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Mutual Mentoring: Reciprocal and Contextual

By Wade Pickren

Relationships are at the heart of most of what satisfies, stimulates, and motivates us. To live well and to fully mature, we must be able to create and sustain positive relationships. In the academic world, mentoring relationships are thought to be among the most important we can have. An indicator of the perceived importance of academic mentoring is the sheer number of words written and spoken about it, whether in books, blogs, articles, chapters, or tweets.

In the academy, mentoring relationships can serve as an exemplar for what is best about our professional lives. Yet, many of us find it difficult to develop useful mentoring relationships. Or, having created such a relationship, we find it hard to sustain and difficult to go beyond the superficial level of information sharing. How can we address this issue at Ithaca College?

First, let’s realize that there are multiple mentoring models. For the sake of brevity, I will pass over informal mentoring that may well be the most frequently used approach and only discuss two formal models. The most traditional approach is hierarchical in which a seasoned faculty member agrees to mentor a new or early career faculty member. Often, this is arranged for the new faculty member and he or she may have little choice in the matter. In such a model, the seasoned person may introduce the early career faculty to departmental and school colleagues, be available to answer questions about departmental expectations, and provide guidance about college or departmental mores and customs. This approach has been around for a long time in North American colleges and universities and has often been very useful and productive for both mentors and mentees.

imagesAbout the turn of the twenty-first century, a model often called mutual or network mentoring began to be developed. It uses many of the mechanisms of informal mentoring but adds a level of intentionality to better direct the process. There is a growing body of research that suggests that in our current complex academic environment mutual mentoring may better meet our needs. Studies indicate that the model may indeed be superior to the single mentor model for women faculty, international faculty, and faculty of color. The Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) is currently offering a pilot program of guidance and support for mutual mentoring on the IC campus.

What are the main characteristics of mutual mentoring? Perhaps the biggest difference from a traditional, single mentor model is that mutual mentoring occurs in a network of relationships that mirror our real life interests, needs, and affiliations. Thus, a person may have mentoring relationships with someone from their national disciplinary organization, in their home department, with members of their same career cohort, or in a faculty learning community focused on a topic of interest. There are many other possibilities, of course. As a member of one our pilot groups stated recently,

‘”Getting the chance to talk with women in other departments offers a fresh perspective and unexpected solutions to issues we are all dealing with. It is good to have a support system that I will be able to turn to when I need new ideas!”

Mutual mentoring also honors the agency of faculty members to decide what areas they may want mentoring in, from whom, and for how long. This is especially true for early career faculty who are usually at least one-down in the academic power structure. But, the very term, MUTUAL, indicates what is its greatest strength—the truth that each faculty member has something to offer in the mentoring relationship. None of us need be patronized because we are new, early career, international, a woman, or a person of color.

How, then, can you establish or join a network of mutual mentors? First, identify what you need, whether it is assistance understanding the criteria for tenure and promotion or help with technology. Conjoined to what you need is understanding yourself well enough to know what you have to offer and then making sure you communicate both aspects to your colleagues. Your openness to colleagues is critical for establishing relationships that are mutually beneficial. Second, it would be helpful to have mentors who are outside Ithaca College and who can help you navigate your discipline or help you get involved in the local community. Some of these mutual mentors may not be faculty members. Third, recognize that membership in your mentoring circle is likely to change over the short, mid-, and long-term. Your needs and what you can offer will change as you develop.

There is support at IC for mutual mentoring. The Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) is currently offering a pilot program of guidance and support for mutual/network mentoring on the IC campus (https://www.ithaca.edu/cfe/services/networkmentoring/). We currently have several pilot groups and we anticipate expanding this number next year. One of our pilot groups this year focused on scholarly writing. As one of its members wrote,

“The network mentoring writing group meets to discuss the practice of writing, create a system of accountability for our writing, and as a workshop through which we receive feedback from each other on our writing. We are currently reading Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers​, and meet once a month to discuss a section of the book and share a draft of our current work.”

For each group, the CFE provides a small amount of monetary support to help facilitate the group’s goals.

Finally, there are many resources on mentoring available. Here are links to just a few:

University of Massachusetts, Amherst: http://www.umass.edu/ctfd/mentoring/downloads/Mutual%20Mentoring%20Guide%20Final%2011_20.pdf

University of Michigan:

http://www.crlt.umich.edu/faculty/facment

National Education Association:

http://www.nea.org/home/34958.htm

Harvard University, Annotated Bibliography:

http://bit.ly/1MFuUWJ

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