Much ado about mentoring

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Malinda Smith, VP Equity

Let’s be audacious and say it: Some of the most innovative – socially innovative – developments in human history have occurred in the social sciences and humanities. I think mentoring is one of them: Mentoring is a social innovation, whose improbable beginnings can be traced to, of all things, a poem. The modern idea of mentoring often is traced back to the figure Mentor who appeared in Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, over 3,000 years ago.

Telemachus (son of King Ulysses) the Mentor.

Some form of mentoring currently is practiced by such diverse organizations as EqualVoice, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and the Mentoring Partnership. There is the Order of Canada Mentorship Program, which partners young people with Order of Canada recipients. As well, on university and college campuses across the country there are various forms of peer, faculty-student and faculty-faculty mentoring initiatives. In fact, across many academic institutions mentoring increasingly is seen as a core mission. However, despite the proliferation of formal and informal mentoring programs and the burgeoning literature on the topic, it is debatable whether we have a deep understanding of the practice.

And so, the Federation’s General Assembly meeting this Saturday will feature a panel, “Much ado about Mentoring.” The title pays due respect to Shakespearean comedy, which weaves and teases out the complex layers of meaning of social phenomena. The play especially recognizes that human beings have a remarkable ability to engage in self-deception, that we can play games, sometimes with the very best intentions, to produce everything from love matches to trying to get people to correct the error of their ways. There is much that can be said about this, but the one question it leads me to consider is the value of programs designed to effect good mentoring versus, for example, the accidental mentor, someone who unexpectedly becomes an inspiring and transformative figure.

In academic literature and official institutional transcripts, mentoring has become synonymous with all things good. The figure of the mentor often is attributed with the enviable capacities of wisdom, counseling, guidance, integrity, and leadership. One scholar who has written widely on the principles and practices of mentoring suggests a mentor is “a teacher, a role model, an approachable counselor, a trusted advisor, a challenger, an encourager.” That’s a tall order for one individual who presumably has a full life in addition to volunteering to serve as a mentor. Yet this is precisely how a mentor often is conceived, as one who is selfless, self-sacrificing, and willing to engage in work “beyond the call of duty” and “above and beyond” normal workplace expectations.

The stated functions of mentoring have multiplied over the years, and are widely believed to be institutionally desirable. Career development functions of mentoring are said to include teaching, advising, guiding, motivating, exposure and visibility, protecting the mentee, provision of information and gaining access to challenging assignments. The psycho-social functions of mentoring have been identified primarily with the mentee, with her or his enhanced self-esteem, confidence, competence, effectiveness, productivity and job-satisfaction.

It is generally assumed that the mentor is an older person, an exemplary figure who simultaneously serves as a role model, coach, counselor and trusted friend.  In this traditional articulation of mentor-mentee roles, the relationship is hierarchical in contrast to more recent and innovative conceptions of mentoring articulated by some Indigenous and feminist scholars who conceive it as a ‘two way’ relationship, one based on “reciprocity, empowerment and solidarity,” which entails a mentee “authentically sharing her voice with ours, while we mutually listen for answers.”

Although we did not patent it, our disciplines invented the concept of the mentor and our ideas have shaped how the practice is understood across all disciplines and sectors. Yet few empirical studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of mentoring specifically within the social science and humanities disciplines. Some scholars suggest the best mentoring is not necessarily realized in formal or institutionalized settings: the best mentor may be the accidental mentor, one who arises in an informal relationship.

Moreover, truly transformative mentoring relationships tend to be rarer than the proliferation of institutional programs suggest. This cautionary tale has not, however, dampened the claims that everyone should have a mentor, the quest to find the exemplary mentor, or institutional concerns about the factors conducive to successful mentoring.

I think mentoring does matter. We have different ideas about how and why. So it is important for us to reflect upon the myths and hypes, as well as hopes for and joys of mentoring.  What are the common assumptions about mentoring, the mentor and the mentee/protégé relationship or possibilities of co-mentor relationships? What are the opportunities and challenges for good mentoring? It is important not to shy away from the thorny, infrequently discussed challenges of mentoring, including the challenges of one-size-fits all approaches; cross-gender and diversity mentoring; potential risks, vulnerabilities and dangers for the mentor and mentee; and the opportunities for students, postdoctoral fellows, and especially faculty mentoring in the social sciences and humanities.

I have been thinking a lot about how this plenary session at the General Assembly meeting might unfold. One thing I think we will learn is that a one-size approach to mentoring likely will not fit all. Diversity matters, from the classrooms to the court rooms to the boardrooms and across organizations. And as if to confirm this, I opened my morning national paper to see an insert on the “Best Diversity Employees 2010.” As far as I could tell, though, only three universities – McGill, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto – were included in the list. Two accompanying ads struck me.  One of them said, “Simply having diversity is interesting. Doing something with it is powerful.”  Another ad asked the following question: “Can diversity drive innovation?” and it answered “Absolutely.”

If I could riff off of these ads, I would say this: Simply voicing support for mentoring is interesting; however, taking it up seriously as a social innovation is potentially more powerful and transformative.  But the nature and types of mentoring relationships that matter are not so obvious. The Equity Matters blog is running a series on mentoring, which was launched with a piece by Sarah Wolfe and Ailsa Craig. Over the course of this week and beyond we will be posting a number of entries on mentoring. Visit this blog on Saturday morning, 11:00am EST, for the live-blogging of our “Much ado about Mentoring” plenary session.

We also want to hear from you. If you have ideas and experiences about mentoring that you think will benefit the social science and humanities communities, please email Karen Diepeveen. We would welcome a blog entry from you.


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At the plenary session, I will be speaking about the traditional top-down, one-on-one model of mentoring and how that didn't work for me as a new faculty member, and how it is problematic for me now that I am the senior colleague. I will consider the difficulties inherent in men mentoring young women colleagues using that model. Then we will examine how the concept of mentoring networks can provide an alternative both for senior male faculty members who want to help and for new and junior colleagues who need mentoring assistance. We will look at ways for both the strategic implmentation of mentoring networks and for individual contributions by senior colleagues to the mentoring process. I hope that the discussion will be fruitful!