In institutions devoted to formal education, mentoring often takes the role of a poor sister – unglamorous and often unnoticed but providing pivotal support. Formal learning requires informal learning to release its potential for change within and beyond the learner. In every area of my professional practice, formal learning has given me frameworks and access to sources of knowledge that I can subsequently draw. I can rarely recall the detail; when I do, it is rarely completely accurate. The most impactful learning comes from experience — my own and what I glean from the experience of others.
The rise of artificial intelligence has helped in recent years to illustrate this formal-informal yin and yang. What distinguishes a human mentor, coach, or tutor from an AI is the depth and quality of their respective wisdom. The original mentor in the Odyssey was Athena — the Goddess of Wisdom (and other things). To help Odysseus and his son Telemachus become wiser, she enabled them to reflect upon their experiences — learning from within and without. Computer intelligence can offer what I call ‘skinny wisdom”. Skinny wisdom consists of vast information resources and algorithms that structure and order it into accessible knowledge. Skinny wisdom lacks two essential ingredients of the other two kinds of wisdom. Firstly, it cannot make judgments outside of the boundaries of its algorithms; it can only extrapolate and make analogies within those boundaries. Secondly, it cannot offer the qualities of humanity (although it can do an excellent job of emulating compassion within set routines).
Broad wisdom comes from experience, both personal and vicarious. It is as much an emotional quality as an intellectual one. The key to broad wisdom lies in the quality of our reflection — how we make sense of experience regarding our own identity and how the world around us works. We constantly adapt our conscious and unconscious algorithms in light of these reflections.
Meta-wisdom integrates multiple sources of knowledge, skinny and broad wisdom. It is a process of constant creation and recreation. It requires curiosity and seeing connections between disciplines, philosophies, and perspectives.
Mentoring generally involves broad wisdom. However, in some environments (especially in academia), it also requires meta-wisdom. The essence of great science is seeing connections that others have missed or dismissed.
A wisdom perspective suggests that effective mentoring programs should:
- Avoid matching people within narrow disciplines or traits because that may steer the relationship toward skinny wisdom. It’s a myth that mentoring is primarily about knowledge transfer. Athena used her wisdom to help Odysseus reflect and become wiser in turn. Mentees can acquire skinny wisdom in many other ways, and the more the relationship focuses on it, the less time and space for different aspects of mentoring, which are far more deeply developmental.
- Ensure mentoring program managers have their resources for building and sharing wisdom.
- Emphasize the co-learning that takes place when mentoring relationships are at their best. If a mentor learns nothing from their mentee/protege, they probably weren’t mentoring!
There are at least two standards for mentoring programs, one from the International Mentoring Association and one from the European Mentoring and Coaching Council. Both provide a baseline for constructing and evaluating a mentoring program.
These are, however, just a starting point for effective programs. Building on the standards requires insights into programs in practice. That’s where this book comes in. Making Connections: A Handbook for Effective Formal Mentoring Programs in Academia offers practical experience from mentoring across the academic world. It is, in effect, a source of collective wisdom. The authors of Part I of this book provide a macro perspective on the foundational elements of mentoring that program coordinators must reflect on as they create the underpinnings of their respective programs. The authors of Part II share their meta-wisdom as they help coordinators understand and reflect on the various elements and interconnectedness of design, implementation, and evaluation. Finally, in Part III, the authors of the case studies share their broad wisdom based on years of personal and vicarious experiences overseeing mentoring programs in academia.
The systemic perspective is the most important theme for mentoring programs this decade. In particular, universities have many mentoring programs, each aimed at a distinct audience — pre-Uni, students, faculty, alums, and more. Each program tends to have its own mission, program management, and evaluation processes. They may also address a fairly narrow audience (such as women in STEM). This approach has stood us well overall, but only when we integrate them into a systemic approach will we harness the full power of mentoring. For example, if we want to have more professors of color, then the role model for a school leaver is not a student or junior faculty member but a professor who can open the young person’s eyes to the journey ahead and inspire them to pursue a vision of the person they want to become.
If we see mentoring in academia as a smorgasbord of interlocking, mutually supportive programs, we open the door for far more benchmarking and sharing of good practice. We also enable mentees to plan better and take charge of their mentoring journey, seeing each stage as a progression of co-learning.
The systemic perspective requires program managers to be comfortable with managing increasing levels of complexity; to see beyond the limited boundaries of individual programs to the possibilities of influencing the whole system of education, from school to university, to the world of work.
In Making Connections: A Handbook for Effective Formal Mentoring Programs in Academia, a systems perspective is evident in two ways. First, as the editors explain in their introduction, the chapters in this book provide a “one-stop shop” for program coordinators and university leaders wishing to create mentorship programs. Though each chapter has unique content, it is only through a systemic lens that the interconnections between chapters are understood and valued. It is through this holistic view that makes creating a comprehensive theory of change possible. Second, a systems perspective is evident in Part IV, theoretically and practically focusing on developmental networks.
The range of mentoring applications in academia is gradually expanding. A significant trend is to innovate around specific societal needs. For example:
- Mentoring is playing an increasing role in supporting students at all levels who have cognitive or neuro-diversity
- Mentoring has significantly supported students from less privileged backgrounds in entering higher education and staying the course.
- Increasing attention is being directed to the problem of gender and racial/ cultural origin in the context of professional advancement. We are still far from gender equality in achieving tenure or professorial status, but mentoring is helping.
A few years ago, I coined the term pracademic to describe the practitioner and academic person. Nowhere else, to my knowledge, is this fertile role so prevalent as in the world of coaching and mentoring. An academic perspective provides rigor to field research; a practitioner approach ensures the research conclusions have practical application. For example, every participant in the senior practitioner mentoring programs I facilitate globally has to complete a research project as part of their accreditation. This same principle could usefully be applied in the accreditation of program managers. Indeed, it could be argued that it is an essential element of their personal development in the role. In academia, it might be regarded as a vital role.
Mentoring has a long history in academia, but the next decade will be important in shaping just how influential mentoring will be in shaping the agenda for change. Many forces in play suggest the traditional view of an academic institution is less and less relevant in an evolving, online, AI-assisted world. Now is an appropriate time to use this book as a comprehensive resource to bring together current good practices and design mentoring for tomorrow’s world of education.