departmental workshop and/or when the various faculty who do research in the same area go for lunch or coffee and discuss their respective work.  One thing not in Rocquemore's piece at all is an understanding of how others read papers when in working paper form.  Knowing that, one becomes a more effective writer.  It is not something that can be learned by the new assistant professor when holed up in the office trying to crank out some piece.  The senior scholar in the area will have undo sway in shaping answers as to what counts as interesting research.  It is not blind acceptance by the junior faculty member.  But it is welcome opinion. 

* * * * *

There is a different sort of role for mentors that are neither coaches nor gurus, but might include some aspects of both.  The existence of this other role is why I included academic professionals in my title.  Inevitably, work brings with it a variety of tensions - personality conflicts, cliques that don't play well with each other, folks on high having unrealistic expectations based on the reality on the ground, etc.  Wrapped up in these tensions, one needs a confidant.  The first function of the confidant is to allow the person to vent without that impacting the situation for the worse.  The second function is to help the person think through concrete steps to take in an effort to improve matters. 

In my years as a learning technologist, I benefited enormously from being on the CIC Learning Technology Group, which was comprised of my peers at the other CIC campuses (the Big Ten + the University of Chicago).  Our meetings were interesting but the real high point was the dinner the night before, where folks shared their latest (mis)adventures on their campuses.  We developed a trust and fondness for one another.  In turn, this allowed a variety of one-on-one discussions on specific points.  And it meant that at a national conference we had ready dinner companions.  In this way each of us was able to benchmark our situation and to learn from the innovative practice of our peers. 

Not everybody is fortunate to have such a well defined peer group that can assist in a mentoring function as needed.  But there are reasonable alternatives.  Professional development activities that bring together people from different campuses offer an excellent source for ongoing networking.  Likewise do large projects that have an inter campus aspect.  And sometimes, conferences themselves are sufficient for this purpose, though in my experience one tends to stay with the group you already know at conferences.

It is perhaps possible to have a confidant on the same campus, if the person is removed from the situation of the specific unit in a way where there is no vested interest in the outcome other than that the mentee fares well.  But I think it can't happen within the department, where the confidant will have a stake in the outcome.  One might have confidants in the same unit, but they play quite a different function.  One then vents at one's own peril. 

The part of being a confidant that is like being a guru happens if the confidant is further up in the hierarchy at their institution.  People at different levels of the hierarchy are apt to ask different sorts of questions and frame things in different ways.  The more junior person can't know this in advance and may struggle in vertical relationships for that reason.  When I was a faculty member at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program, we had attendees read The Seasoned Executive's Decision Making Style.  It is a good start into defining the problem.  But I doubt reading that is sufficient for the junior person to make the step up.  It takes practice.  The confidant can help with this by offering critique to the mentee's thinking. 

The part of being a confidant that is like being a coach is to help work through an action plan and to encourage patience to give the actions time to take good effect.  I don't know if this is true for all confidants, but when I play the role I don't care about the specifics of the plan.  I do care that the thinking is sensible and that the decisions made follow from the analysis rather than from some pre-judging of the the situation.  This is all done where the mentee can ultimately reject the approach.  My experience is that this is very much like problem solving when getting stuck.  The discussion, therefore, is about ways to get unstuck. 

* * * * *

Let me return to this early question.  Should the coach be a faculty member when the mentee is an Assistant Professor?  I now want to advance an argument that it should be a faculty member.  The coach needs to be trusted by the junior faculty member.  Would new Assistant Professors trust professional coaches who are not themselves faculty?  My guess is that they probably wouldn't.  Indeed, I don't think that being a senior faculty member in itself is sufficient to generate that trust. 

Trust is gradually earned.  And in my view it emerges when playing some of the other roles I discussed above, much of which is as a guru.  Roquemore wants either/or and then in that universe opts for the coach alternative.  My point is that both are probably necessary and that for this to work for the senior person, the guru stuff is essential as that is where the intrinsic interest will lie.  Roquemore is fairly linear in asking what works for the mentee.  She needs to be more iterative and ask what works for the relationship and why.  At least, that's how it seems to me.

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