Taking a student or a colleague under your wing, nurturing, guiding, and having the privilege of sharing your knowledge and networks with them has been the most rewarding part of my 40-year academic career. The gift of mentoring is hard-wired into the fabric of academia. Progression through university and into a job in academia is steeped in the ancient art of apprenticeship. Developing your skills and confidence while (quite literally in days of yore) sitting at the foot of the ‘master’. Nowadays there is the more reciprocal and inclusive ‘learning by doing’ as developed by African American women to mentor the next generation of civil rights activists.
What is academic mentoring?
Mentoring is a deep dive into more than just teaching. Developing kind, honest but challenging relationships with the aim of building capacity and opening doors for the mentee can be a lifelong commitment. The first time I was expected to mentor a student was 1988. I was teaching ‘Sociology of the Family’ at an Ivy League university in the USA. An enormous ‘jock’ (rooky American footballer) ambled into my room, broke down and wept. The course had triggered deep emotional sensibilities within him. New to the game, with little experience I took solace in the powerful wisdom of Black Feminist and Buddhist, the late bell hooks who counselled, “Our work as teachers is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students…to nurture their souls.” She calls this the process of ‘self-actualisation’. Empowering your mentee /student to discover possibilities already deep within themselves. After a term, he left understanding the family dynamics that had pained him so much. But take note mentoring is not therapy. It is putting theory into practice, be that STEM, social science, arts and humanities. Our task as mentors is to enable the student to reflect and evaluate their path drawing on the richness of these academic frameworks as the peg to hang their passion. The main takeaway is to go with the flow and interests of the mentee. Take your cue from them, listen, nurture, guide and suggest, never impose, and tell. Ultimately, they are in control of their own destiny, and you are but the conduit.
Pathways into mentoring
There are many ways to mentor. Most typically, as an extension of the teaching role, students are allotted to you as a tutor. This is it is the first step into academic mentoring for early career researchers (ECRs). The very nature of PhD supervision means doctoral students and examinees have naturally become my mentees. I give them 360-degree support in their professional and personal development. A phone call late at night or a long email with advice. Commenting on their drafts and using my networks to introduce them to publishers, and most of all writing references for jobs and PhD funding. I have even recommended my mentees for debates and TV shows. I nominated my Malaysian Muslim MA student to go head-to-head with the formidable Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi in a heated public debate on Islam and the veil. It was a risk, but I trusted my instinct believing in the student’s untested intellectual prowess. Sparks flew and she held her own. When Nawal recently died she texted me, “Though I was shaking in my boots you were there so I felt safe to ask my question, ‘can I be religious and feminist at the same time?’ It sparked my own soul searching ever since’.
The key to mentoring is generosity of time and patience. It’s not always easy to listen to others when the chips are down on your own deadlines. It is a commitment from the heart that extends outside the true hours of our teaching contract. It’s an issue, but what is the point of being in higher education if it is not to pass on the baton and see our mentees flourish! I hear about their babies, get invited to weddings. I’ve even been adopted by the family of one of my fellow Trinidadian doctoral mentees. I cannot go home to Trinidad without his mother cooking me a special Caribbean dinner, especially on Christmas day. Several of my PhD students have gone on to be internationally acclaimed professors, collaborators in joint research and best friends. We even go on holiday together.
Top tips for successful mentoring
Strive for equality, diversity, inclusion and fairness
Mentoring is not just about the feel-good factor. It is a powerful but not always equitable mechanism of transference of privilege and know-how from one generation to the next. For example, a mentor may choose ‘favourites’, those who look like them with the same interests. Personal relationships are laced with sexism, racism, classism and disablism. That’s why as mentors we have to draw the line carefully in terms of seeking equality, diversity and inclusion in all we do. Not simply seek mirror images of ourselves. I have been mentored by wonderful colleagues, many of the first generation of women to enter the mass higher education in the 1970s. I would not be a professor today without their guidance generosity and creation of opportunities for me to grow. One of my mentors, a powerful feminist, used to recommend me to sit on academic committees, national research councils and journal editorial boards. She believed in me wholeheartedly and used her influence to open doors in a very white masculine world. Though I was nervous about the trust she placed in me I knew I could not let her down. There you have it! Self-actualisation in the making.
Be more than a role model:
There are many forms of mentoring. Inspirational is the most rewarding. Sharing your passion and igniting the burning flame in others. The singer Adele’s school teacher inspired her love of literature and left her speechless and tearful when Ms Macdonald appeared on stage with her at the London Palladium. So many individuals make an unknown difference in the classroom passing on their passion for their art. Mentoring has long been used to attract teachers into teaching. On the Schools Standards Task Force I worked with the film director David Putnam (Chariots of Fire) who devised the emotional ad campaign ‘no one forgets a good teacher’. Here celebrities name the one teacher that believed in them and set them on their journey. It pulls on the heartstrings to think that the simple recognition of a young person’s potential, a kind word of encouragement, and small expenditure of time lives on in the lives of our mentees. We live vicariously through their success. I am so proud of my daughter who has flourished in her research career, and my god-daughter Candice Carty-Williams who has achieved the heights of being the Costa book of the year with Queenie. I remember how they both lapped up the Black Feminist books on my shelves as I typed away on my thesis in the 1980s. I was mentoring by osmosis (which is good parenting really).
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Mentoring is not all hunky-dory and can end up being more ‘give than take’. Boundaries and knowing the rules of the game is so important. What starts out as mentoring can get blurred if the ground rules are not set. In asymmetrical power relationships such as mentoring a student, junior colleague or mentee can be vulnerable. The mentoring relationship can become intense and occasionally breach the borders of acceptable behaviour. If this happens organisations such as the 1752 group are working with universities to ensure clear guidelines, procedures, and access to research that is helpful to those working in the sector. Mentors can also fall victim to over dependant or litigious mentees. In either case seek physical and psychological safety in those you trust and, in my experience, move mentor or mentee as soon as you can. Mentors have a duty of care to their mentees as do institutions to their staff and students
Gender and Work-life
In an industry that values research and publications as the key to career progression, the ‘slow culture’ of mentoring can fall off the agenda. We have lost the dubious tradition of introducing students to the middle-class cultural capital of their tutors at cheese and wine parties hosted in the tutor’s house dutifully served by ‘his’ wife! Now tutorials are strictly time controlled in the office, or now, post-covid, online. Supervisors and tutees barely get time to develop a deep mentoring relationship. I have observed women are naturally expected to fall into mentoring as an extension of their ‘caring’ role. In my case, it is compounded as students of colour seek me out hoping to get the much-needed support they crave. A ‘failing’ student was sent to me in a last-ditch effort as I was the only woman of colour in the department who could understand the postcolonial perspectives she wanted to explore in her dissertation on films in Hong Kong. We had fun bouncing our mutual curiosity and excitement off each other. She taught me as much about films from the global south as I taught her about how to structure her dissertation. She excelled on to influence international cinema including the Edinburgh festival.
Leave a Legacy
At the Festschrift to celebrate his life’s work, Stuart Hall, our preeminent Black social theorist in Britain was asked to sum up his legacy at the end of his academic journey. Unequivocally he said, ‘being a teacher and a guide’. Sitting in the audience, these simple words made an impression on me that he chose, not his outstanding contribution to social theory but the humble task of teaching and giving back. That is the power of mentoring. Its addictive quality is the joy that resides in the humanity of the task. At is its core is the development of mutual relationships where you give encouragement advice and guidance and get back the intangible satisfaction of seeing someone grow and flourish… and finally fly.
As if a sign from above, as I write this blog, Jimmy Durante is on the radio singing ‘Just make someone happy – and you will be happy too.’ Thank you, Professor Hall – I will pass on your message!
For other articles from women leaders see:
- Women in Higher Education
- Women Leaders in Higher Education – Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell
- Women Leaders in Higher Education – Professor Christina Hughes
- Women Leaders in Higher Education – Professor Chris Ennew OBE