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Mentoring Faculty and Graduate Student Teaching Assistants

Prepared by Center for Teaching Excellence
Duquesne University

Basic Definitions of the Mentoring Relationship

There are several definitions of a mentor, but in higher education the term typically refers to a relationship between a more professionally advanced faculty member and one who is relatively new to the institution, profession, and/or field. A mentor is more than a colleague, both because of the difference in institutional status, and also because the mentor agrees to serve as a guide, role-model, and/or coach for the mentee.

A study on faculty mentoring by Sands, Parson, & Duane (1991), found that faculty typically viewed their mentoring relationships to fall under four general categories (relationships could have elements of one, some or all of the following):

A Friend who provides emotional support, helps with decision making, offers guidance for personal issues such as relocation and familial issues, and offers defense against criticism. Mentors and mentees also socialized together outside of the department/ university.

A Career Guide who collaborates in research and/or publications, helps the mentee to network with other professionals and promotes his or her visibility within professional networks. Mentors also offered advice about research, grant proposals, funding, and publishing.

An Information Source who shares knowledge about university and departmental policies and procedures, including those for promotion and tenure (both formal and informal), and offers advice about committee work and teaching culture/practices.

An Intellectual Guide who offers intellectual guidance and provides feedback and constructive criticism on the mentee's scholarly work and teaching.

From Sands, R.G., Parson, L.A., & Duane, J. (1991). Faculty Mentoring Faculty in a Public University. The Journal of Higher Education, 62, (2) pp. 174-193.

In short, there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes a mentoring relationship among faculty. Characteristics of each relationship depend on myriad factors including departmental culture, discipline, and individual personalities. It is important that both parties be clear about the expectations and boundaries of the relationship and feel comfortable to discuss those expectations without fear of repercussion.

Specific Types of Mentoring Relationships

Universities and departments differ in the way mentoring relationships are set up and the extent to which they are required or optional. Typically, a tenured faculty member (associate or full professor) will mentor an incoming, tenure-track assistant professor.

However, in fields where there is a paucity of women faculty, such as in some sciences, one can often find more experienced women assistant professors mentoring newer assistant professors, as some believe women's mentorship in the sciences to be an important resource. See "The Gender Politics of Mentoring" for more information about common practices of women's academic mentoring relationships.

Many have also advocated for mentoring relationships among faculty who are cultural and ethnic minorities. Often, the expectations for minority faculty members are unreasonable (e.g. they're expected to serve as advocates for minority students, conduct above-average research, be a spokesperson for and researcher of diversity issues whether or not it's their field of expertise). In order to retain, and more importantly, adequately support ethnically minority faculty, faculty mentors need to be aware of these additional pressures.

Finally, many departments have formal (required) or informal mentoring practices between faculty and graduate students.

TA Mentoring

Developing Mentoring Relationships

Professionals in every field can usually identify a handful of people whose guidance was instrumental to their professional development and success. Mentors, "trusted counselors or guides" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary), are essential in the university setting, which focuses on the professional development of graduate students as teachers. The above site from the University of Georgia's Center for Teaching and Learning gives resources detailing TA and faculty mentor relationships.

Where Does the TA Fit In?

This essay, written by a TA at Penn, presents the need for faculty mentoring of TAs from a TA's perspective.

Professional Boundaries

The question of boundaries will often depend upon whether this is a formal or informal relationship; academic mentoring relationships can be either. Some institutions have formal programs in place whereby mentors and mentees are assigned, and ideally mentors receive some training about their role in the relationship. Here are some examples of these types of programs:

Stanford University School of Medicine, Faculty Mentoring Program

University of California, San Diego's Faculty Mentoring Program

University of Wisconsin's Women Faculty Mentoring Program

More often, however, informal mentoring relationships are formed internally to the department based on common interests and faculty willingness. In these cases, the boundary between friend and mentor might be fuzzy, and it is the responsibility of both parties to make clear from the start what will be the expectations of the relationship.

For a more personalized take on the mentoring relationship, see Frank Midler's January 21, 2005 Chronicle article: Should a Mentor Be a Friend?

Supporting Junior Faculty: Best Practices

In 2000, the American Association of Higher Education's (AAHE) Forum on Faculty Roles and Rewards conducted a study entitled, Heeding New Voices. The study consisted of over 350 interviews of new faculty and graduate students in order to determine what will be needed to support the next generation of scholars, teachers, and researchers in the academy. The study resulted in a 60 page document, written by Eugene Rice, Mary Deane Sorcinelli, and Anne Austin, as well as a brief pamphlet outlining ten principles of good practice, by Mary Deane Sorcinelli.

Unfortunately, this pamphlet is no longer available online since the demise of AAHE. In brief, the Ten Principles of Good Practice are as follows:

Improving Tenure Processes

1. Good practice communicates expectations for performance

2. Good practice gives feedback on progress

3. Good practice enhances collegial review processes

4. Good practice creates flexible timelines for tenure

Encouraging Collegial Relations

5. Good practice encourages mentoring by senior faculty

6. Good practice extends mentoring and feedback to graduate students who aspire to be faculty members

7. Good practice recognizes the department chair as a career sponsor

Easing Stresses of Time and Balance

8. Good practice supports teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level

9. Good practice supports scholarly development

10. Good practice fosters a balance between professional and personal life

Additional Resources

Mentoring New Faculty: Advice to Department Chairs by Dr. Marjorie Olmstead, University of Washington. This clear and concise article is geared specifically to department chairs, as it offers suggestions about conveying expectations and criteria for promotion, facilitating the acquisition of resources, and giving feedback on performance to new junior faculty. Since Dr. Olmstead's background is in physics and chemistry, some of her advice speaks directly to specific issues in science departments. However the majority of guidelines she offers are general enough for any department. Direct and to the point, this is a great article to have on hand for quick reference.

MentorNet "is the award-winning nonprofit e-mentoring network that addresses the retention and success of those in engineering, science and mathematics, particularly, but not exclusively, women. Founded in 1997, MentorNet provides highly motivated protégés from many of the world's top colleges and universities with positive, one-on-one, email-based mentoring relationships with mentors from industry and academia. In addition, the MentorNet Community provides opportunities to connect with others from around the world who are interested in diversifying engineering and science."