Being a mentor in weird times

Image by aatlas from Pixabay

Becoming a mentor was something I probably jumped into a little too early in my career. After spending a couple of years on the ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program Committee, which matches mentors with mentees, I’d seen how the program was often flooded with mentee applicants but struggled to find enough volunteers to be mentors. So after I rotated off the committee, I applied to be a mentor even though I was still pre-tenure by several years.

That first year was a little awkward. I got matched with someone who was basically at the same level in her career as I was, so there was only so much advice I could offer because we were in the same boat on a lot of issues. The whole thing turned into more of a networking opportunity than a mentoring relationship. For me, that was okay but I’m sure my mentee would have preferred someone with a little more experience.

A big part of the reason why I wanted to be a mentor is because I’ve been lucky to have many great mentors throughout my life. I’m talking past and present, going all the way back to middle school. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect and I wanted to see if maybe I could play that role for someone else. So it was disappointing to stumble early on.

This past year, though, I felt like I really hit my stride as a mentor. It was my first year post-tenure, which gave me both a real and imagined sense of authority that helped me feel a little more confident than I had in the past. I had an ACRL IS mentee who I felt like I was clicking with. I was also asked to be a tenure mentor to a new colleague as part of a formal program we have here at my home institution.

In my conversations with both my mentees, I felt like I finally had something real to say. Wisdom to share. My experience and perspective was not the be all and end all, but it had a certain amount of value. I felt like I was being of use.

We all know what happened next.

A global pandemic sent everything into a tailspin.

When all of this started, I saw a lot of headlines directed at parents about how to talk to their children about the coronavirus. How to manage their own emotions about what was happening while also helping their kids through it.

Obviously, my mentees are not a kids and I’m not their parent. But the questions these articles were helping parents to address had parallels to questions I was asking myself. Mentoring was a fun challenge when the future seemed fairly straightforward and predictable. How do you do it when suddenly everything is much less certain, especially when you’re trying to manage your own feelings around that uncertainty?

For me, a lot of this has manifested as guilt, particularly when it comes to my local mentee. I have fears about my own job but I also have tenure, which means I have a little more protection (or at least the illusion of it) than she does. If something does happen, our union contract stipulates that decisions about cuts will be based at least in part on seniority. Meaning whoever was the last in will be the first out. While around fifteen people have been hired at our library since I started, my mentee was among the library’s more recent hires, which puts her in some danger if any of this comes to pass.

I mean, before all of this we were talking about her upcoming term review, which comes at the end of a faculty member’s first year on the tenure track. Based on my own experience, it’s hard not to worry about this first review (or any others that might come after) no matter how strong your work has been up to that point because it does carry with it the possibility that your term won’t be renewed. Before, that possibility seemed remote. Now people on my campus are wondering if not renewing a faculty member’s terms will be the university’s quiet way of cutting jobs in addition to our current hiring freeze.(1)

So that’s where my worries are. Maybe the most interesting part about this, though, is learning that my mentee’s thoughts are not necessarily in the same place as mine.

My mentee and I still meet on a monthly basis and as much as possible I try to let her guide the conversation. We’ve talked a lot about committees she’s volunteering for and how to make sure she’s not overloading herself with committee work (as I did in my first few years on the tenure track). We also talk about making strategic choices about which committees she serves on so that when it comes time to tell the story of her pre-tenure career as part of her narrative statements, she’ll be able to connect them clearly to her other work. These are highly worthwhile conversations and I’m glad we’re having them. I just wonder if I’m doing her a disservice by not bringing up the other stuff, though I assume she’s having conversations about that with her supervisor, who’s probably the more appropriate person to talk to about these things anyway.

I also don’t want to project my own anxieties onto her. Just because I’m worried about these things doesn’t mean that she is, especially when nothing we’ve seen in the communications we’ve been getting so far indicates that we should be. The truth is, no one knows the future. I’ve just always been someone who tends to try to cross bridges before I actually come to them, especially when those bridges are causing me a lot of anxiety.

It also occurs to me that, as a mentor, I place a lot of value on my own experience. I’ve done research and been published in some top journals. I’ve successfully taught in a variety of online and in-person environments. I’ve served on and even chaired some fairly important committees. Hell, I got tenure. But all of that was done during a period of relative stability. Sure, there were the continuing reverberations of the 2008 crisis which made it necessary to occasionally zig when previously the right move would have been to zag. (Example: I left my current institution for two years right after grad school because the financial situation was such that they couldn’t offer me a tenure track job at the time even though they wanted to. Once they could, I came back.) But it seems like the long term effects of what we’re going through right now are going to be so much bigger than what I went through. How do you mentor someone through an unprecedented situation?

I guess I’m going to have to figure it out. I mean, I want to. Mentoring is still something I very much want to do. It’s just that right now it feels a lot different than it did just a few months ago. I’d finally hit my stride and now this feels like a massive stumble. But for those who still find value in my experience, I still want to be here.


(1) To be clear, our university’s president and his administration have been asked about this and have told us that this strategy is not currently being considered. I believe them.


One thought on “Being a mentor in weird times

  1. “Mentor” is a truly tough role to fill. In almost all scenarios except perfection (and who needs a mentor in a perfect world?) – the mentor has to wrestle with the burden of influencing another human’s choices and knowing it still may not be enough to ensure success. Academia is particularly strange because it’s built on the premise of a rational, cause-and-effect structure – right up until a catastrophe wrecks that structure. I wish you and your mentee the very best in navigating this uncertainty.


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