One-Sentence Mentoring

Advice can be pithy. Kevin Brown offers guidance for new faculty members trying to make their way in higher education.

September 18, 2013

I read an essay last fall on mentoring students, in which the author gave advice in one-sentence tidbits.  I immediately thought of the mentoring advice I received during my first year of teaching, an area that author did not discuss.  It was (and is) a running joke that I wore a path to my mentor’s office, going to her with a question almost every day. 

Her advice worked out well, as I’m now beginning my 12th year here, having been tenured and promoted to full professor along the way. Thus, I thought I should share the advice she gave me, almost always in one sentence, that helped me succeed.

Show up and shut up. During our first year, we have to attend a number of meetings.  We had new faculty meetings, workshops on teaching, department meetings, faculty meetings, among others. We also had a large number of events, such as the annual Christmas party, a riverboat cruise for faculty and staff, concert events sponsored by the president of the university, and so on. Ours is a campus where involvement is crucial, so my mentor wanted to make that clear to me.

At the same time, she knows that the reputation that one establishes in those first few months can haunt someone for the rest of his or her career. Without knowing the political landscape, the conversations that have come before the one I might currently be a part of, or the history of various debates, anything I said could show that utter ignorance and shape how peers and administration saw me for years to come. 

Now that I have been here more than a decade, I can attest to watching people ignore this advice to their peril. I have seen new faculty members get into debates with colleagues and members of the administration without knowing the back story, while the rest of us shake our heads and wonder what their mentors are (or are not) telling them.

The amount of talking you do should be in inverse proportion to the number of people in the group. It did not take me long to notice a trend in her advice to me. It could be that I have a tendency to talk way too much, but it could also simply be that she had seen enough people make comments that damaged their long-term success that she wanted to focus on this idea. 

However, she also wanted me to know that there are times where I really should be contributing my ideas, but I should know when to speak and when not to. By laying out a clear demarcation running from the all faculty meetings and events to department meetings to committee work within the department, she let me know that I could begin having an impact at the department level immediately, while still protecting myself at a larger level.

Find what you want to do and do it, or you will be made to do things you do not enjoy. We might as well be honest about this one, in that it is almost impossible to completely follow. There will be times as new faculty members where you will simply have to take on a task you would prefer not to do. I was certainly asked to serve on committees or take on projects that I was not passionate about, but I knew that doing so would help my reputation on campus.

That said, this advice was the best I received during my first year, and it continues to serve me well. Because I found areas I was suited for that still served the department and university, I avoided tasks and committees I would not have enjoyed or performed well in. For me, those things were student-centered, so I began sponsoring our English honor society to become more involved in their lives.  Because I have a background in library science, I became involved with the library, both officially through the library committee, but also unofficially through simply working with the librarians on various projects.

My interests and background connected me to work that was fulfilling and that enabled me to solidify my reputation as someone who is interested in students and the good of the university.  There are a variety of ways one could go about earning that reputation, but I was able to do so while pursuing interests that were sincere and fitting.

Fly high enough to be seen, but low enough to avoid the radar. Related to the idea of establishing one’s reputation is the idea of being seen. While many of us in the academic world are not comfortable admitting that we want to be seen doing what it is we do (while some are all too comfortable), we know that we need to have our peers and administrators recognize the work we are doing for students and the university. 

That can certainly be accomplished by paperwork and documentation, but word of mouth and visible evidence often count for much more. When the vice president for academics sees me at an English honor society event on campus, that sighting carries more weight than a line on some end-of-the-year report.  Note that I do not do the work I do to be seen, but being seen matters.

At the same time, there are two negative side effects of such thinking. First, one can be seen to be a spotlight seeker.  We have all known faculty members who bring attention to themselves, first and foremost, instead of the benefit to the students or the university that their work brings. No matter what is being discussed, they will bring the attention back to themselves and the work they are doing. These people often show up at conferences and ask questions that are not really questions at all; they are simply another way to bring attention to their research. 

Second, once people are on the radar, everything they do is under scrutiny. Thus, they feel a good deal of pressure to continue doing whatever work they are doing and to do it at a higher and higher level. There are levels of being seen that are not comfortable.

There are many other pieces of advice my mentor gave me over the years, but the first year set the tone I needed. She taught me how to effectively become a part of a department and a university, while enjoying my job and my students. 

That’s advice that lasts much longer than a sentence.

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Kevin Brown is a professor of English at Lee University.


Kevin Brown

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