Transforming Pre-Tenure Faculty Mentoring

It is widely recognized that mentoring is important in assisting junior faculty to successfully navigate their way to promotion and tenure.  The establishment of clear expectations, through faculty evaluation rubrics, can certainly make the core elements of this journey clearer to both the pre-tenure faculty member and his/her mentors.  But, the scope of successful mentoring experiences encompass many other aspects of successful early career transition.

In my first blog entry on mentoring pre-tenure faculty, I am starting by highlighting guidance from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD).  Specificially, I am providing a brief overview of a  series of essays on “How to Be a Great Mentor” by Dr. Kerry Anne Rockquemore, President and CEO of NCFDD, that appeared in Inside Higher Education.   Links to each of the original five essays in this series are provided.

Knowing How to Approach Mentoring
In the first essay in this series, Dr. Rockquemore highlights the need to Start Strong.  She advises that there is no viable role for “sink-or-swim type” mentoring.  Instead, she argues that mentors need to understand what pre-tenure faculty need and not all of those needs can be addressed by a single mentor.  In particular, she emphases that:

  • New faculty members have a wide variety of needs
  • It’s normal to have needs
  • You don’t personally have to meet every need
  • The most effective mentoring you can do is to support new faculty members in identifying their needs and figuring out how to get them met by tapping into both on- and off-campus resources.

In each of her essays, Dr. Rockquemore provides a set of challenges; specific activities that she encourages mentors to engage in as a first step in becoming a strong mentor.  These are very helpful suggestions and exercises for mentors to contemplate.

A New Model of Mentoring

In the second essay in this series, Dr. Rockquemore advocates a New Model of Mentoring.  She argues that we need to move away from the traditional approaches to mentoring junior faculty, such as that of a “guru-mentor” who is a “highly supportive all-knowing senior person who shares knowledge with them, cares for them, guides their career over a long period of time and protects them from any evil forces in their department.”   Among other concerns, Dr. Rockquemore notes that the guru-mentor does not reflect the reality of how mentoring is done, it leaves too much of the mentoring responsibilities on one person, and it is a very ineffiecent way to try to meet the diverse needs of young faculty.

Instead, Dr. Rockquemore recommends that we recognize the wide range of diverse needs of newly hired faculty and move to a network-based model of mentoring.   This approach places the pre-tenure faculty member in the center of a support network and then helps them find the answers to the question of “what do I need and where is the best place to get it?”   The NCFDD has developed programs, used by many universities, to support network-based mentoring.   Among other approaches, they have faculty build a “mentoring map” to identify needs and where they are, and are not, matched with adequate resources.   The technique is centered upon the notion that local and remote mentors can teach junior faculty “how to build a network of support they can draw on for the future”.

Be a Coach

The third essay advances the argument that mentors should Be a Coach, rather than a guru.  Dr. Rockquemore argues for a mentoring approach where “Instead of acting as a guru who meets all their needs by giving anecdotal advice about your own experience, you coach them to develop the skill of identifying their needs and figuring out the best places to get these needs met.”  She presents an overview of the essential differences between these mentoring methods:

  • Coaches are performance-driven. Gurus hope for the best.
  • Coaches ask powerful questions. Gurus pontificate.
  • Coaches are task oriented. Gurus are relationship oriented.
  • Coaches are for transition moments. Gurus are forever.
  • Coaches rely on structure. Gurus rely on informality.
  • Coaches are other-focused. Gurus are self-focused.

Her essay provides narratives supporting each of these proposed contrasts.  She adds “that the most important distinction between these two models is the power dynamic. ” 

Dr. Rockquemore argues that for mentors, “in coaching, the goal is not to develop a dependency on you, but to develop independence from you.”

Cultivate Belonging

In the fourth essay, Dr. Rockquemore observes that mentors often shift into a “hands off,” “leave the new person alone,” sink or swim mode.   She argues that instead, the mentor needs to start a process to Cultivate Belonging to the department early in the newly hired faculty members appointment.  She notes that “the first term is exactly when the new person will be seeking social connections, professional acceptance, and a place within the department.”   

In forming her recommendations on how to accomplish this, Dr. Rockquemore complied some basic responses from faculty about what made them feel like they belonged in their departments:   Some seem pretty obvious, perhaps so much so that they do not need to be said?  Yet, they are based on experiences reported by faculty.

  • Know how to say and spell the new person’s name.
  • Ask questions that communicate interest.
  • Proactively schedule time with the new faculty member.
  • Celebrate and acknowledge achievements.
  • Tell your new colleague why you’re glad they have joined the department.
  • Take your new colleague seriously.
  • Make the unspoken rules explicit.

Again, the essay provides narrative and details to reinforce each of these points.  As Dr. Rockquemore notes in closing this essay, she wants to help make it “clear that the first semester isn’t just about adjusting to a new campus and new colleagues, it’s a time of adjusting to a new professional identity.”  This is a critical time for building a sense of community that will aid future recruitment and retention of faculty.

A Mentoring Manifesto

The final essay in this series calls for A Mentoring Manifesto that values faculty, recognizes the flaws in traditional mentoring approaches, and thus make the commitment to “change the way we socialize, mentor and support new faculty members.”

Dr. Rockquemore notes the considerable interest and success that the NCFDD has had by applying the principles outlined in this series of essays.   She notes the following insights gained from their engagement in this transformative mentoring approach:

  • Productivity, Balance, and Joy Are Learned Habits
  • Faculty Crave Community, Support, and Accountability
  • Change the Conversation from Hazing and “Never Enough” to Belonging, Productivty and Satisfaction

I will close my brief overview of this series with two of Dr. Rockquemore’s examples,based on the NCFDD experience, about how the conversations can shift:

  • From “how can I win tenure?” to “how can I work at my highest potential?”
  • From “what can I do to please the senior faculty in my department?” to “what does success look like for me as a whole person?”

 Adding My Observations

There are numerous resources on faculty mentoring.  Indeed, in my future posts, I will be looking at a variety of these resources and asking questions about best practices.   The NSF-funded ADVANCE projects on many campuses have provided important resource bases from which I will be able to draw useful information.  However, I wanted to start my entries on mentoring by looking at the role broadly and how we often deliver mentoring to newly hired faculty.   I think the series of essays by Dr. Rockquemore makes important points about how we need to work to transform this process and to engage in a new conversation. 

I strongly encourage you to click on the links to these essays, and read them in their full context.  The could be a very good starting point within your academic departments for considering how you are currently addressing mentoring and how you might need to embrace a new model of supporting and developing mentoring practices.


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