In an increasingly complex academic environment, the traditional model of a single mentor may no longer be realistic. As faculty members, our professional success and personal well-being rely largely on our ability to excel at teaching and research, support our students and advisees, understand expectations for performance, develop substantive collegial relationships, and create a balance between work and life. Given the wide range of demands in today’s academic environment, a variety of mentoring partners—each of whom brings unique expertise and experience to a particular area—is more likely to provide the largest possible “safety net” across career competencies. These multiple mentors don’t need to substitute for a single mentor but, rather, can add to and enhance a close, core relationship. Our experience tells us that combining both the traditional and network models of mentoring can build upon the strengths of each.
What Characterizes Mutual Mentoring?
A Mutual Mentoring network is typically characterized by the following:
- mentoring partnerships that include a wide variety of individuals—peers, near peers, tenured faculty, chairs, administrators, librarians, students, and others;
- mentoring approaches that accommodate the partners’ personal, cultural, and professional preferences for contact (e.g., one-on-one, small group, team, and/or online);
- partnerships that focus on specific areas of experience and expertise, rather than generalized, “one-size-fits-all” knowledge;
- a reciprocity of benefits between the person traditionally known as the “protégé” and the person traditionally known as the “mentor;” and
- perhaps most importantly, new and under-represented faculty members who are not seen or treated solely as the recipients of mentoring, but as the primary agents of their own career development.
How Can You Build Your Own Mutual Mentoring Network on Campus?
Some good first steps to create a Mutual Mentoring network of your own include the following:
- If your department already has a formal mentoring program in place, take advantage of it, but keep in mind that the mentor chosen for you, or by you, as part of this program should not be your only source of professional support.
- Ask some key colleagues whom they think you should approach about your specific subjects of interest. Keep in mind that there are many different ways that you can “click” with a mentoring partner. Who teaches classes similar in size to yours? Who uses a particular classroom technology that you’re interested in adopting? Who seems like the best overall personality match?
- Identify near peers (colleagues who are close to your career level). Near peers can be particularly valuable because their experiences as newcomers are still reasonably fresh. Helpful “global” questions to ask near peers include: What do you wish you would have known when you first arrived? What is the most valuable thing you’ve done in support of your teaching?
- Look for mentoring partners outside the faculty ranks. A talented, tech-savvy student may help you navigate a new class management system, while a librarian specializing in your discipline may be able to recommend hard-to-find resources.
What Might an On-Campus Mentoring Partnership Look Like?
Since launching the Mutual Mentoring initiative in 2007, we’ve seen some creative examples of on-campus mentoring partnerships, including the following:
- An assistant professor of nursing worked on the development of a new model for Web-based mentoring of online/distance education students. As part of her project, she met regularly for small group mentoring with “near peer” and senior colleagues in her school, and also worked one-on-one with a course design consultant.
- Two assistant professors in English established a peer writing partnership to work on their respective book proposals and book manuscripts. They met twice monthly to give each other feedback and track their writing progress, and also worked with a writing coach who advised them on editing and preparing their manuscripts for submission.
- Eight assistant professors of sociology developed a peer mentoring group to supplement an existing departmental mentoring program. These junior faculty come together around issues of teaching, research, and professional development, assign books to read as a group, and support each other as newcomers “learning the ropes” at our university.
- An assistant professor of communication disorders organized a mentoring group consisting of junior and senior faculty (both in and outside of his department) to work on an external research grant. He attended a grant proposal workshop as part of a national conference and brought back grant writing ideas and feedback to his mentoring partners.
How To Expand Your Mutual Mentoring Network
Mutual Mentoring isn’t limited to having great mentors down the hall, or even in the same building. Great mentors can be found far and wide. Once you’ve developed a core group of mentoring partners on your campus, you may wish to look beyond it and consider different ways to expand your network.
- Take advantage of proximity by reaching out to potential mentoring partners at campuses in your geographic area. This can be especially helpful if your department is small, hasn’t hired in recent years, or lacks a cohort of near peers or senior colleagues for you to work with.
- Identify external scholars and teachers whose academic interests significantly overlap your own. If approached properly, these individuals can often introduce you to a broader network of colleagues able to support your professional development.
- Ask a respected senior colleague if he/she would be willing to introduce you—either in person or writing—to an external scholar to whom you wish to reach out. You can also research the conferences where these external colleagues may be presenting and arrange to attend yourself.
- Don’t be shy about contacting an external scholar to request a quick meeting during a conference. People are busy at these events, but put yourself in their place and imagine the compliment of being sought out by someone who admires and appreciates your work.
An External Mentoring Partnership
Here are some examples of ways faculty at UMass Amherst have expanded their Mutual Mentoring networks off campus.
- A cross-disciplinary group of UMass faculty teaching Asian and Asian Pacific Studies created a mentoring network of colleagues who teach the same subjects at four liberal arts colleges in the area. This group meets monthly for topic-driven discussions on teaching, research, and tenure. The group includes UMass graduate students hoping to secure faculty positions in Asian and Asian Pacific Studies as well.
- One of our assistant professors of art, architecture, and art history chose a professor/artist/critic/curator at a New York university as her external mentoring partner. During a visit to UMass, the mentoring partner assisted our new faculty member with studio critiques for her students, met with junior and senior colleagues in her department, and gave a public talk.
- Our political science department supplemented its on-campus mentoring efforts by encouraging new faculty to choose off-campus mentoring partners who could help them begin to network nationally within their subfield. Some of these mentors are faculty members at other regional campuses, and some teach at universities and colleges across the nation. The department provides modest funds for new faculty members to visit the campus of their external mentoring partners, or to invite their external mentoring partners to come to UMass.
- One of our assistant professors of biology arranged to visit the laboratory and classroom of a nationally recognized senior colleague at a university in Texas. During her visit, she received one-on-one training in lab techniques that she plans to use in a future field study. When she returned to UMass, she also trained her students and teaching assistants in the same techniques.