I recently met with the leaders of a local media company that had hired about half a dozen of our graduates in the past year. We discussed a remarkable phenomenon in public-relations firms, newsrooms, and many other media and nonmedia companies and institutions that employ communication professionals: reverse mentoring.
Simply put, the senior people in the office, for the first time, are seeing young people as resources of information and even tutors who possess new and original skill sets, especially in social media.
Once upon a time, a recent college graduate from a journalism or mass-communication program would encounter, on her first day in a newsroom, a grizzled editor who would say, “Forget all that stuff you learned in school, kid. I’ll tell you about the real world.”
Now, in the legacy industry of journalism, the layoffs of senior personnel have been so frequent and so sweeping, and the revolutions in technology, techniques, platforms, and even style so sudden, that the generations are finding new ways of learning from each other. Smart employers have figured this out.
But has the academy? We all know that the promotion and tenure system has many components of the medieval guild system of apprenticeship. The nomenclature itself bespeaks a top-down system of mentoring: assistant, associate, junior, probationary. The advice we dispense to beginning faculty further confirms a hierarchical system: “Don’t get senior faculty mad at you. Don’t challenge them. Seek out good mentors and take their advice.”
But, as we all know, the assistant professors know a lot. For one thing, they’ve just spent years of their lives researching a particular area within a discipline. They almost always bring a certain passion to the enterprise of research and teaching, which is easily eroded as the years go by. They are often attuned to student tastes and thinking and may more quickly perceive that some traditional aspect of the curriculum—cherished by we seniors—is irrelevant or ineffective.
Last semester I experienced reverse mentoring and loved it. I have published research on the rise of social media, especially in political communication. I have written or edited several books on the subject and even more articles and essays. I recently co-designed and then co-taught a new survey class called “Social Media Today,” which explores how blogs, wikis, YouTube, texting, and other phenomena have affected every aspect of modern life, whether journalism or romance or job seeking. My co-designer and colleague, an assistant professor who is (I believe) close to half my age, and our two doctoral-student TA’s alternately taught different class sessions.
It was a revealing experience watching the three of them present. The style, tone, and even types of content of their presentations made me reconsider my own teaching philosophy and methods. The material and examples in my classes are interesting and topical, I hope, but I am much too dependent on Pleistocene PowerPoint habits: click, point, lecture. My three “junior” colleagues were much more active and engaged, and the students reacted with increased attention and stimulation.
In short, I learned from two doctoral students and an assistant professor how to update my teaching style. They may not have set out to mentor me, but it happened, and I appreciate it. Perhaps we in the academy might learn from the innovative media businesses that are creating the kinds of cross-generational teams in which each member shares personal wisdom and skill sets for the betterment of the institution and its mission. We have nothing to lose but our egos. Being someone’s mentee, when you feel you are being taught something new and useful, is a wonderful experience—and may be a game changer for our profession.
David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He writes the “Career Confidential” advice column for The Chronicle.