Re-imagining the human dimension of mentoring: a framework for research administration and the academy.

Author:Mullen, Carol A.


Administrators and educators have become so metric oriented that it has become challenging to retrieve the human face of mentorship. In fact, mentoring may be considered a lost art and science. In Greek mythology, the spirit of mentoring is reflected in the character Mentor who serves as a faithful and wise advisor whose experience and knowledge benefit youth. The name "Mentor" is proverbial for a guide who opens up others to new experiences and the world, and who encourages and protects proteges. Today, exemplary research administrators and faculty mentors provide their expertise to less experienced individuals to help them advance in their academic programs and careers. Given that effective graduate student mentoring is not as common as it should be (Johnson, 2006; Johnson & Huwe, 2003), and given that fast-paced demands on education are suffocating quality mentoring (Mullen, 2007), how do those in research leadership and academic positions practice the wisdom and prudence necessary for developing, assessing, and improving programs? Because research administrators are systems thinkers who view the component parts of a system in relation to the whole (Senge, 2006), they should understand that the mentoring of novice research administrators is integral to their own work. As human relations experts, research administrators realize that human learning is a complex, and even mysterious and messy, business. Research leaders who comprehend that mentoring the new professional depends on intimate relationship building and new forms of learning are more apt to understand that mentorship defies quantification as well as formulaic approaches. Thus, leaders who grasp the qualitative dimensions of learning and situations lend strength to their professional domains.

Understanding the fuller breadth of mentorship and its potential for educating and preparing students for the professions is an emergent competency in the world of research administration. As the culture of higher education institutions changes, one-on-one mentorships can be expected to expand. Creative collaborations and group-learning contexts are slowly on the rise in the education discipline, serving not only to supplement but also to modify the traditional mentoring arrangement that is dyadic in nature (Arnabile, 1996; Mullen, 2005). A goal of this essay is to raise awareness about how the mentoring of novice research administrators and graduate students can become a more potent force, with implications for the mentoring of non-tenured faculty. Some of the historical, philosophical, and epistemological foundations of mentoring that aid in this vision are addressed, including theories of adult education, mentoring, and leadership. In particular, the problem--that piecemeal understandings of mentoring that lead to the inadequate preparation of the next generation of professionals--is examined. Toward this end, alternatives are presented for developing or transforming mentoring relationships, programs, and cultures, and for finding solutions to educational problems. The research on group learning that has relevance for educating female and ethnic students, in addition to a mentoring scenario involving research administrators, provides further support.

Mentoring and Learning in Education Theories

The educational literature presents an imbalanced picture of mentoring and learning in terms of the emphases given to school-based contexts and populations (Mullen, 2009). Consequently, study of higher education contexts and adult learning lags behind and needs greater attention. Researchers, leaders, and policymakers focus on issues pertaining to teacher supervision and instructional leadership, as well as the mentoring of preservice and inservice teachers and of children across grade levels and from various backgrounds. Also, prospective and practicing administrators, and related matters of transition into leadership roles, have been the beneficiaries of steadfast research; hence, mentoring phenomena relevant to graduate students (Johnson, 2006) and dissertation candidates (Piantanida & Garman, 1999), in addition to novice research administrators (Easterly, 2008) and junior faculty members (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2004) reflect emerging areas of research. Knowles (1984) has referred to the adult learner (e.g., research administrator mentee) as "a neglected species." In addition, research on postsecondary settings highlights particular aspects of mentoring--specifically, advising and supervising students--as do graduate programs. Because of this disjointed treatment of the mentoring enterprise, only a few discrete, isolated functions of mentorship receive attention. Hence, a comprehensive scope of mentorship that embeds multiple options and flexibility for participants and institutions alike needs to be promoted (Mullen, 2005).

Just as education is a powerful force that continually shapes the quality of experience (Dewey, 1938), so too is mentoring. Education as community and culture-based needs rediscovery--the ubiquitous energy of mentoring should be more fully utilized to connect people, reform values, affect decisions and actions, and contribute to the life, world, and future of institutions, communities, and societies. While pervasive in a more limited form, mentorship is misunderstood, depersonalized, and left to chance encounters in the academy (Eby, Rhodes, & Allen, 2007). Ironically, mentoring, focused on the development and success of graduate students, career professionals, and junior faculty members, is embedded in the mission of some professional associations. For example, as pertains to the author's service leadership, associationwide initiatives in mentoring graduate students (and junior faculty) have fundamentally changed the mindset and program offerings of the American Educational Research Association (McDonnell, 2009) and the University Council for Educational Administration.

Relevant Definitions of Mentoring

In university and policymaking circles, mentoring is thought of as academic advisement and supervision (see Council of Graduate Schools, 2008). Mentoring is not only commonly used interchangeably with advising and supervising but also with coaching, assisting, guiding, leading, teaching, learning, readiness, compensation, support, and socialization (Rix & Gold, 2000). Such linkages, while vital to the theory and practice of mentorship, fail to address its wider and deeper dimensions, which has implications for how mentoring is applied. In actuality, because mentorship is simultaneously an art and a science, performance supervisors and academic advisors cannot be "programmed" to function as mentors.

Thus, Merriam's (1983) assertion that mentoring and its dynamics need to be more clearly defined still has currency. As a starting point, mentoring is an educational process focused on teaching and learning within dyads, groups, and cultures (Mullen, 2005). Thinking beyond reductionist and piecemeal conceptualizations, mentorship is a holistic form of teaching and learning that embraces the professional, personal, psychosocial, and career facets of a protege's development, and such activities as advising, tutoring, coaching, and counseling. Mentorship is a framework for theorizing developmental relationships in which people with experience and expertise invest time in those who are less experienced, responding to critical needs and enhancing the capacity for growth, productivity, and achievement (Johnson, 2006; Shea, 1994). Mentors and mentees can engage in learning partnerships that are formal (e.g., structured) or informal (e.g., spontaneous). In the case of formal mentoring, relationship structure, objectives, and expectations are communicated at the outset, as in grants programs and programs of study that involve mentors and mentees; regarding informal mentoring, relationships are self-initiated, unplanned, and left to chance. Further, mentoring extends beyond job-related tasks and coursework, with respect for learning (and relearning and unlearning) as a lifelong commitment (Mullen, 2005). Mentoring is thus an integral part of the developmental and life cycles of human and organizational systems.

Higher Education Challenges and Barriers

Whether one-on-one or group based, the success of any mentoring relationship or program depends on acceptance, full participation, and transparency (Mullen, 2008). Learning is, fundamentally, a social process that activates these conditions, as in the instance of transparency of social relations and of the social organization itself (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Educational relationships are thought to rely on and benefit from ideological transparency that is situated within contemporary mentoring situations (e.g., peer learning). Mentors must understand that mentees constitute vulnerable populations to be protected from concealed agendas and ulterior motives (Johnson, 2006; Lincoln & Holmes, 2008). Such principles of adult education foster the idea that mentoring--a form of developmental learning--brings together mentors and mentees in a "mini learning community" in which each proactively teaches the other (Galbraith, 20022003, p. 17) in ways that are open and honest, reflective and critical (Herman & Mandell, 2004).

Proactive mentorship is essential to the academic success of graduate students (Merriam, 1983). Whether relationships develop informally or formally, graduate mentors need to be intentional in their mentoring practices (Johnson, 2006; Johnson & Huwe, 2003). In the United States, as many as 50% of doctoral students never graduate (Dorn & Papalewis, 1997; Glatthorn, 1998); this loss financially burdens universities and devastates students (Golde & Dote, 2001; Lovitts, 2001). Importantly, national studies report that the program attrition of female students from U.S. institutions is higher than male students, minority students drop out more often than white students, and...

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