On Mentorship

It’s early October, which for most people means that the semester is about halfway over. In some regards, it feels like the last 7-8 weeks flew by…but at the same time the next 7-8 weeks feel like an insurmountable hurdle.

A quick note on mental-state: I’m finding that this is the point at which I finally feel like I can come up for air, so to speak. My routine is established, my students feel familiar, I’ve reincorporated writing time back into my week, and the courses I’m teaching no longer feel haphazardly put together. That being said, the sentiment is coupled with what feels a lot like the end of the honeymoon phase in a new relationship. I’m becoming more aware of the tensions among colleagues that prevent things from getting done. I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with the way faculty get evaluated across campus. My students are starting to get restless and bored with the material. So, I find myself wondering, how can I reboot the semester and make sure the second-half doesn’t feel lackluster compared to the first?

PRO-TIP: When the honeymoon phase ends, seek new connections on campus that can spark added enthusiasm. Find a mentor.

My new institution places a premium on the role of mentorship for new faculty. It seems there are mentorship opportunities no matter which way I turn. To name a few mentorship opportunities on my campus:

  • a university-wide mentoring series with the provost
  • my college pairs new faculty with tenured faculty in other departments for mentoring
  • my department gives us the option of working with a mentor who comes from within the department
  • mentoring opportunities for minorities on campus (such as a women-only mentorship group and a diversity mentoring community intended to serve people of color and members of the queer community).

There are also programs that would allow me, as a new hire, to serve as a mentor for students at the BA, MA, and PhD levels.

Mentorship is kind of awkward. I find that my experiences with it thus far have been a lot like dating. Because I’m still brand-new and what I’m doing, I feel like I’m constantly under the microscope (see previous post on impostor syndrome). And, in my experience, the question as to whether or not I feel comfortable asking questions in a mentoring session feels much more directly related to that intangible thing we refer to as chemistry than to whether or not that individual is in my direct line of supervision. Translation: some people just feel safe to talk to and others don’t…and it has little to do with whether or not they are in my department.

Having experimented with a variety of these mentorship opportunities, I think there is only one person who will “stick” as a mentor. Perhaps that was my institution’s objective all along? Give new hires 5 different ways to cultivate mentorship and hopefully one of them will work?

I feel comfortable with this particular mentor (partly) because they addressed the aforementioned mid-semester slump explicitly. When we met for coffee, my mentor anticipated the mid-semester mental state I described above. They asked questions directly related to where I was with my adjustment and seemed to acknowledge the end of the honeymoon phase. It was refreshing to admit to someone that I felt tired all the time and that my students were losing interest (I’m sure this is a correlated problem). It could be that this individual is a seasoned mentor, or perhaps we just had the conversational chemistry that afforded transparent communication. Either way, I left the meeting feeling empowered to do something about the decline in enthusiasm I was feeling and with a list of 4-5 things I could try to reach that goal. (All of these ideas came from a very productive conversation with a mentor.)

  • Switch writing projects. Working on projects to completion is always ideal, but sometimes you need to jumpstart your enthusiasm for your work by looking at something fresh. Coming back to whatever you’ve been working on so far at a later date may also give you new perspective on how to keep plugging away at it.
  • Conduct a mid-semester feedback session with your students. Solicit their feedback and then consider taking some of it into account. Even if you aren’t going to make changes, explain to them the reasoning why, and they will feel heard.
  • Rest. Have you spent the last 7-8 weeks working seven days a week? If so, it maybe time to set an away message on your email and binge-watch TV one weekend. Or go for a hike. If your institution has a fall break, that’s the perfect occasion. If not, maybe you can artificially create one.
  • Take stock of you goals for the remainder of the semester and develop a plan. How can you break them up into bite-sized chunks so that they feel easy to tick off one at a time?

Which led to me to ask, “how can I mimic that mentorship style?” I decided to take my new work place up on the opportunity to mentor someone else, a student. Full disclosure: when I initially signed up to do it, I was motivated by what the experience would add to the service-related portion of my CV. Since then I’ve discovered the unintended consequence of being reminded that I’ve come a long way since my early days in academia. I have insight to offer someone who is 5-10 years behind me in my trajectory. In that regard, it has turned into a surprising site through which to find affirmation. As I ponder being of service to the young person who will look to me for guidance, I can’t help but wonder how much of the quality of my mentoring abilities will come from experience or a pre-disposition toward that kind of activity, and how much of it just comes down to conversational chemistry? I suppose only time will tell.

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