Mentoring at Midcareer

by Joycelyn Moody, Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature Joycelyn.Moody@utsa.edu

Everyone needs mentoring. No stage or rank in the academy lies beyond a need for mentoring. We can all benefit from others’ perspectives and career experiences—no matter their status relative to ours. In fact, as Editor of African American Review, I relished arranging cross-rank mentoring for the peer-review process. I would ask junior professors and other newly minted doctorates to review submissions from senior faculty, my thinking being that not only are relative newbies often more up to date on research advancements, but they generally bring fresher eyes to manuscripts epitomizing years of scholarly knowledge and professional acumen.

My experiences with editing this way highlighted for me the value of peer mentoring; I’d like to see it orchestrated to occur more often in the academy. I think too many tenured faculty regard mentoring as drudgery or as needing to happen top-down, with the senior most member of a two-person mentoring structure, say, having all the knowledge to dispense and the junior most member hungrily drinking it in. Not so—for all kinds of reasons this scenario is erroneous and mythic. Good news: smarter options are available.

I’ll be talking about mentoring during my upcoming workshop on midcareer joy at Kennesaw State University. I’ll ask the participants to envision as one of the “next steps” on their career path a greater commitment to both receiving and providing mentoring. Reviewing materials on academic life at midcareer has been instructive for me; one thing I’ve learned is rejuvenation happens when we interact with others in our profession and specifically when we seize—and create—opportunities to exchange insights. Listening recently to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s 2014 Ted Talk entitled “The Psychology of Your Future Self,” I was struck by the role that other people play in our shifting selves: others are involved necessarily in who we are becoming and how we see ourselves growing (or worse, stalling). Flashes of midcareer joy burst within us during moments of positive, fertile exchanges with persons different from ourselves yet conversant in our professional discourses, be it how to schmooze an editor, how to challenge stereotypes, or how to lead a meeting.

My midcareer assessment workshop centers on a paradox I’ve stumbled on: many of us want a shake-up at midcareer (think midlife crisis) and so we seek it out, but the truth is we are always already changing. To live is to be in flux; to mentor or be mentored is to be mindful about the changes we observe, experience, or cultivate. Mentoring—influence—happens: it doesn’t require purposely connecting with others to learn or to share something new; it yields change, however, whether or not we heed others’ suggestions or models, or they ours.

I heard an excellent colloquium on the topic of mentoring a couple of years ago. At a convention in Denver, a panel of senior women academics spoke about their roles as mentors to other women academics in their lives. Two have stuck with me. One announced, “My husband and I have been married five times.” Their union, she went on to explain, has undergone a number of changes so significant that the partnership seemed in fact to form new marriages—rather than different stages of a single marriage. Academics legendarily relocate over the course of their careers for long terms and short: from the tenure track to tenured with promotion, periodically taking positions at different institutions, breaking for months of sabbaticals, spending weeks at a time in a summer seminar, feeling entrenched or unmoored for better or worse on a single campus. Such moves occasioned for this panelist transitions so profound as to create time and again a new marriage, a different kind of bond between herself and her spouse. They had been together some 25 years, she revealed, and it was clear the current “state” of their relationship was joyous indeed.

A second panelist was decidedly more incisive. She began defiantly: “But what are you gonna do for me?” And this provocation formed the refrain of her talk. For her, mentoring is definitely not a top-down, uni-directional initiative; instead, she insisted her audience (re)conceptualize mentoring to comprehend it as exchange, an exchange of labors and resources if not an even or equal reciprocation of counsel, service, time, energy, agency, and power. Most of us listening to her were pretty shaken up; we’d expected guidance, not confrontation. Yet I found her challenge akin to my persistent understanding of mentoring as (ideally) beneficial to both parties. “Gifting,” I have heard it called. Making space in our lives for receiving as well as sharing. The recognition that we do well when we consciously manage, rather than languidly accept, the inevitable changes as we evolve into our future selves. The trick is to transform inexorable change into conscious and chosen growth.

Here are a few suggestions for developing effective cross-rank mentoring relationships:

  • Surround your workspace with material reminders that attaining your current academic status required input from multiple mentors over the various stages of your career. Prominently display your framed diplomas, trophies, certificates, cards from admiring students, print photos and news clippings, etc. Such reminders can inspire your continued involvement in mentorships.
  • Seek out mentors directly and courteously: “I really admire your public speaking skills—so captivating! I’d like to invigorate my own presentation skills. Could I buy you a coffee? I’d appreciate any pointers you would be willing to share with me.”
  • Transform a colleague into an instant mentor by asking her to identify the next person (i.e., the next mentor) you should talk to about an item on your goal list.
  • Visualize reciprocity: identify overlaps in your own accomplishments and those of a mentor you want to engage. What specific steps have you taken, what plans devised that serve to enrich their scholastic and professional activities? Clarify ways you envision s/he’d benefit from sharing ideas with you over lunch.
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