Mentoring is a Fantasy

A fantasy landscape with a castle, Loch Ness monster, flying beast, and more.Towards the end of grad school, I learned a key lesson about academia. I was discussing a draft of a dissertation chapter with my second reader. Although not my adviser, her work was critical for the arguments that I was building about psychological trauma and technology. Toward the end of the conversation, she said something to the effect of, “You know, this chapter could really use more Heidegger.” Inside, my heart sunk a bit. “Great,” I thought, “more to read. And from an author whose work I don’t really know.” But I dutifully wrote, “More Heidegger,” in the margin of a page, and after the meeting, I checked out a copy of The Question Concerning Technology.

I read Heidegger and tried to understand how his views on technology fit into his and my larger projects. It wasn’t especially easy going. And perhaps in the third day of thinking about Heidegger, I had an epiphany that was perhaps closer to dasein than technology. As I came to see it, her comments were not so much about the dissertation that I was writing so much as they were about what the dissertation would be if she were writing it. Her comments were built on her wide knowledge of continental philosophy and the fact that she really could have deployed Heidegger effectively in the argument. But it wasn’t reflective of the reality of what I was going to be able to produce at this point in my career. I dropped Heidegger from all but a half sentence in my introduction, and my reader never brought it up again.

The key lesson that I learned in this interaction is that mentoring is a fantasy, understood in the psychoanalytic sense. When mentors interact with us, their advice frequently comes from a place that reflects what they would do in our situations more than what we can do, given our own specific reality. My adviser had a fantasy version of my dissertation in her head that I simply couldn’t produce. (Her version might very well have been the better version, but that didn’t have much to do with what I was going to write.)

Importantly, this moment helped me realize not just my mentors’ unrealistic expectations of me but also to see that I often had fantastical expectations of my advisers. The frustration that I felt when I turned in a draft of my first chapter and didn’t have comments within two weeks had everything to do with how I thought the relationship would and should work. Recognizing my expectations as the fantasies they in fact were allowed me to let go of some of what had been hardest for me in the process of writing my dissertation.

Now, by suggesting that mentoring is a fantasy, I don’t want to suggest that graduate students can ignore every piece of advice received from a mentor. Nor do I want to excuse mentors from doing their very best to steer those they advise as best as possible. Two of the things that we do poorly in the academy, generally, are 1) advising our students or colleagues and 2) taking that advice. We can and should do a better job. If you need suggestions, just consider some other ProfHacker posts on mentoring. Jason’s “Four Points about Mentoring for the First Time” and Jeff’s “Why Not Set up a Formal New Faculty Mentoring Program?” would be excellent places to start.

But all this being said, it’s important to recognize that a mentor’s and a mentee’s goals may not always align, despite the best intentions of those individuals. Knowing and acknowledging this ahead of time (even if only to yourself) will help make these interactions all the more productive. What about you? What tips do you have for negotiating mentor / menthe relationships? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Fantasy Castle / RL Fantasy /

FWIW, Alternate image choices included a wizard duel and this strange beast.

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