Needs and Specifications: Building Effective Mentoring Relationships
It is perhaps too common to think that holding the hand of a toddler while crossing a busy street is an apt metaphor for the mentoring relationship, especially when it comes to fostering undergraduate research. Beyond the obvious miscue of infantilizing the student, approaching mentoring relationships with this mindset has the unintended consequence of communicating a lack of faith in the mentee’s abilities. In order to avoid falling into this pattern, I’ve identified three tenets for mentoring undergraduate research that I hope will lead to a satisfying experience for both mentors and mentees. At a time when Penn seeks ways to be more inclusive, mentoring is perhaps the most efficacious way both to ensure that we identify students possessing the capacity to do independent research and that in doing so, we help them realize their fullest potential. In a departure from the standard approach, I will begin with the third tenet and end with the first.
And so the third tenet of mentoring undergraduate research is recognizing when the time has come to relinquish the role of navigator and guide so that the mentee can chart a course of her own. Most times, it comes before the mentee is ready to fly solo, but my sense is that one of the most exciting—and anxiety-producing—aspects of mentoring relationships is that they thrive on imprecision and uncertainty. At least a portion of this is a product of the expectations that students may have at the start of a mentoring relationship. If they’ve received copious amounts of praise for work they’ve done in the past (even if the work was less-than-stellar), they may believe that a mentor’s primary role is to provide positive feedback. Or, students who’ve never had a substantive mentoring experience may think that research happens in a vacuum and that the mentor’s role is simply to sign the requisite forms and leave them alone. What makes the mentor/mentee dyad so intriguing, then, is that it seems to work best when expectations on both sides are quickly dashed and a new script has to be written and followed, which can only be done collaboratively.
This is not without its challenges. For example, if a mentor has achieved success in her discipline, students may arrive thinking success is simply a matter of being in her midst. Without a doubt, the idea of “sitting at the feet” of a highly renowned scholar is perhaps the most easily accessed concept of a mentoring relationship. But recently, I’ve come to believe it’s a pattern that needs to be tempered, if not abandoned altogether. Too often it leads to a hit-or-miss approach that means the mentor/mentee relationship is built around communication flowing in one direction: from the mentor “downward” to the mentee. At the first sign of a setback, the most likely explanation is that the mentee wasn’t listening carefully enough. Ultimately, though, placing blame on the mentee is a sign of ineffective mentoring. If the mentor is never on the hook, it signals the presence of an accountability gap that neglects the fact that being a mentor requires assuming the lion’s share of the accountability for what does and doesn’t happen in the relationship. This does not mean the student has no responsibility, but it means that mentoring is, first and foremost, two people engaging around a mutually sustained form of attention. When things threaten to hit a lull (which is inevitable), it is incumbent on the mentor to employ tactics to keep the conversation going. My approach is heavily reliant on storytelling; at times it’s a matter of exchanging stories about the respective routes we’ve taken leading up to our present conversation in my office, at others, it’s empathizing with students struggling to recognize the obstacles obstructing progress by narrating my own foibles. These situations require one to listen both to what the student is saying and also what they are not saying. Not in a judgmental way, but in a way that, when conducted with the proper amount of compassion, can lead to the walls separating mentor and mentee coming down.
Which gets to the second tenet of mentoring undergraduate research: effective mentoring involves inviting the mentee to assume ownership of their ideas by encouraging them to invent new critical vocabularies or to improvise on existing ones. Here, sharing stories about what it feels like to arrive at an original idea, that odd combination of epiphany, anxiety and thrill, becomes essential. Because mentoring works best as a dialogue, part of what a mentor can model for a mentee is the sense that research is less a matter of seeking facile conclusions and more a matter of being animated by a need to generate the kinds of questions that result in a line of inquiry. To be sure, the pursuit of knowledge is ultimately what research is about, but the endeavor is likely to be most satisfying when we empower mentees to engage in conjecture and speculation, to feel comfortable trying out an idea and seeing where it leads, even if it’s down the proverbial blind alley. Effective mentoring encourages students to do this right out of the chute. It’s important to communicate that research involves grasping established assumptions, identifying their null spots and exposing them to the light. Moments such as these can be fraught with tension (the mentee’s research may refute an orthodoxy established over a series of decades). But a colleague of mine once observed that all scholarly disciplines are the result of a disparate group of scholars who indulge the desire to be part of the same conservation. If this is true, then the death knell of a discipline is sounded when that conversation becomes dominated by the privileged few. Thus, mentoring relationships should always be about expanding that conversation to make room for new voices, even if those voices are raising a ruckus.
Hence, the first tenet of mentoring relationships is that they are organic, both in substance and consequence. Thinking about my own experiences as a mentor over a substantial period of time, I realize that while my mentees may share some salient characteristics, ultimately my relationships with them were often a matter of working with a fair amount of imprecision and uncertainty at the intersection of ambition, personal history, humility and amplitude. Which is to say that effective mentoring relationships almost always involve mutual forms of growth for both mentors and mentees. Scholars who are afraid to acknowledge, or who eschew altogether, the need for personal reinvention often develop mentoring techniques that are moribund and pedantic. A mentor open to innovation and serendipity in her own research process will seek to affirm that aspect of the research process, even if she is herself unsure what constitutes a next step, because effective mentoring relationships often reflect shared—rather than imposed—values that encourage leaps of faith.
The individual I think of as my most important mentor often spoke of the need for students to be “in tutelage,” which implied that he considered himself to be more “tutor” than master. Our relationship thrived over the years because he modeled an approach to mentoring that was based on his firm belief that I should know my own mind. Though his accomplishments (in this case, as a poet of international renown) far exceed my own, he said to me more than once, “You have to be ready for the day when you’ll renounce me.” Though such a moment was unthinkable, I later realized that our exchanges over the course of many years had imbued me with a quality of independence and self-reliance that I was able to recognize that the time had come for me to shed the ill-fitting garment of my past self and don one more suited to my needs and specifications in the present.
Herman Beavers is professor of English and Africana studies and the 2017 recipient of the Dean’s Award for Mentorship of Undergraduate Research.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.