From traditional mentoring to mentoring networks

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

James Deaville, Carleton University
Guest Contributor

This is an edited version of Dr. Deaville’s recent presentation to the Federation’s General Assembly meeting on March 27, 2010. Listen to the podcast of the panel presentation, or read the liveblog of the event.

My own academic mentoring consisted of a troubling personal relationship under a senior professor, who introduced me to post-secondary academe through paranoid observations and advice provided in a host of settings, from his office to his boat, and on the telephone.  In retrospect, I can recognize that he was using me to consolidate his own power base in the unit, but in the first year, it was the only friendship I had at the university and the only “official” mentoring I was to receive. This unsettling relationship illustrated to me the problems inherent in the traditional model of top-down, one-to-one mentoring.  Fortunately, I was already well situated within an international research community that provided support in an incipient mentoring network, which would develop in the ensuing years to include departmental and faculty colleagues and associates in the Canadian “learned society” for music.  That I had to develop this set of relationships, this network, on my own typified attitudes towards mentoring at that time.

Within five years of initial appointment, I became chair of the Department of Music, which thrust me into a role of responsibility for new hires.  It was then that I discovered to my dismay, not only was I expected to serve as sole mentor to them, but I also had to work against a faction that did not want to see the new colleagues succeed.  Mean-spirited attitudes can deleteriously impact any fresh hire. However, I found a particularly pernicious resentment towards new women colleagues among the old boys of the department, which necessitated both vigilance and strife.

The progress of my career through the traditional academic hurdles took place at the same time as the increasing efforts of universities and hiring committees to attempt to redress historical imbalances – in Aboriginal peoples, racialized minorities, persons with disabilities and women – in employment including among the professoriate.  This means that I found myself mentoring above all young women colleagues, who were the primary new hires.  The recent literature about mentoring – and also our common sense – tells us that such relationships are fraught with problems for various reasons, not least because of the disparity of power and its potential for abuse.  However, herein lies the difficulty in developing appropriate mentoring relationships: a department may not have any senior women faculty or, if it does, those few are in such demand to serve on a variety of administrative committees – at least in part for purposes of equity – that they have no time or energy to mentor.  Moreover, according to the hotly contested ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome, certain veteran women colleagues may believe that, like them, the younger generation of women must struggle and succeed on their own.

What can be done by senior white males who wish to participate in a solution?  I would be happy to encourage women colleagues to mentor other women, except that in my departments they have been too junior to be put in that position.  I could free those colleagues from other committee responsibilities, so that they can focus on mentoring, except then the question of representation on committees arises.  Is it simply a matter of time until we achieve gender parity and have multiple senior women colleagues within departments like mine, or is there something that senior male faculty members like me can do to ameliorate the situation?

This is the dilemma facing senior male colleagues who may be sensitive to issues of mentoring, representation, and power.  It stands to reason that the same set of problems attaches to the mentoring of other “designated groups” in academe, whether people of colour, Aboriginal people or persons with disabilities.  We are much further away from anything resembling hiring equity with these Other designated groups. I have never had the opportunity to work with, to mentor or be mentored in Music by a colleague from a “designated group” other than women.

Given the difficulties indicated above, it seems clear that serious problems attend to the traditional method of mentoring, which is described by Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Jung Yun in their work on mentoring networks as “the top-down, one-to-one relationship in which an experienced faculty member guides and supports the career development of a new or early-career [colleague].”  Over the last decade or so, a number of studies have  examined alternatives to the traditional model, primarily focusing on the development of networks through multiple “mentoring partners”  in “non-hierarchical, collaborative, cross-cultural partnerships to address specific areas of faculty activity,” as Sorcinelli and Yun emphasize.

Other studies have begun to establish the value of mentoring networks.  In a 2000 investigation of mentoring that involved 430 faculty members at two U.S. universities, Joy van Eck Peluchette and Sandy Jeanquart determined that “Assistant Professors with multiple sources of mentors yielded significantly higher levels of both objective and subjective career success than did those with single sources or no mentor.”  Similarly, Suzanne de Janasz and Sherry Sullivan suggest “multiple mentors of the moment,” who can give specialized advice related to specific aspects of research, teaching, service and administration, “will be better able to respond to the varied and changing needs of the protégé’s careers than could a traditional dissertation advisor/mentor.”   As well, a 2005 study by Jean Girves, Yolanda Lepeda, and Judith Gwathmey, entitled “Mentoring in a Post-Affirmative Action World,” examines mentoring from a multicultural perspective, and notes that network models are more inclusive of women and racialized Others than the traditional “grooming model.”

When I heard about mentoring networks, I realized that here was at least a partial solution to the dilemma in which I found myself vis-a-vis my junior colleagues, a model towards which I had been naturally gravitating.  For example, since I have had success with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Standard Research Grants,  I found myself advising new hires in this area of specialized competence.  Moreover, my track record in having conference proposals accepted was also quite good, to the extent that I could review paper abstracts by junior colleagues with confidence.  Thus I have been able to provide mentoring assistance to new women colleagues in these specific areas of professional expertise, without needing to feel responsible for their overall career progress.

A network of specialists for research and for issues in teaching, administration and academic life in general is an excellent set of mentoring resources for the new hire, but where should the responsibility for developing such networks reside? Some scholars place the onus on the individual mentee; however I find that approach fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is the unfamiliarity of new faculty members with their institutions’ resources.  In contrast, other scholars suggest the need for a structural framework for mentoring, and they charge administrators with encouraging the development of mentoring programs and with ensuring that faculty members become aware of their value.  That may be easier said than done in the current climate of greater downloading of responsibilities to the level of the academic unit.

Yet, it is imperative for purposes of equity and for faculty renewal in general that such mentoring networks not be haphazard or arbitrary, but rather built around a core set of competencies.  While the chair or director should make certain that a  new faculty member is receiving mentoring in the crucial areas of research, teaching and service through various resources, the real impetus must come from the top: all of the consulted literature argues that mentoring must be a priority for upper-level administration for it to be most effective.

Mentoring networks will not solve all problems of equity for new faculty, but they do provide an alternative to the problematic traditional model of top-down mentoring.  As a senior male faculty member, I embrace their potential for new junior colleagues.

James Deaville is a professor and Supervisor of Graduate Studies, School for Studies in Art and Culture: Music at Carleton University and a member of the CFHSS’s Equity Issue Steering Committee. 


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