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How to Mentor New Faculty

A New Model of Mentoring

July 22, 2013

Last week, I started a five-part series dedicated to bridging the gap between tenured professors assigned to mentor new faculty and the faculty they mentor. My seemingly straightforward suggestion that it’s important to start strong by letting go of the sink-or-swim mentality, initiating contact with your mentee now, making sure promised space is ready for their arrival and explaining reimbursement procedures for moving expenses elicited a whole lot of enthusiastic "thank you" notes from pre-tenure faculty heading to their first tenure-track positions.

This week, I’m asking you to consider something far more radical than overseeing a smooth onboarding process for new faculty. I want to propose a fundamentally different way of thinking about mentoring and consider how you could help your mentee shift from the illusive guru model of mentoring to a network-model of mentoring.

Old Models of Mentoring: The Guru Mentor

When I give workshops on mentoring, I often begin by asking new faculty members what mentoring means to them. The most common descriptions involve having a highly supportive all-knowing senior person who shares knowledge with them, cares for them, guides their career over a long period of time and protects them from any evil forces in their department. Through this relationship, the new faculty member gets all his/her needs met so they can grow into being a successful teacher, researcher and colleague. Once we’ve drawn a clear picture of the guru-mentor, I ask: how many of you actually have a mentor like this in your life? Typically, only one or two people raise their hands. Then I ask what the mentoring they are currently receiving looks like and the response is often "I don't have any mentoring" or "I was matched with someone and we have coffee once a year."

The problems with the guru-mentor model are many, but allow me to describe the top three. First and foremost, it doesn’t actually exist for most new faculty. Second, it leaves something everyone thinks is important (mentoring) up to one person with the hope that somehow that person will sense mentees’ pain points, care deeply for their professional success, and meet all their needs. In other words, it assumes that the mentor has the time, energy and desire to actively assist the new faculty member and ignores the reality that mentoring is invisible and unrewarded labor that goes to the bottom of the priority lists of busy people. And finally, even if it worked perfectly, it is the most inefficient way possible to help new professors get their needs met. The guru-mentoring model may work for a few, but it just doesn’t work for the vast majority of new faculty and more often leaves new people without the support they need.

New Models of Mentoring: Network-Based Mentoring

I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s far more effective to talk about specific needs than it is to use the word "mentoring" as a slush bucket for all new faculty needs. We have found that it’s perfectly normal for new faculty members to have a wide range of needs including: 1) professional development, 2) emotional support, 3) intellectual community, 4) role models, 5) safe space, 6) accountability for what really matters, 7) sponsorship, 8) access to opportunities, and 9) substantive feedback.

So if we can acknowledge that it’s normal for new faculty to have needs (i.e., it doesn't mean they are incompetent, deficient, unprepared or in need of remedial assistance), it’s impossible for all of those needs to be met by a single guru-mentor, it begs the question: how can we imagine a model of mentoring that isn’t dependent on a one-on-one relationship and where everyone has access to exactly what they need, when they need it, and how they need it.

Our center teaches (and represents) a completely different model that is the opposite of the guru-mentor model. Specifically, we place the faculty member (not the guru) at the center and help individuals create a broad and deep mentoring network to meet the common needs that new faculty members have. Instead of fantasizing about a guru-mentor, we encourage faculty members to develop the skill of continually asking “what do I need and where is the best place to get it?”

This network-based model normalizes the presence of needs, puts the new faculty member in the driver’s seat, and shifts the dynamic from a dependency model (where the mentee is at the mercy of the guru and mentoring is bestowed as a grace upon the lucky few), to empowering the new professor to build his or her own network of community and support. Tenured faculty are often surprised that new faculty members find the idea of being surrounded by an enormous network of support to be far more efficient, effective, and helpful than the guru-mentor model.

For example, let’s say that your new mentee settles into her new space quickly and easily. At your initial mentoring meeting, you ask: what are you most concerned about moving into the new academic year? You learn that she has a great deal of anxiety about making sure that her research agenda gets off to a strong start and is afraid of being overwhelmed by service requests as the only person of color in your department. The guru model would lead someone to give generic advice (“just say no”) whether or not you have experienced or fully understand the service pressures of solo faculty.

In contrast, the network model would suggest that you ask what she would need to feel supported and confident that she’s responding to service requests in a way that is consistent with departmental expectations. Does she need some skill-building in this area? Does she need to be connected to a role model of someone who is also underrepresented and manages this well? Does she need a senior person/people in the department who she can quickly and easily discuss requests until she has a clear filter for decision-making in your campus culture? Or does she need an accountability group for her writing to make sure she is moving forward with the development of a consistent daily writing habit?

Instead of YOU meeting all those needs, the network model suggests you initiate the conversation, ask powerful questions, validate needs, help brainstorm solutions, make connections, and confirm next steps.

It’s very simple to shift mentees from the ubiquitous expectation of a guru-mentor into a network-based model. Just set up a mentoring meeting with your new faculty member. During that meeting, you can explain what a network model of mentoring looks like and encourage your new mentee to complete a Mentoring Map. Let him/her know it’s O.K. if they have lots of empty spaces on the map and that your role is to assist in a) understanding the network mentoring model, b) identifying the holes in their network, and c) helping them fill those holes.

I hope it feels like a big relief! Instead of being fully responsible to meet all your mentees' needs, you’re responsibility is to teach them how to build a network of support they can draw on for the future.

Weekly Challenge:

This week I challenge you to three simple things:

1. Sit with the new mentoring model and ask yourself how it feels to you. If you want to consider it more deeply, click here.

2. If you have not yet contacted your new mentee to set up a mentoring meeting at the beginning of the fall term, do so ASAP.

3. Consider filling out the Mentor Map for yourself to get the experience of identifying YOUR areas of need and brainstorming on how to fill them.

I hope that rethinking mentoring is a fruitful activity for you! Over the next three weeks I’ll go deeper into the nuts and bolts of how to be a coach (instead of a guru), how to invest in your new mentee’s sense of belonging in ways that will increase future retention, and how to help your mentee plug into structures for community, peer support and accountability for research and writing.

Peace and positive mentoring,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore

 

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