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Mentoring matters. We know this, not only based on our own individual experiences as we recall the individuals who helped change our personal trajectories, but it’s reflected in the data as well.

The Gallup-Purdue Index on student outcomes found that students who “had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my hopes and dreams” are 2.2x more likely to be engaged at work, a condition that significantly translates into overall well-being.

There’s a lot of evidence that mentoring may be the most important service higher education can provide.

But as Russell Olwell, associate dean in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College wrote here at IHE, studies show that faculty only spend “between 2 and 6 percent of their time working one-on-one with students – much less than the time they spend on meetings, preparing for class or on research.”

Dean Olwell provides a number of thoughtful and likely impactful things individual faculty can do in order to up their mentoring games. Anyone would be well-served to take them to heart.

But the problem of mentoring is unlikely to be solved by individual actions as long as institutional practices and priorities actively mitigate against faculty mentorship.

While it is nice to encourage mentoring, it is hard to argue that mentoring is something many institutions believe in, at least as manifested in their actual practices.

It’s like proclaiming “cleanliness is next to godliness,” but never taking a bath.

As a number of commenters on Dean Olwell’s essay note, administrative policies do little to support faculty who want to mentor. If mentioned at all, when it comes to tenure, mentoring is well behind teaching, research, and service obligations. There is no career advancement to be had for effective or dedicated mentoring.

Because the individual incentive for mentoring can be high for those who enjoy working with students, mentoring becomes “shadow work,” hours that are either stolen from the duties that “count” or are uncompensated, "extra" work.

And because it is “shadow work,” those who are not inclined to practice mentoring need not do it.[1]

For those of us who work in the contingent ranks, particularly as adjuncts, mentoring is not “shadow work,” but volunteer work, entirely outside the enumerated and compensated duties of our positions.

But of course, many of us do it anyway because of those individual, intangible incentives. Many faculty enjoy teaching because it gives them an opportunity to mentor. I have no idea what percentage of my working time is spent mentoring, but because of the nature of teaching writing and my use of individual conferences as an important part of my pedagogy, it’s almost certainly more than average, even though it is, by definition, entirely unpaid. 

As a one-time English major not sure what I should do with my future who managed to find his way through several different careers now, I have perspective that tenured faculty often lack.

I can be of service to students in this area. 

While Dean Olwell defines mentoring as contact between students and faculty not explicitly oriented around class instruction, I try to think of all my teaching through the lens of mentoring. I try to build a bridge between class and life, and model for students the ways their educations may play out over time by sharing how mine has worked for me.

Mentors counsel students individually, but my mentors also served as examples, both in class and out of class. My most effective writing mentors emphasized the struggle that awaits our pursuits and shared their experiences with those struggles. I try to do the same for my students, to be clear about the challenges, but also that challenges can be overcome.

Is this “encouragement to pursue hopes and dreams?” I think so.

In the context of a stable, full-time, salaried position some amount of “shadow work” is to be expected, the same way I often had to work “late” when I was employed in the corporate sector.

But as an adjunct, I am compensated as though the three hours a week I spend in class are the full-extent of my work. In economic and labor terms, every moment I spend in conversation with a student outside of class is judged worthless. The tension is difficult to reconcile. I think those conversations are vital to doing the job well. The institution says it is, by definition, not part of my job.

Ultimately, probably sooner rather than later, this tension between what I believe the job should be and what it is, will drive me out of teaching.

Poke around the public-facing marketing materials of any school and you will for sure find “mentoring” front and center as an institutional value.

But let’s not kid ourselves that a significant number of our institutions are at all oriented around or privilege mentoring.[2]

Sure, mentoring happens, but it happens in spite of policy and procedures, not because of it.

Let’s also not delude ourselves into thinking this is likely to change. Mentoring, by definition (one-on-one student contact), doesn’t scale.

The title of Dean Olwell’s book, Mentoring is a Verb: Strategies for Improving College and Career Readiness, is an illustration of the problem. There are no "strategies" that will make a meaningful difference until the underlying structures that reflect the desired values are put in place. If you were to examine those structures, you would have a hard time finding any evidence that mentoring matters.

If mentoring matters, incentivize mentoring. Give faculty the time and space to do it.

It’s pretty simple.

It’s never going to happen.




[1] Only 43% of those surveyed by Gallup either “Agree” (19%) or “Strongly agree” (24%) that they “had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my hopes and dreams.”

[2] I have not personal experience in this sector, but I’m assuming that small liberal arts colleges are something of an exception here.

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