Monday, February 04, 2013

Mentoring junior faculty

As several of my recent posts have suggested, I'm increasingly preoccupied with the question of mentorship--and, these days, I'm more interested in the giving end than the receiving. (Which isn't to say that I don't still need mentors myself, because God knows I'll attach myself with burr-like tenacity to anyone who shows the slightest willingness to play that role.)

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.


Comrade Physioprof said...

I was only vaguely aware of what had transpired at Harvard until now. What a motherfucken fiasco!! It sounds to me like a lot of those students got fucken railroaded.

Flavia said...


It's a total fiasco. It's clear that some students cheated extensively and knowingly (the NYT article--which I forgot to link to initially, but now have--suggests the institution tried, as best as it was able after the fact, to determine degrees of culpability), but there's a lot of murky middle ground. And there's more than enough blame to go around.

QueSera said...

While I'm glad Dr. Cleveland is protecting the identity of the professor involved, I do think that race adds another dimension to the discussion. I hope the prof involved is able to find a new position and get solid mentorship there. Thanks for the advice on mentoring. I paid attention in my interviews and have a good sense for just how differently schools run things. I will seek out my colleague' advice and listen as I begin my career.

Flavia said...


Yes, it's hard to believe that race isn't a part of the story. Without knowing more, it's hard to say exactly how that affected the mentorship he did or didn't get, but I'd be willing to bet that it's in there somewhere. (It could be the reason the professor was given such a big and high-profile class at such an early stage in his career--the department wanted to show off a diverse face at the front of the room--and judgments about his success or failure may also be inflected by his race.)

We need to mentor all our juniors well, but it's worth being vigilant about whatever subconscious expectations and assumptions we have about those who are different from us (whatever that means--things like gender, class, and different domestic/life choices, can also impact how well we relate to/support our colleagues).

Flavia said...

Oh, and good luck with your career and your mentors!

life_of_a_fool said...

Ahhh, this post led to me going down the rabbit hole late last night of reading all about this case. It sounds like a disaster on so many levels (including, similar to the need to mentor junior faculty, how the teaching fellows were supervised/instructed!!) It has also led me to thinking about all sorts of related issues, from mentoring to my own class management strategies.

Also, as someone who was recently tenured and is in a department with A LOT of junior faculty, I've also been thinking a lot about mentoring and my role in that. Lots to think about.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks for the link, Flavia.

It's totally a fiasco, and race has certainly been a factor, especially in some of the reactions. Some of the calls to put all the blame on the professor have been racially coded.

And what I left out of my post is that almost every department ends up sending some mixed signals to the junior faculty it mentors, simply because the mentoring is done by multiple people with multiple perspectives. I certainly had to learn to filter advice that I was given as an assistant professor; some of that advice was well-intentioned and from a certain viewpoint eminently reasonable, but I would be very sorry now if I had taken it.

Contingent Cassandra said...

The other complication is that, for all that the structure of reviews, etc., which Dr. Cleveland describes exists, in practice Harvard very rarely tenures its junior faculty. Taking an assistant professorship at Harvard basically means taking an unusually long postdoc that will likely ultimately result in employment elsewhere. And that employment will be earned on the basis of what you publish while at Harvard (not your teaching).

And yes, this makes it even easier for Harvard to essentially use up and throw away minority professors than if it were actually trying to tenure them. When I was in grad school at a similar institution, I mostly saw such professors staggering under a crushing service load (being the token on umpteen committees), but teaching this kind of large, popular course could have a similar effect.

Disillusioned Grad Student said...

My opinion of mentoring has changed radically since I read this post a few hours ago: at the time, I fully agreed with you, Flavia, about the failures of mentoring in this case and in academia in general. Now, my thoughts have changed: a few hours ago I received an informal notification from someone whom I'd considered a friend and mentor, telling me that she was now planning to write her next book on the idea that I've worked on for the past year: it's an obscure idea, not a well-developed subfield, and I know it's not something that would have ever occurred to my mentor had I not spent the past year discussing my ideas with her. So yes, I just got burned academically in the most old-fashioned way possible--I've had a mentor steal an idea, who's now going to try to pass it off as her own.

One result of this unpleasant experience is that it's made me re-think mentoring relationships: what recourse does the mentee have if the relationship goes badly, or if the mentor begins to take some kind of advantage? At minimum, I'm going to be very careful what I do and don't say to any potential mentors (or even friends) in my field from now on. It's possible that the young professor in the Harvard scandal had his own reasons, whether or not they were justified, for not trusting or communicating with his mentors. It doesn't excuse his actions or incompetency, but if experiences like mine are as widespread as they are rumored to be, no wonder a young, untenured professor didn't go to his mentors for help, or possibly ignored any offers of help which came his way: not only might they not have been all that helpful, but in his mind, maybe what he said could have been used against him. Of course, in this case, the mentee ended up in about the worst possible scenario anyway: maybe, though, if we could all be confident that any mentoring would be done with the generous spirit it should be, then more people might be more willing to both offer and accept it.

PS. Long post, I know, but I just wanted to add that I'm an occasional commenter on this blog, but I'm going to use a different handle than usual because of the sensitivity of this post.

Flavia said...


First of all, wow. I'm so sorry that that happened to you--and I'd love any advice that my readers might have for how to deal with this situation.

But I don't think this actually contradicts the larger message of my post or of Dr. Cleveland's. STEALING SOMEONE'S IDEAS is obviously an example of a failure of mentorship! As Dr. C. notes above, not all mentors are good mentors. Some are incompetent, others are well-intentioned but ultimately not helpful, and some may actually involve some kind of sabotage. His original post certainly suggests that the professor at Harvard may have been getting very bad (or at least unhelpful) advice--and whether that's the result of negligence or something more sinister ultimately doesn't matter.

His point, and mine, isn't that mentees must take their mentors' advice, or that mentors always have their mentees' best interests at heart. It's that that mentoring is a serious responsibility, that it should concern all of us, and we should regard our mentees' successes and failures as at least potentially and partly a reflection on us.

Disillusioned Grad Student said...

Thanks for the sympathy, Flavia. And yes, I'd love any advice anyone might have for how to deal--or not--with it. At the moment I'm still reeling, partially with shock that it actually happened: I'd always thought the "more established person steals junior person's ideas" thing was something of an academic urban legend, or at least something that didn't happen much anymore--that is, something that gets talked about as a worst-case scenario but rarely occurred in real life.

I think, though, in terms of this thread's conversation about mentoring, what it exposed to me is the dangers of mentoring in the power structures in which it takes place: if, as you and Dr Cleveland argue, one cause of the Harvard scandal was mentoring failure, it's a failure that's rebounding on disproportionately on the young professor (who does, in this case, bear some responsibility anyway for teaching a bad class); he's being fired, but the senior faculty who failed to mentor him properly, in your scenario, are at most going to go through a period of departmental soul-searching. Harvard's reputation is unlikely to be seriously damaged, but the young professor's career is going down in flames.

I also don't know if this is a solvable problem, or just one of the darker side effects of being part of any kind of hierarchical institution.

Disillusioned Grad Student said...

To clarify, it sounds to me like in the case of the Harvard cheating scandal the professor in question, no matter how junior, does bear most of the responsibility for his class; I don't think there's much doubt about that. But if we consider situations in which a mentee may be in a bad situation purely because of the actions of the mentor (as in my case-- though I suppose I bear the responsibility of trusting the wrong person), then the imbalance of power becomes much more obvious, and, from my perspective, there's not much a mentee can do about it.