Tuesday, February 19, 2008

advising vs/and mentoring

The graduate student government recently sent out a survey about the kind of relationships we have with our advisors. Of course, I was stymied by the very first question, which asked if we agreed or disagreed with the following distinction between advising and mentoring: "advising" would indicate procedural help (choosing courses, meeting deadlines) and feedback specifically on the dissertation project. "Mentoring" would indicate advice on larger professional questions (conferences, publications, marketability), as well as an attempt to help a student develop his or her academic interests.

I ended up agreeing with this distinction, but not until I had considered the types of relationships I've had with faculty here. I think what I've seen as a lack of advising all along could be better characterized as a lack of mentoring: as my department's grad chair loves to proclaim enthusiastically, I'm very good--stellar, really--at the procedural part of grad school. Meeting requirements, scheduling exams, and registering are all administrative skills that I have. I didn't even think that "advising" would characterize prodding or instruction about those issues, because I never thought to ask about them--they were just things you did or didn't do.

But if "mentoring" is demonstrating interest in my work, and encouraging professional development, I haven't had that much. My current advisor is good at the former but not the latter, which makes sense given that he came to academia from a non-traditional path and isn't very interested in checking off boxes on my CV (conference presentation, check! etc.). The two professors who mentored me early on work in a different field, but I was almost persuaded to switch fields after encountering their active enthusiasm and willingness to acquaint me with their professional context. (I'm glad I didn't for several reasons, the main one being that the more actively mentoring of the two soon left for a Premium Fancy-Pants Job.) The feedback I've received thus far on my dissertation chapter has been positive (yay!) but non-specific, showing more curiosity about where I'm going next than encouragement to push the ideas I presented in the first chapter further. And I truly appreciate that, insofar as they're concerned about Getting It Done and don't want me bogged down in details; at the same time, I want to see how my ideas stand up to argument. It seems a shame to immediately move on to the next chapter just when I've gotten this one into good shape!

I do have a group of potential mentors: the dissertation reading group that's discussing the chapter next Monday contains a number of people (grad students and one faculty) who are familiar with the subject matter and generally eager to challenge productively things like terminology and scope. I think (hope) they'll be my toughest audience.


Maude Lebowski said...

i feel your anxiety about the whole advisor/mentor thing. i think i really really want my diss advisor to be a mentor but he's just not interested in it, although lately he doesn't seem much interested in advising either. i'm basically on autopilot which sometimes is good and sometimes sucks because i perhaps wander a little aimlessly at times.

good luck with the diss reading group. let us know how it goes. i hope you find mentors in them.

kermitthefrog said...

Right, there's the advisor default mode of "oh, you'll do fine." And I'm not looking for detailed guidance, necessarily: even a simple question like "were there questions or problems that came up while you were working on this that we should talk about?" would make me feel more "mentored."

and I have high expectations for this reading group... we'll see how it goes!