Mentoring the Mentor

Mentoring has been one of my preferred activities as an academic.  I’ve been a mentor to graduate students, primarily as a dissertation advisor, since the late 1980s. Given my pleasure in the experience, I was taken aback by a book I recently found  in a funky B&B in upstate New York: Sylvia Hewlett’s (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. There were lots of other paperbacks left behind by previous guests, but this one I pocketed to read at home. I felt stung, of course, by the title’s negative injunction (what, forget me?), but also curious.

The topic of mentorship seems to be popping up everywhere these days, in wildly different professional contexts–in interviews, for example, with celebrities ranging from Mindy Kaling to the late Jeffrey Epstein. Mentoring is “your responsibility,” Kaling said of her practice in mentoring women of color. “Because there are so few of us,” she explained, her role extends well beyond any job description. How exactly financier Leslie Wexner played mentor to Epstein remains something of a mystery.

But let me stay with (Forget a Mentor). (Full disclosure: I take this personally.)

I bristled, I confess, at Hewlett’s  aggressively dismal portrayal of mentorship as “a one-way street…doomed to peter out: the mentee outgrows the mentor’s range of experience, the mentor moves on to needier novitiates.” The book proposes replacing the vulnerable mentor with the more dynamic sponsor. Both offer “advice, guidance, makes introductions, gives feedback,” but sponsorship is “transactional,” a “strategic alliance” based on a quid pro quo. It is the more effective relationship in corporate environments because sponsors go beyond empathy to create reciprocal ties. Whereas mentors, in Hewlett’s model, expect “very little in return,” sponsors expect payback. Literally. They are sponsors for what’s in it for them: performance, loyalty, and financial success that reflects well on them.

Hewlett’s claim that sponsorship makes the corporate wheels turn for a young person, especially a woman or member of a minority, is persuasive. But it’s less clear that sponsorship can or should work in a university—a setting that values mentorship–even though many universities now also emulate the structures of accountability and time management that shape the business world.

The crisis of employment and funding in the humanities might soon collapse some of the differences between the two domains. Take the example of “Speed Mentoring,” a recent experiment by a major academic association. Like speed dating, Speed Mentoring operated on the rhythm of timed encounters. In a friendly, café setting (food and drinks provided), the professors each sat alone at a table. The graduate students approached them one by one for an eight-minute conversation. Both professors and students were given what resembled a dance card that ordered the five successive rendez-vous, as the students whirled through the hour-long event.

I was a “speed mentor” for a day and can report that from my perspective the experiment was pleasant. I liked the students I met, though I have no idea what benefit, if any, they derived from their various conversations. Nor did I feel I had offered any useful advice. A student I happened to know from my home institution told me later that she had enjoyed this opportunity to “network,” an important step that Hewlett recommends in finding a sponsor.

My disappointment, it turns out, was not shared. In their fall newsletter, the organization reported that 90% of the participants say “they would highly recommend the event to colleagues.” Future Speed Mentoring gatherings are planned because they offer graduate students “invaluable professional development.” In other words, mentorship morphed into a version of sponsorship.

So is old-fashioned mentorship also doomed in academia? Should it be? Perhaps, if we accept the model on such terms. But there are other ways to understand the mentor/mentee relationship. Mentoring can have benefits for both—independent of climbing the ladder of success—if we resist the move toward speedy “deliverables,” and imagine instead the relationship, as a bond that develops by affinity over time.

This runs counter to the view of mentorship as an “asymmetric relationship,” in which the energy flows only one way: “toward you.” On the contrary, mentorship in academia is often not only reciprocal, but, in the most rewarding situations, a reversible process. Thanks to my brilliant students, I’ve entered realms of scholarship where I’d never have ventured on my own, like the study of graphic narratives. The students I’ve worked with—I confess that I don’t think of them as mentees—have also become co-editors on book projects, and have on occasion edited me.

Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s recent manifesto, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, promotes values that resist corporate standards and pressures. Key to transforming academic culture, they argue, is the recognition of collaboration.

Mentoring, in its best use, is exactly that, an act of collaboration. It’s a two-way street: rather than seeing the relationship founder because of the mentee’s success, the mentee might come to mentor the mentor. Or simply the mentor might take pleasure in watching that success—their books and prizes and professorships. We might imagine a new kind of connection, in which the transfer of knowledge at the heart of mentorship would flow both ways, though in a different rhythm. I know this to be true.

Nancy K. Miller is the author of My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism

Featured image: Robert Rauschenberg, Rhyme, 1956.