Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Faculty Mentoring?

I sometimes feel a bit cut off from "the outside world."  Partly it's being really busy with work, partly living where I want to go play in the snow, and where most folks in the US think of us only as "flyover country."  So I've been vaguely aware of the cheating scandal thing, but since the closest I've been to Harvard is probably either Logan Airport or downtown Boston (whichever is closer), I haven't put my energy into following it closely.  (On the other hand, I've had a common redpoll at my feeder!)

But Flavia over at Ferule and Fescue talks about the issue of faculty mentoring, and how she's moving from being mentored to being a mentor, and she got me thinking.

I'm wondering how good a job we (broadly speaking, as well as at my own institution) do at mentoring.  My guess is, we here mostly don't do a great job.

Partly, this is a balance of respecting new faculty members' academic freedom to teach and do their work.  Partly, this is everyone feeling overwhelmed by work.

I know there was one case here where a faculty member was having serious, near disastrous, difficulties teaching.  It became apparent during a first year review, as I recall.  At that point, several faculty members pointedly took on specific mentoring roles.  They met with the new person to make sure expectations were clear, shared course stuff (when they'd taught the same classes), and so on.

But mostly, as far as teaching, we observe tenure track people, look at their evaluations (with a sense that these aren't the best measure of teaching), read their course stuff.  Then, if we're doing our job well, we give them developmental feedback.  But if everything looks more or less okay, we pretty much stand back.

So, I don't think we'd necessarily recognize that teacher X was giving almost everyone easy As, so long as the paperwork looked okay and the student evals didn't seem alarming.

My question is, what makes good mentoring of teaching, specifically?

What's most helpful to newer teachers?

How do we do a good job balancing our respect for their expertise, our busyness, and what might be helpful interventions?


  1. Anonymous7:48 AM

    I was a dissertation writing fellow at a liberal arts college and part of my fellowship required that I teach one class. The department chair told me that I was welcome to observe his class and he shared some of his teaching materials with me. I went to his class three times during the semester before I taught my own. I think having that open invitation helped and observing his class helped me get a sense of how things were done there. That was most helpful to me as a new teacher.

  2. I think livingacademically is right that the best kind of mentoring involves giving a junior faculty member a sense of the range of the normal or of the possible. It's surprisingly how little we see other people teach, so just sitting in on a few classes--ideally taught by different people--can be really illuminating without putting anyone on the defensive or implying any criticisms. (Our chair does do observations of all the TT faculty, usually once a year, and mentors usually offer to do the same, esp. if they're in an adjacent field.)

    I have a mentee who has never taught in (and wasn't educated in) the States, and so doesn't fully understand how our grading scale works--i.e., is a "C" really "average"? S/he was also concerned about his/her evaluation scores (which are not at all intuitive or self-interpreting--we have a really unusual system).

    We had a long talk about this, and then I send my mentee a document with all my grade ranges and all my evaluation scores for the past six years, and suggested other people who might be willing to share that information. I also sent along the kinds of grading rubrics I've used in different classes. I didn't ask about his/her grade ranges or scores, because it's none of my business. But mentoring by sharing our own teaching experiences can help give junior faculty useful context for theirs.

    We also mentor junior faculty on scholarship, but that's a different post.

  3. Anonymous4:42 PM

    I agree with Flavia that just initiating conversations and keeping an open door (and an open mind) can help. Also, be clear that senior faculty understand that it takes time for everyone to develop hir own personal style, and so don't expect perfection in year one. However, one can make it clear that some gestures towards improvement should be clearly demonstrated and documented.

    I am commenting anonymously this time because I have seen earnest efforts to mentor a junior colleague be completely resisted by said junior colleague. As you can imagine, hir employment was terminated before tenure. I am ordinarily on the side of junior faculty, but when junior faculty fail to respond to attempts at mentoring, then clearly the senior faculty are not entirely to blame for a tenure denial.undiT

  4. I took a cue from you and Flavia and wrote a post about mentoring today, after having my class observed yesterday by my boss.

    I think that mentoring can be so helpful and amazing. We just all need to think about how we can do that effectively. No easy answers here...

  5. I think the first task that should be required of a mentor is to "guest" teach one of the mentee's classes. If a mentor won't teach a mentee's class so the mentee can observe and take notes on instructional strategies, then that person should NOT be mentoring anyone else.

    My dad always did that with new faculty. He invited them to observe as often as they liked in his classes and then he taught one or more of the new faculty member's classes to demonstrate effective instructional strategies. All the students knew was that Dr. S was guest lecturing on such and such day. It was an awesome way to provide new faculty with a starting place to develop their own personal teaching methodology.

    I have no respect for a so-called mentor who won't teach any class their mentee has been assigned to teach. If someone is good enough to be a mentor, then that someone should be able to guest lecture in mentees' classes.

    Sorry this is one of my pet peeves. I absolutely detest when someone "mentors" me who doesn't teach anywhere near as well as I do.

  6. I see mentoring as a much broader project: not just teaching (although that is a large part, it is also the part new teaches might be most vulnerable about), but also the normal service aspect. RNU has a great center for teaching & learning, but the mentors are assigned to people in areas they have little contact with: for example, one year I mentored a chem prof, another year a music prof, and this year a librarian. The chem prof was a very experienced teacher and had a very supportive department to help with the ins & outs of service and committee stuff. No way could I have taught one of hir classes! But I simply offered outside-the-department support, attended the same teaching workshops, etc. That's what zie wanted. The music prof never made contact; had no interest in even meeting. The librarian and I get along great - but zie has no classes, so again, I just offer whatever support zie wants. We've even talked about Librarian coming in and teaching a section of my class, just to keep hir teaching skills sharp.

    Mentoring means such different things to different people. I would still like to have a mentor re: getting my work published!