• July 23, 2014

From 'Old Boys' to Mentors

Nobody talked about mentoring when I was a doctoral student in the history department at Columbia University from 1967 to 1972. Then, the process of socialization into the world of academic professionals was hit or miss. No faculty member ever suggested I give a paper at a conference or offered to help turn an essay into an article. No one provided advice about the job market. Nor did my adviser ever give me a behind-the-scenes look at what he did professionally.

It never occurred to me to complain (though it did irk me a few years later, when I applied for what became my first job, an assistant professorship in history and American studies at Amherst College, and learned that the Columbia history department had nominated another grad student as its "official" candidate for the position, a designation I hadn't known existed and for which I had been given no opportunity to compete). My peers were equally silent on the matter. Yet the indifference of the faculty to our professional fate did have consequences -- most dramatically, the Columbia student rebellion of 1968, in which graduate students in the humanities played a prominent part. Although that uprising centered on political issues -- the war in Vietnam and racism -- there is no doubt that students at all levels felt a profound alienation from the university. A failure of mentoring, in my view, was one pertinent cause.

Perhaps my experience is the exception. To hear others tell it, an "old boys' club" ran universities and the academic professions well into the 1970s, and if you were lucky enough to win admission into the club, you got the mentoring -- or more precisely, the patron-client relationship -- at the heart of the master-apprentice model. That system of favoritism excluded women and members of minority groups and quite a few white males as well. But it fell apart in the early 1970s, when the academic job market abruptly collapsed, the victim of recession and government cutbacks, never again to recover the resiliency of the boom years of university expansion at the height of the cold war.

Suddenly, the patronage dried up, and the "old boys" had few plums to dispose. That Columbia was nominating official candidates for jobs was one measure of the change: With so many doctoral candidates and so few positions, colleges felt compelled to open up the competition for spaces and to run nationally advertised searches to fill them. The Columbia faculty, like that of other elite institutions, clung to the hope that its imprimatur mattered -- that it could do formally as a group what no "old boy" could accomplish informally on his own. Happily, from my perspective, it was wrong. But without favors to dispense, what were advisers to do?

Today, talk about mentoring is ubiquitous in virtually every field, and at all levels of education. It would be comforting to suggest that the job crisis of the 1970s set in motion this change, that in the face of declining opportunities for people with Ph.D.'s, graduate faculty members reexamined their roles and began reforming their practices. But that would be incorrect. To judge from the attention to "mentors and mentoring" in "higher education" that is evident in the annual list of publications indexed in the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) database, hardly anybody was writing about this subject in the 1970s: a mere 33 articles appeared in that decade. Then the topic took off: 230 pieces in 1980-84; 597 in 1985-89; 1,051 in 1990-94; 1,524 in 1995-99.

How do we explain this explosive growth? Was it caused by a rise in student activism? That seems unlikely; if anything, universities became quiescent in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with the radicalism of the '60s. Did it reflect the entry into academe of "tenured radicals," who seized the opportunity to redress the grievances they had endured in their professional training? Equally unlikely and self-serving. Does it constitute a response to significant changes in graduate education? Actually, that system remains little changed from the basic model adopted more than a century ago.

The explanation for the new emphasis on mentors lies elsewhere. It derives from the rising numbers of female and minority students gaining access to the academy and discovering themselves on unfamiliar ground. The titles of the articles on the topic make this clear: "Women in Academia: Faculty Sponsorship, Informal Social Structures and Career Success;" "Hidden Rules, Secret Agendas: Challenges Facing Contemporary Women Doctoral Students;" "Mentoring: An Effective Tool for Retention of Minorities." It was one thing for female and minority Ph.D.'s to enter an arena from which they had previously been excluded, quite another to find their way through a maze of informal practices that was often impenetrable even to white males. The absence of female and minority role models on the faculty made that progress all the more difficult.

Under such circumstances, there was good reason to bring the obscure process of professional preparation into the light, to expose it to critical scrutiny, and to regularize its practices. What began with efforts to facilitate graduate education for the few has now expanded into programs for the many.

Mentoring, it turns out, is not compensatory support for the once-excluded. Rather, it represents an essential element of graduate education for all. It is founded on the premise that professional academic life is unfamiliar territory for most students, whose undergraduate experience is an unreliable forecast of what lies ahead in the pursuit of the M.A. and the Ph.D. Indeed, insofar as liberal-arts courses stir the broad love of learning that inspires students to seek the Ph.D., they are often counterproductive. Graduate school constitutes a different and seemingly alien culture. It thus becomes our responsibility as faculty members to guide students into it.

Graduate education has a double agenda: providing formal intellectual training and socializing students into professional life. Pedagogy is as necessary for the second as for the first. It requires faculty members to think systematically about the various steps by which one enters and practices a profession. Graduate programs need to offer workshops regularly on all these matters, from proposing papers to writing grant proposals to applying and interviewing for jobs. But if such instruction is formally integrated into graduate education, then what remains for mentors to do?

The adviser's responsibility, it seems to me, is to assist students in their particular efforts to acquire professional standing -- to call pertinent opportunities to their attention, to read and react to proposals, fellowship applications, conference papers, prospectuses, job letters, and the like, and to foster an awareness of the numerous ways that graduate education can be employed, inside and outside the academy, both for a livelihood and in service to the larger community. Graduate students, in this view, are colleagues in training, equal in intellectual capacity to faculty members but not in professional experience in the academy. Training students in this democratic fashion becomes a formal obligation of the adviser. To that end, I now give a statement to all of my dissertation students in which I try to make explicit the responsibilities of both parties in the advising relationship.

If formalizing the adviser's obligations frees graduate education from the patron-client framework, it can also eliminate the abuses inherent in the notion of the graduate student as apprentice. There is simply too much potential for exploitation, at worst, and hard feelings, at best, when advisers, in the guise of being tutors and role models, take students too intimately into their professional and personal lives. Should an adviser be a student's employer? On the apprenticeship model, one can argue that a student learns by doing, and what better method than by working on projects of mutual interest with your supervisor? That may be the case when the project offers an opportunity for the student to work collaboratively, as a junior colleague, with the adviser, in time not taken up by courses, research, or preparation for "comps," and when the student is free to turn it down. Which is to say, that labor for an adviser should not be the condition of an assistantship.

In the American-studies program at William and Mary, we have adopted the rule that students are not assigned to work for their advisers. That policy is meant to eliminate the conflicts of interests that can arise in the employer-employee relationship: when a harried faculty member, for example, takes advantage of his personal relation with a student and presses for extra hours of labor to assist on a conference paper or report that is imminently due. In such cases, the student is asked to subordinate his or her schedule to suit the adviser's convenience, and it can be difficult to object, lest the adviser deem the student wanting in professional commitment. On the other hand, should a student fail to meet the demands of an assistantship, the adviser as employer hesitates to say anything, in the knowledge that a formal complaint can jeopardize financial aid.

What about informal mentoring, the easy invitation of graduate students into faculty members' lives and homes that was once thought to be the pleasurable fringe benefit of graduate education -- all those free dinners, for one thing, and those chances to housesit? When you consider that professionalization means socialization into a culture, then surely informal learning is crucial. How else to observe the ways of the tribe but by direct, spontaneous observation?

Yet, in a diverse academy, marked by numerous differences of gender, ethnicity, race, class, and sexual orientation, the adviser-advisee relationship is fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and conflict. How does a student behave if a domestic dispute breaks out in an adviser's home? Will that become a profound embarrassment? It is tempting to imagine that all students welcome hospitality American-style, but for some, invitations to dinner can represent a command performance. And then there is the issue of gender and appropriate boundaries. I used to invite students, male and female alike, for meetings or meals in my home, when there was nobody else around. No more: In an age of sexual harassment, such appointments, however well-intended, can easily be misunderstood. I now do my informal socializing with students in public or make sure that others in my family are at home.

Such care need not turn mentoring into a cold and formal set of encounters. But it puts the focus where it should be: on the professional character of the relationship, and in particular, on the obligations of the adviser to foster the professional development of the student.

An adviser need not avoid personal conversations with students, but these should serve as opportunities to facilitate academic progress and chart professional paths, not as exercises in amateur psychological counseling. My practice is to ask students what is at stake for them, intellectually and professionally, in a particular project or course of action and to build a conversation from that.

Yet, one dilemma remains -- the very professionalism I have stressed so strongly. Many of us in American studies are ambivalent about professionalism, which can be a means to carve out a privileged sphere of knowledge and power in the interest of an unaccountable mandarin class. American studies, as an interdisciplinary field, has always challenged the conventional organization of the university, with its entrenched departments insistent upon their prerogatives and accountable chiefly to themselves, and demanded that students and professors be free to cross disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of ideas.

At its worst, professionalism can descend into mere careerism, its practitioners picking projects according to their status or cash value, and narrowing their sights to a conventional scope. Too often it is an instrument of elitism and antithetical to a democratic community -- the "old boys' club" at large. Perhaps for this reason, academics have prided themselves on informality and personal relations in education. An American-studies program, we like to think, is not law school or medical school. But professionalism, as I present it here, bears on the process of graduate education, not its ends. Those can be as large and democratic as we can envision, inspiring us to put our knowledge to work in creating a more decent community. That scenario is most likely to unfold if we construct relationships within the academy on a model of clear, mutual responsibilities between adviser and student, with the eventual goal of becoming equal partners in and on a common field.

Robert A. Gross is a professor of history and American studies and former director of American studies at the College of William and Mary. He presented a version of these remarks in a panel on "Making the Most of Mentoring" at the recent annual meeting of the American Studies Association, where he received the 2001 Mary C. Turpie Award for "outstanding achievement in teaching, advising, and program development on the local or regional level."

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.