Mentors: An Endangered Species?

Magritte- “Le Temps Jadis” Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/PgHq37WEUN1UfJ9Z9

Recently I was asked to guide a group of younger teachers who had just completed their one year Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) offered in-house by our design school, and had taken on the role of mentorship to guide the next cohort. In other words, as a senior professor, I had been selected to ‘mentor the mentors’. Many of them were experienced teachers who had mentored students in their final year projects but had never mentored colleagues before in pedagogy and in research.

Apparently, I had received glowing reviews from my mentees and was identified, along with another professor as a “super-mentor” — a label that made me uncomfortable. I detest the culture of super-this and super-that — but here was an institution formally acknowledging the role of the mentor, which was indeed heart-warming. Many institutions expect the older faculty to play this role as part of their job and simply take it for granted.

Can mentoring be taught? While one side of my mind protested, the prospect of passing on an implicit, embodied knowledge accumulated over many decades such as mentoring and making it into a set of explicit principles intrigued and excited me. Frankly, I had never quite thought of it before. If pedagogy can be talked about, why not mentoring? I was surprised how little theoretical material exists on the subject.

Perhaps it is seen as ‘informal’ , and ‘personal’ in nature and is therefore not formally institutionalized? In the new age obsession with ‘self-development’, mentoring is often associated with ‘life-coaching’, or other forms of personal counselling. Researchers do have their ‘supervisors’ or ‘guides’, but not all of them end up as ‘mentors’. The fact that all successful professionals acknowledge the role of their mentors at some point makes it even more significant and worthy of study.

Mentoring is a huge investment of one’s time and energy, less and less of which seems to be available with each passing day. It requires patience (both for mentor and mentee) which is also a fast vanishing commodity. Teaching could be done remotely in ‘synchronous’ or ‘a-synchronous’ sessions. Mentoring requires close contact and leading through personal example. Transference seems to happen through an invisible process of osmosis. Contemporary ‘management-dominated’ culture that celebrates only visible acts that can be ‘measured’ can probably never fully appreciate the almost intangible and subtle art of mentoring.

I am fortunate to have had some excellent mentors in my life, (both academic and professional) and I am grateful to them to this day. Today, for generation Z, while there may be many remote ‘celebrities’ out there to aspire towards, and to take inspiration from, there are fewer and fewer active role models and mentors. One wonders if they are even looking for one or do they have more faith in Google and YouTube than people in flesh and blood?

Lack of exposure to good mentors would make them poor mentors in turn. With more and more people getting socially isolated, self-absorbed, and ostensibly self-reliant, in just a few generations, mentoring as a concept could be extinct. It is hard to imagine the poverty of such a civilization sans its mentors.

Having said that, one might get impatient and ask “All that you say is fine, but my Course begins in a couple of weeks and I need to prepare myself as a mentor. Can’t you just give us a list of do’s and don’ts?”. Yes, I must try, even if reluctantly, because it runs the great risk of being ‘reductive’. But then everyone wants everything today in an easy-to-digest ‘byte-sized’ capsule and who knows, someday soon, ironically, mentoring could even be offered as an on-line ‘module’ with Learning outcomes, tasks, and assessments.

Difference between teaching and mentoring

Here are some of my initial reflections:

  • Teaching happens through Doing, while mentoring happens through Being. What you are passing on as a mentor is not just knowledge but an attitude to the discipline, profession, and life as a whole.
  • Teaching is intrusive and active in nature, while mentoring is non-intrusive and passive in nature. Often people realize they had a great mentor only in retrospect. This is not to say that mentoring is any easy or does not involve work. Think of the analogy of cultivating crops in a field (teaching) vs. tending to a garden (mentoring).
  • Teaching is largely teacher driven, while mentoring is largely learner driven. This is the real reason for my discomfort with labels such as “super mentor”, and not any sense of false humility. It is the mentee that makes the most of a mentor and if both function as they should, real magic happens. It is a mutual relationship that ought to be in focus, and not one or the other in isolation.
  • Teaching could be a monologue (think of Coursera on-line Courses), while mentoring is always based on dialogue.
  • Teaching could be Standardized to address a group. Mentoring is always Individualized. Therefore communication and trust between mentee and mentor is the cornerstone of a fruitful relationship.
  • Teaching is facilitation of the learning of knowledge and skills while mentoring is about personal development and self-transformation. Mentoring goes above and beyond just academics.
  • Teaching has limited goals and is therefore reduceable to a ‘contract’, while mentoring has unlimited goals and therefore not reduceable to a ‘contract’. It is a commitment. Teacher comes and goes but a mentor is for life.

Following from the above differences, it becomes clear how design pedagogy as it happens in studios is closer to mentoring than teaching. So, for all the design teachers out there, mentoring a colleague in reflective academic practice or writing research papers is based on similar principles.

Now for some specific tips and practical “take-aways” for the new aspiring mentors, guiding reflective writing, and academic research — based on my own experience. These are not in any order but written randomly as they occurred to me.

Create a vibrant, curious, intellectual space where reflection and critical thinking can happen

Be curious and be interested about your mentee’s research topic. They may be returning to reflective writing, and research after a long break in their careers. Many may be first-time writers who are not at all comfortable with writing as a medium. Especially design teachers who tend to be more visually oriented than text oriented. When they discuss their topics, they may not know the correct terminologies or even the right keywords. Here one can help by introducing the right lexicon, doing some quick web searches on their behalf and sending them links they could follow up on.

When they get stuck with a single perspective, bombard them with alternative ones and ask- “Have you looked at the issue from these perspectives?”. Try and conduct mentoring sessions in a group so there is peer-interaction and peer-learning. Try and form a dynamic learning community where members support and motivate each other. Send them to other mentors and other mentees/ experts when required. Similarly, be open and helpful when mentees from other groups approach you.

Know when to encourage divergent thinking and when to steer towards convergent thinking

In the beginning of the research process, it helps to open up the mind to divergent perspectives and as the research proceeds one should be wise enough to steer them to focus on a few choices or directions the research could take. To apply convergent thinking too soon into the research could be premature and could result in lack of breadth. But to continue divergent thinking beyond a point makes the exercise directionless, meandering, lacking in focus and depth. Knowing exactly when to ask for a switch depends on time available and is a matter of experience.

Engage less with contents and more with the process, clarity, and structure

It is good to remember that as a mentor you need not know more of the topic than the mentee. It is ultimately the mentee’s research and s/he is supposed to be the authority on the topic. Sometimes it is good to admit ignorance and say — “I don’t know but please find out and let me know”. This way one learns so much more because your mentees are constantly bringing new stuff you have not encountered before. Also, as a mentor avoid imposing your own opinions on the topic and trying to influence the mentee. Even if the topic is close to your heart, maintain a sense of detachment and openness to the subject/topic at hand. It is a bit tricky to achieve a good balance of interest in the topic and a sense of objectivity, but for design teachers this should not be too difficult.

Prioritizing clarity, structure, and the rigor of the research process is ultimately more useful to the mentee than discussing the topic endlessly. Keep nudging gently and keep things moving along. Sometimes a mentee could be stuck just waiting — may be for some data, information, or results , or inspiration — which could be frustrating. Rather just wait around doing nothing, think what they can do and “put away” in the meantime — finish the literature review? Organize the annexures? Transcribe the interviews? Nothing restores confidence more than ticking off check lists. I do not believe in pushing mentees ‘hard’ because the whole point of encouraging independence and ownership is lost.

Talk less, encourage reading and writing more

Designers love to talk and wave their hands about. Insist on their putting down ideas in written form and do not encourage long verbal discussions beyond a point. Writing really helps clarify thoughts and has a self- propelling quality. It speaks back to you, just like a sketch or drawing does. Similarly, as a mentor, impose on yourself the discipline of giving detailed written feedback. This will not only sharpen your own thinking and writing skills, it is also a good record for the mentee to refer to later when reflecting on their professional development. When they are explaining their ideas, take notes, draw graphic diagrams, and ask them if this is what they meant. It is surprising how much this can help crystalize their thoughts and save their time.

Listen, empathize, help, but never spoon-feed

Mentees can get stuck, they can procrastinate, they can try and emotionally manipulate you into giving them easy answers/ solutions/ or get you to accept sub-standard work, or support their case for an extension. It is surprising how fast they can become a typical ‘student’ all over again when faced with pressure and deadlines.

When emotional outbursts happen, maintain your calm. Empathize if the reasons are genuine but be firm and professional. They need to take ownership of their own work and become independent thinkers. Your job is to stretch them intellectually. Sometimes seeing their desperation, it could be too tempting to give them readymade answers and solutions, but you are cheating them of an opportunity to discover things for themselves, thereby stunting their growth.

Be approachable, but It is good to draw personal boundaries to make it clear when you are likely to be available and when it is not a good time for a chat. Be completely frank and honest with your feedback. If things are not clear, say so. If the structure is all over the place, point it out. But be equally generous with positive feedback too. One very effective positive feedback is to point out how much they have improved with each draft and with each assignment.

Move them from just thinking to “Thinking about thinking”

For many, the first few weeks of reading and reflections can be quite unfamiliar but exciting and ‘heady’. It is very natural to swallow every theory one reads as the ‘universal truth’. It is important for them to realize these ’authoritative’ texts are based on a certain context of place and time. Theories are just a way of categorizing and generalizing phenomena. It is therefore useful to look at them as “ideas” originating out of a certain perspective. This can be achieved by giving curated readings and asking for summaries and a “compare and contrast” of ideas. This not only develops the skill to express ideas succinctly, but also a “meta-cognition” of one’s own ways of thinking, and Double Loop learning, which is crucial to a critically reflective academic practitioner.

Cultivate complete intellectual openness with zero tolerance for lack of rigor and ethics

This a paradoxical combination but to me more or less sums up the most important quality of the mentor — totally spacious, non-prejudiced, and accommodating of radical ideas, but uncompromising when it comes to demanding academic ethics, and the rigor in the process of research, and its presentation as per accepted norms. As a mentor, it is good to read up and refresh oneself on the rules of plagiarism and absolutely discourage it from the beginning. Insist on proper in-text referencing and end-referencing in every draft, however sketchy it might be, so it becomes a habit. Constantly alert the mentees about the ultimate benchmarks of any good research — validity, reliability, and generalizability.

Be a friend, philosopher, and guide

‘Mentors’ have a long term influence as compared to coaches, trainers, guides, supervisors, or counselors. Not everyone may be willing to take on this life-time role. But if you do, remember, YOU are the teaching and YOU are the exemplar. So, live with integrity, sensitivity, and authenticity. Even if you do not have a personal philosophy as such, at least live by some unshakable principles. Be humble and be open. Be curious, question everything and continue to co-learn with your mentees. They will soon overtake you and know more than you do. It is the natural order of things. Let that not make you shaky and insecure. Offer personal advice only when needed and avoid social gossip and unwarranted intrusions of privacy.

Treat your mentees with dignity, respect, and as your equals. Do not produce clones of yourself but encourage individuality to flower. Pass on opportunities for their growth. If they express self-doubt, let them know you have full confidence in their capabilities. Nominate them for the next panel discussion, workshop, jury, or academic position, and watch them grow into it. Encourage them to attend conferences and publish papers — and watch from the wings as they glow in the limelight. Watch them become mentors in their own right.

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Architect, Academic, Educator, Mentor

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Dr. Badrinarayanan Srinivasan

Dr. Badrinarayanan Srinivasan

Architect, Academic, Educator, Mentor

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