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Unit 1: Planning for Promotion and Tenure

Section 1.2: Identifying and Working With Mentors & Communities of Practice

What is a Mentor?
Qualities of a Mentor
Mentoring at a Distance and Across Disciplines
The Mentoring Relationship
Finding a Mentor or a Community of Practice
References & Resources


"Mentoring-it is critical since there are so few people who can share how to make this work scholarly."

"Have a champion. She said, you act like a professor. If I act like one, I will be one. Have an ally who can help you think through some of these things. Who can encourage you and bolster you. It is because you aren't fitting that it is [a] difficult process."

Faculty in the Scholarship Project cited mentoring as critical to developing and sustaining community-engaged scholarship and gaining the confidence to navigate the promotion and tenure process. "Mentoring is critical" as one faculty noted, "since there are so few people who can share how to make this work scholarly." There is a broad base of literature available on mentoring and the benefits and challenges of finding and working a mentor. This section summarizes the key points in the literature and places it within a context of the need for mentoring in community-based scholarship.

What is a Mentor?

The concept of a mentor covers a broad range of meanings and roles and cannot be captured in any single definition or description. The term is usually traced back to Homer's Odyssey, where Mentor was the half-man, half god teacher of Odysseus' son, Telemachus, guiding the young man's maturation in the absence of his father (Goodwin, 2000). The general view of a mentor is thus of someone with experience and wisdom serving as a temporary guide. The mentor may be more senior or they may also be a peer with valuable skills and experience to share. One recently promoted faculty from assistant to associate described mentoring as:

"… tremendously important. We need mentors at all levels. For me, mentorship is a partnership with senior colleagues at all levels. These are people who support what you do and don't tell you what to do. With this sort of relationship, I can be open to criticism."
Associate Professor

The scope of the mentor/mentee relationship may vary considerably. At its most encompassing the mentor role is one of a life-coach, available for counsel and encouragement in all elements of personal and professional development. The mentor may be able to work with you and ask you questions about:

  • Your vision for community-engaged scholarship
  • Sources of grant funding to support community-engaged scholarship
  • Identifying your strengths and weaknesses in the academic environment.
  • How to make you teaching and clinical work scholarly
  • How to make your teaching and clinical work community-engaged
  • How you are documenting your community-engaged scholarship
  • How you are balancing your academic work across the institutions' missions

More commonly, and more typical of formal mentoring programs in the workplace, mentors provide guidance in developing professional competence and acquiring the tacit knowledge of how a specific organization operates.

Qualities of a Mentor

The specific qualities of a suitable mentor are highly dependent on your institutional context and your individual needs, but some general characteristics to look for in a mentor might include the following. The mentor is:

  • Accomplished: the mentor should have the expertise and experience required to guide you in the direction you wish to go
  • Available: the mentor should be able to schedule time specifically for mentoring and be available for regular communication with you
  • Flexible: the mentor can adapt to changing needs and an evolving relationship as you gain skills and confidence
  • Demanding: the mentor should set high standards and assist you in setting and achieving goals
  • Accepting: the mentor understands that you have areas for improvement as well as strengths and is non-judgmental about mistakes
  • Supportive/Encouraging: the mentor is not in competition with you and seeks to support your goals rather than direct or control

Faculty in the Scholarship Project suggested finding mentors who are:

"knowledgeable and has experience pertinent to what you are doing; you can trust (don't want someone who could potentially jeopardize a program); brings forth the enthusiasm for you to keep doing this work and works against discouragement."
Associate Professor.

The Mentoring Relationship

"For my doctoral students, it is so important to know there will be a mentor there that understands what work you want to do. To know the culture and criteria of the institutions. It is tough for [for doctoral students and fellows] who don't."

Once you have found a mentor, how you decide to structure the mentoring process will depend on a variety of factors such as the degree of formality, available time, and the scope of the mentoring goals. In formal mentoring programs, a process and guidelines may already be clearly laid out. If the mentoring relationship is more informal it is still important to establish some structure to guide you in knowing where you want to go and how to know if you are making progress. All but the most informal mentoring relationships tend to develop generally through a series of four phases (Zachary, 2000):

  • Preparing: getting ready for the initial meeting and beginning the relationship; getting to know one another.
  • Negotiating: defining goals and criteria for measuring success; establishing mutual responsibilities and accountability in the relationship; determining how to address difficulties in the relationship should they arise. (See the list above for the types of questions and areas of focus you may want to have with your mentor).
  • Enabling: nurturing a learning environment, providing challenges, and promoting reflection and development of vision. Setting goals and monitoring progress are essential for success.
  • Closing: planning for the relationship to end; avoiding dependence on the mentor; becoming peers.

Of course, it may be difficult to know much about a prospective mentor's personal character prior to beginning the relationship. The most important quality is a willingness to commit to the process.

Mentoring at a Distance and Across Disciplines

Especially within academia, the most important goal of the mentor relationship involves both navigating the demands of promotion and tenure at a particular institution and exploring and gaining entree and proficiency in a the scholarly field. In such a case, the most suitable mentors may be working at other institutions or other parts of the world, and they may span disciplines. Thus, gaining access to the networks above could provide the entree if you're institution does not have mentors who can support your community-engaged scholarship. While they may not be familiar with the specific culture at your institution, they might be best able to listen to you and provide you with guidance and support.

Although this situation presents some obvious hurdles, it can work via telephone and email communication. As in a more traditional mentor relationship, the key to success is setting clear goals and guidelines for regular contact.

Finding a Mentor or a Community of Practice

CCPH Online Database of Faculty Mentors and Portfolio Reviewers is designed for community-engaged faculty who are searching for faculty mentors and by deans, department chairs and others who are searching for external experts to review portfolios of community-engaged faculty who are being considered for promotion and/or tenure.

A growing number of academic institutions are establishing formal mentor programs that match junior faculty with more experienced colleagues. When available, such programs provide the advantage of recognized and often compensated roles and some established parameters for the structure and goals of the mentor/mentee partnership.

To date, however, there are few formal mentoring programs specifically designed for faculty whose scholarship is community engaged. Given the close and highly personal nature of the mentor relationship, it may be preferable to seek out a mentor in an informal relationship that meets the specific goals and needs you have identified in a mentoring relationship.

We encourage you to create a network of individuals who can mentor you. We encourage you to:

  • Email potential mentors
  • Set up phone appointments
  • Arrange to meet potential mentors at conferences you are both attending
  • Build mentoring into grants by identifying them as advisory committee members and/or consultants

While there are few formal programs, there are several growing national networks of peers with whom you might become involved. These networks are also referred to as "communities of practice." Communities of practice "involve shared practice (see praxis): ways of doing and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among members." (Etienne Wenger 1998)

Communities of practice can include formal organizations and networks as well as informal networks such as on-going relationship with a group of like-minded colleagues at your institution.

Communities of practice in the field of community-engaged scholarship include:

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