However, I'm still figuring out what it means to be a mentor, and I'm sorting through my own conflicting impulses: it's possible that I'm just looking for disciples to impress and for occasions to wax oracular. But it's also true that we all gain real, pragmatic wisdom as we move through grad school and our first years on a job, and that shit's wasted if we don't share it.
It's not just our grad students or junior colleagues who suffer if we don't share what we've learned; it's our students and our departments, and more broadly our profession. A blogger near and dear to my heart makes this case compellingly in one of the more interesting treatments I've read of the Harvard cheating scandal. Dr. Cleveland suggests that we read that scandal, at least partly, as one in which a junior faculty member was poorly mentored, or rejected mentoring, or both:
New PhDs do not turn into fully professional members of the faculty overnight, or by themselves. It is the responsibility of a junior professor's senior colleagues to guide her or his professional development. . . . Mentoring junior colleagues is not simply part of an obligation to the colleagues themselves, but to the students. If you put students in a classroom with a relatively inexperienced teacher and you give that teacher no professional feedback or guidance, bad things can happen. In this case, bad things did. A large lecture class ended with at least a quarter of the students suspended and more on probation. The school has taken a beating in the press. And a promising young scholar's career has crashed and burned so badly that I can smell the smoke from here. My question is: where were this person's senior colleagues? Where was his department chair? What advice were these people giving him?
[. . . .]
[E]xactly what was said to him about teaching is an open question. He would almost certainly have been told both that his teaching should be good, whatever "good" means, but also that he should be careful not to spend so much time on teaching that his research suffered. Teach well, but budget the time you spend teaching. That's already a pretty complicated message for a brand-new professor who's working up all his courses from scratch and learning to teach completely new kinds of courses. (No graduate student oversees a course with hundreds of undergrads and a team of teaching assistants.) But then the really thorny question: what does the university mean when it says good teaching? What actual benchmarks does that imply?
Is the goal to keep your teaching evaluation numbers high? That goal could pretty easily lead a new faculty member to turn a large lecture course into popular gut for students seeking easy A's. And teaching such a course would also be less time-consuming, for someone being urged to protect his weekly research time, than teaching a class with more challenging assignments and tougher expectations. So a young teacher creating a popular if notoriously easy class might think he was acting on the advice he had been given. On the other hand, a young teacher developing a reputation as a soft grader might also get pushback from his colleagues, and be urged to shed that reputation. Even at a school where grade-inflation is the norm, standing out as an easier-than-normal grader is risky.
There's more, but I'll let you read it on your own. Most of us don't teach at institutions with the kinds of pressures this particular professor was facing--or where the consequences of screwing up a class would be so dire or so public--but it's worth thinking about the ways in which our colleagues' successes and failures are also, to some degree, our own.