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The Role of Mentors in Higher Education

February 20, 2012

The academic life is often neatly broken down into segments and percentages; a half-time teaching position there, a percentage dictated for departmental service, time and money allotted for a specific research project. But we all know that when these neat models are applied to reality, they don’t really seem to fit or reflect what actually happens, there’s always more to do, tasks unaccounted for and each project seems to bleed into the other.

With all the (organized) chaos that academic life often seems to be, where does mentoring fit in? Or is mentoring even necessary? What does mentoring look like for faculty? Is it what happens when you agree to supervise a theses? Does it enter the classroom? Is it part of the relationship with other, perhaps junior, faculty?

An excellent article by Victoria based Janni Aragon argues that mentoring is necessary. She writes:

“When we become the experts or specialists, though, we need to remember our responsibility to take others with us. We cannot hoard our expertise and stingily mete out information or resources to a select few. Yes, the mentoring, sharing or sponsoring of students and colleagues takes time, but it’s worth it. This can help increase the presence of more diverse faculty, administrators, and staff on college campuses.”

What does this have to do with teaching? In the classroom there is so much more that goes on beyond the simple transfer of knowledge. Part of the role of the instructor is to mentor students, to give them opportunities to grow, to work with them on skills such as writing academic pieces, and sharing tips and opportunities. It involves a realization that your student’s experience is bigger than just your class, that you are one piece in the puzzle of their academic career. This understanding leads to finding ways to integrate your class and its goals into the larger picture. How can you help your students succeed not only in your class but in their larger goals?

Mentoring is also a very important aspect of what we do in supporting faculty and graduate students (future faculty?). A great article on Kosmos looks at the ‘ins and outs’ of mentoring but, importantly, mentoring is about relationships and community.  It goes beyond supervision or making them feel welcome in their new environment/department. It is part of a larger thrust to build a knowledge producing and sharing community, as well as an integral part of critical pedagogy. It is very much about building relationships.It involves sharing knowledge, being available to answer questions and concerns, being approachable, being proactive in building skills in your students and colleagues, such as proposal writing, departmental practices, research protocols. Often higher education can be a terrifying and demoralizing project, one you know all too well – how can you make it less so for others?

Mentoring is not easy; it takes time and commitment. Time is often in short supply in the academic life but if we are serious about building community, building relationships and improving our academic and teaching spheres, mentoring is something that is worth the time and effort.

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