May 30 2024

Mentoring Models with Promise

by W. Anne Joh, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Albrecht Dürer's "The Teacher, the Clergyman, and Providence"

At most institutions, mentoring happens capriciously, accidentally, selectively, informally, and sporadically. It is usually characterized as a one-on-one, discreet relationship that is decentralized and unmoored from the very life of the institution. However, good mentoring is about guiding and assisting the birth of a unique scholar—a scholar who can find her own sense of professional identity. This understanding of mentoring places it at the heart of institutional life. Thus a contribution to the emerging theological landscape would be finding ways to deepen and broaden our practices of mentoring within and across institutions. This effort would include thinking more precisely about the distinctions between mentoring and advising, as well as the formal and informal dimensions of mentoring.

Mentoring and advising are two distinct ways of nurturing doctoral students. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not synonymous. Although an advisor is usually someone within the student’s home institution, the ideal mentor or mentors should not be. An advisor with cultural competency best serves the needs of students by negotiating and navigating their particular institutional culture and the specific requirements of their program. On the other hand, a mentor often offers more general support, critical feedback, and, significantly, contribution to the student’s scholarly formation and self-identity.

Programs tend to admit students on an individual basis, paying little or no attention to cohorts of students. Institutions relegate the task of mentoring outside their formal structures if they rely too much on peer mentoring. Doing so requires entering students to scramble for informal ways to negotiate and survive the doctoral program among their cohort. However, given that doctoral programs are competitive and rigorous, institutions should not expect students to mentor each another. Just as relegating the intensive labor of mentoring to faculty of color is an unfair and, in the end, counterintuitive practice to enhance institutional diversity, so too is overreliance on peer mentoring among doctoral students. Institutions could better support doctoral students of color by providing long-term and sustained efforts to keep them in their respective programs until completion, to continue to contribute to their professional development, and to help them find employment after graduation.

Mentoring and mentoring styles assume various shapes and forms. Although an individual mentor may contribute much to support and enrich a student’s professional formation, collaborative mentoring—which includes multiple mentors as well as diverse sites—enhances the experience. In particular, students of color experience communal and collective mentoring as two of the best types of mentoring. Yet such practices diverge from what tends to be structurally in place at most institutions. We need to develop more collaborative ways of modeling the multiplicity of mentoring practices and valuing the multiple sites from which such mentoring can emerge.

Literature on mentorship best practices also points toward the promise of peer mentoring—an almost untapped resource among doctoral students. Although peer mentoring is important and contributes to the overall health and vitality of students of color, it often happens only informally and in spaces external to the student’s home institution, such as the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) [Editor's note, 1/18/2015: The Fund for Theological Education has changed names to the Forum for Theological Education], United Methodist Women of Color (UMCWOC), Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM), and Asian Theological Summer Institute (ATSI). While informal modes of mentoring often happen outside of institutions of higher education, it is critical for these institutions to offer institutional habits of mentoring across racial and ethnic differences. To provide a wide range of support for doctoral students, mentors should include not only people from students’ particular communities, but also mentors who present an intercultural opportunity. For this kind of mentoring to emerge, we must form alliances both within and beyond the local contexts that forge the students’ identities.

So far research and data on mentoring students of color is scarce. Even less literature exists on mentoring graduate students of color. Still, it is clear that, although good preparation for intellectual labor happens officially in classrooms, such preparation is insufficient for providing students with the breadth and depth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom they need to successfully navigate a particular profession. Thus, mentoring has become paramount.

Debunking Myths about Mentoring

Mentoring is not a “banking” or “cloning” system in which the mentee becomes the repository of his/her mentor’s knowledge and opinions. In other words, mentoring is not the process by which the mentor replicates his- or herself through the student. Mentoring is also not extra advising—the belief that mentoring is “advising-plus” gets in the way of truly understanding the nature of the process. Brown, Davis, and McClendon (1999) define mentoring as the process by which a beginner is “positively socialized by a sagacious person for the purpose of learning the traditions, practices, and frameworks of a profession, association, or organization” (Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2): 105–118). Their findings in “Mentoring Graduate Students of Color” suggest the need to debunk existing myths in order for institutions to provide good mentoring.

The first myth is the mistaken belief that mentoring graduate students of color is a “moral” and “just” thing to do, but that doing so provides the institution and faculty with no practical benefits. The pervasive mantra “publish or perish” leaves little or no room for work other than what institutions currently count toward faculty promotion and tenure review. Institutions and faculty must give up the myth that mentoring is a one-sided relationship in which only the institution gives to the benefit of the student. Institutions and faculty need to be sensitized to the fact that mentoring is a mutually enriching relationship in which the institution, faculty, and student all benefit from each other’s knowledge and perspective.

The second myth is the notion that engaging students of color in the classroom is sufficient. Effective mentoring takes place outside of classrooms when mentors offer students supplemental information, such as pragmatic experiences and insights that are difficult to share within the classroom setting. These venues of academic interaction “move the student closer to witnessing, if not participating in, the totality of his or her chosen professional or academic arena” (Brown et al., 107). Mentoring both inside and outside the classroom improves students’ self-confidence in their ability to do professional work and teaches them how to navigate the formal and informal structures of their profession.

According to the study by Brown et al., the third myth is that only faculty of color can mentor students of color. “It is unacceptable for White faculty and their compeers to relegate the mentoring of students of color to faculty of color” (Brown et al., 108). Students of color can be mentored by faculty who are white and by faculty who are not racially marginalized—just as white students can be mentored by faculty of color. Mentoring should not be restricted or confined to shared racial/ethnic markers but should also be transracial. The task of recruiting and nurturing students of color through the commitment of all faculty (and not just faculty of color) requires institutional commitment as well.

Institutional commitment is essential because practices conditioned by the previous myth, for example, easily contribute to an unequal workload that can disadvantage faculty of color. The myth not only claims that faculty of color are somehow naturally better suited to mentor students of color, but it also makes less visible the fact that faculty of color also mentor white students. The unspoken and implicit expectation on faculty of color is that in addition to taking care of white students, they will also mentor students of color. Failure to let go of this assumption maintains an unfair division of labor and results in what some faculty of color call “cultural taxation.” In other words, they are expected to pay and perform within the institutional whiteness that fails to recognize the labor-intensiveness of mentoring.

Brown et al. find that one of the more damaging myths is the belief that faculty should mentor only those students whose research interests, philosophical perspectives, and backgrounds strongly resonate and reflect their own. Even more so is the idea that mentor and mentee should have strong similarities in “polisocioecoracial” kinship (Brown et al., 109). Of course there are congruencies among some mentors and mentees. However, their study suggests that by placing such a premium on congruence, institutions place graduate students of color at a disadvantage because, in many cases, students who want to do research relevant to his or her community cannot find a mentor. Regardless of race, institutional ethos and habits must encourage faculty to step outside of their own comfort zones because criteria for most research methodologies are not based on one’s race or ethnicity.

This last point highlights the importance of institutional clarity on what it means to promote a will for diversity and generating new institutional habits. For example, elsewhere has been noted the need for strategies such as incentives that take account of mentoring in the faculty portfolio. This strategy makes room for mentoring practices not limited to readily perceivable identity markers, whether race, gender, or even research topics.

In the process of taking formal account of mentoring, we must recognize that mentoring students whose work challenges institutionalized norms or carries the aftermath of personal or communal trauma requires additional mental and emotional energies. Mentoring requires enormous amounts of energy and time—efforts that often go completely unaccounted for and unacknowledged at the institutional level. Failure to distribute the mentoring workload further disadvantages “racial/ethnic representative” faculty when compared with their white colleagues, who remain free to do the so-called “real” work of the academy. Institutions need structures in place that value and reward such efforts, and that simultaneously create ways of sharing the labor of mentoring students of color across all faculty.

Numerous ways exist to remedy the unequal mentoring burden. Institutions need to see the “invisible” labor that faculty of color are often called upon to offer on an individual basis and the significance of such mentoring to students of color and to the institution. Formal ways to recognize and reward faculty who engage in serious mentoring include course reduction, consideration of mentoring in the tenure and promotion portfolio, and inclusion of mentoring as part of one’s administrative load. These institutionalized ways of accounting and acknowledging the labor of mentoring might increase awareness and encourage other faculty to become more engaged in the process, thus contributing to an overall effort to take mentoring more seriously.

Multiple Mentoring Modes

There is a direct challenge emerging to the predominant notion that scholarship is about knowledge acquisition alone. Rather than separating scholarship from ministry and activism, mentoring sites need to sustain and nurture ways for students to embrace the multiple aspects of their sense of calling—scholarship, teaching, ministry, activism, community development, etc. As a consequence, good mentoring requires more than what can happen within a classroom site. Brown et al. suggest that good mentoring includes three necessary modes: academic midwifery, role molding, and ‘frientoring’ (Brown et al., 113).

In the role of academic midwifery, mentors assist the student to find clarity about his or her potential. It involves the “care of the intellectual soul of students” (Brown et al., 114). Mentors assist students in birthing their intellectual ideas, professional practices, and research methodologies; as well as accompany them along their professional development and encourage their scholarly acumen and sense of vocation. A quick reminder here: just as the saying goes “It takes a village to raise a child,” so too does it take a village of mentors to mentor a student. Good academic midwifery requires openness to new ideas and ways of knowing that the student brings. In light of the aforementioned myths, it bears emphasizing that good midwifery can be transracial and involve a mentor’s willingness to become interculturally competent, as well as be available when students experience  “intellectual contractions.”

Role molding is the mode in which faculty actively engage in the lives of their students by assisting them to enter and carve out space for themselves in their profession. This practical side of mentoring might involve staging mock interviews for the job search process, alerting students to professional events, encouraging them to present research papers, and helping students to link with editors.

The third mode of good mentoring is “frientoring.” Frientoring is the interesting nexus between friendship and mentoring. While acknowledging the vast asymmetrical nature of the mentor-mentee relationship, the faculty member provides guidance, and the student provides a modicum of respect in the interactions. Frientoring is the most complex because different cultural backgrounds often have different understandings of this nexus between friendship and mentoring. In some cultures, one’s teacher ought never to be treated as a mutual colleague and friend; in this context, a mentee would hardly ever refer to the mentor by first name. In another paradigm, it might be the most routine practice for mentees to be on a first-name basis with mentors because the relationship is presumed to be on "mutual" footing. Out of the three critical components to mentoring offered by Brown et al., this last one is the most ambivalent and ambiguous because frientoring is the most fraught with cultural coding. Such complex coding can lead to misunderstandings, but it can also lead to opportunities for intercultural growth.

The key to successful mentoring of doctoral students from historically underrepresented communities is institutional recognition. Institutions that adopt both inter- and intra-institutional approaches to mentoring by providing financial support and administrative oversight expand the pool and pipeline for faculty of color as their goal, especially in light of the demographic shifts in the United States. Institutions can begin or strengthen the mentoring work already being done by faculty—they can expand and deepen their recognition of how vital and necessary mentoring is to the success of their doctoral programs. Such efforts need to move beyond the expectation that cohorts of incoming students will forge and sustain systems of peer mentoring. If we are to meet the needs of the diverse students currently enrolling, our institutions must recognize that mentoring is integral to the very life of any and all educational environments.

One model that theological disciplines might do well to consider is the Compact for Faculty Diversity. The compact is a partnership of regional, federal, and foundation programs that focuses on minority graduate education and faculty diversity across disciplines. In addition to funding doctoral education through multiple fellowship programs, it also offers mentoring, conferences, and a directory of institutions interested in employing persons of color across numerous disciplines.

The push for structural and institutional commitment to formal structures of mentoring does not in any way diminish the validity and need for informal mentoring. This happens and is inevitable, given that people are relational. What we do not have and are urgently in need of is something that those in leadership positions committed to empowering diversity and justice can commit to doing: implementing various formal structures for mentoring.

Scholarly formation is ongoing and includes the work of knowledge acquisition and vocational formation, as well as mentoring the next generation. Mentoring never stops—mentees become mentors who continue to benefit from more mentoring. Mentoring is the collective and ongoing work of a community that desires to birth the next generation of competent and compassionate leaders for the world.

Wohnee Anne JohW. Anne Joh received her PhD from Drew University in 2003 in theological and philosophical studies. She is the cochair of the Theology and Religious Reflection Section of the American Academy of Religion as well as the faculty director of the Center for Asian/Asian American Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Joh’s areas of research interests include postcoloniality, gender, affect, war, militarism, trauma, political theory and race, economies of freedom, rights, debt, critical Cold War studies in relation to transpacific Asian America, and theorizing politics of love. She has also written Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).  Forthcoming are Terror, Trauma and Hope: A Spectrality of the Cross (Westminster John Knox Press) and a co-edited volume, Engaging the United States as a Military Empire: Critical Studies of Christianity from Asian/Asian North American PerspectivesHer contributed essays include “Teaching to Learn from the Other,” “Postcolonialism in Fugue: Contrapuntality of Asian American Experience,” “Loves’ Multiplicity: Jeong and Spivak’s Notes Toward Planetary Love,”  “Interrogating Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in Feminist Theology,” “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American/Pacific Islander (API) Religious and Theological Studies,”  “Violence and Asian American Experience: From Abjection to Jeong,” and “Relating to Household Labor Justly.”

Joh recently coauthored a report on the 2013 Fund for Theological Education's doctoral theological education consultation, which focused on the mentoring of doctoral-level scholars of color. The full report is available at the Fund for Theological Education's website.

Image: Albrecht Dürer's "The Teacher, the Clergyman, and Providence. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.