Even a Moment of Mentoring Can Matter

March 19, 2015, 5:08 pm

nurse mentor preceptor 1American Historical Association President Vicki Ruiz has a wonderful essay about mentorship in this month’s Perspectives. Her own career as a historian began with an invitation to come to office hours:

A community college transfer, I knocked on Jean Gould Bryant’s door with a feeling of dread. What had I done wrong? She quickly put me at ease. After that eventful meeting, I began to consider graduate school, and over a period of 18 months, Bryant expanded my intellectual horizons as she prepared me for the rigors of her alma mater, Stanford. Coincidentally, I enrolled in courses on “race relations” taught by a young African American sociologist trained at UCLA. Leonor Boulin Johnson also took an interest in me, lending me books I never knew existed, books in Chicano studies. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

As Ruiz points out, it’s easier “to know those undergraduates who want to know us.” But — and now this is me speaking —  the students who hang back, who don’t sit at the front of the room, who don’t come by for extra help, who believe that only people in trouble go to office hours — often read as disengaged, particularly to faculty who have too many students and too little time to investigate further. If you think of yourself as a mentor, don’t be so quick to judge them.

Frequently I see colleagues venting on Facebook about classroom behaviors that frustrate them. I wonder how many of those students who lose their syllabi or forget to look at them, misunderstand an element of the assignment, forget to buy the book before it has been returned to the publisher, or do their citations wrong despite explicit instructions feel about how annoyed their professors are with them. Are they getting the message that they are just losers, and not worthy of faculty attention? How many of them, who shrug their shoulders and say, “I really have to get an A in this class because I am pre-law,” are really protecting themselves from their belief — however misguided — that this professor doesn’t like them very much and doesn’t really care whether they do well or not?

Sometimes when I read about these encounters (which read as rude or contemptuous to the faculty, triggering the Facebook vent), I wonder what could close the gap between teacher and student: obviously no one is getting what they want out of these hostile encounters. What if faculty responded with even a moment of mentoring, rather than a rebuke? Why not find out why the syllabus was lost, and talk to the student about what she might do differently? Ruiz notes that all the faculty efforts in the world will not work without student engagement, but she also mentions many ways that student engagement can be cultivated, and that mentorship programs really work to push students to the next level of education.

You may not feel like you have the time,  or the inclination, to participate in the kinds of intensive mentoring programs that Ruiz describes in this essay. I generally don’t, although I have been a Mellon-Mays mentor and enjoyed that enormously. But here are some easy things that have worked for me:

  • Asking each member of the class to make an appointment with me so that I can get to know them better and find out how to guide them to more opportunities at the school. Having two office hours a week, scheduled for your convenience, is not going to encourage students to come in. At Zenith, I had a colleague who held some office hours in the evening, so that students who were athletes, or in the arts, could just drop in like everyone else.
  • Reaching out to students getting B’s, and even C’s, to talk to them about their futures. It’s easy to spot the A student who is ambitious for graduate school: it’s not so easy to spot the B student who has never known anyone who has gotten a Ph.D., or who hasn’t had such a good education and is proud of those B’s and doesn’t yet know how to make them into A’s.
  • Hiring undergrads to do research, work on digital projects and events, or maintain the department blog. Every opportunity a student has to participate in the real work of academia gives them a glimpse of what a career might look like.
  • Students at the back of the room deserve attention too. Leave your podium and walk back there as you are lecturing. Look in their eyes, engage them, ask them questions.
  • Suggesting spontaneously that students drop by to talk for a reason *other* than your class — maybe an interest that could lead to an independent study, a volunteer project in the community, or an aspiration mentioned casually — this is an opportunity to meet that student where he or she is, not where you are.
  • Go to lunch with a group of students. David Montgomery, the labor historian, used to tell his undergrads he was available for lunch, and we took him up on it. It made us all feel so important to be seen with him. I never forgot that. Your school may even have a program to encourage students to engage faculty this way — but don’t expect your students to get over their shyness without help. Let them know that you are available.
  • Tell students who aren’t doing well something good about themselves.

Readers? Are you engaged in formal, or even the kinds of occasional, mentoring that I described?

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