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Mentoring: Making it Mutual

By Wade Pickren

Relationships are at the heart of most of what satisfies, stimulates, and motivates us. To live well and to be 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. Further, how can we move in and out of mentoring relationships that match our changing personal needs and evolving careers? How can we address these issues 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 more 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.

About the turn of the twenty-first century, a model often called mutual 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) offers financial and logistical 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. Mutual mentoring also honors the agency of faculty members to decide what areas they may want mentoring in and from whom. 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 even 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. Please see our web-page and application to receive support for your interests. We provide a small amount of monetary support to facilitate the goals of each group.

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

Sorcinelli, M.D., Yun, J., & Baldi, B. (2016). Mutual Mentoring Guide, The Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts, Amhearst MA. www.umass/tefd

Yun, J., Baldi, B.,& Sorcinelli, M.D. (2016). Mutual Mentoring for Early-Career and Underrepresented Faculty: Model, Research, and Practice. Innovation in Higher Education. DOI 10.1007/s10755-016-9359-6

University of Michigan:

National Education Association:

Harvard University, Annotated Bibliography:


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