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Thursday, December 29, 2011

What Do Mentors and Mentees Owe Each Other?

At CoOp, Nicole Huberfeld has an interesting post about faculty mentoring of other faculty members, asking what being a mentor means.  Huberfeld asks what makes a good mentor, and offers some reasonable possibilities: "Is it a matter of providing navigational guideposts for advancement toward tenure?  Advice about publishing strategies?  Providing a friendly eye for early drafts?  Teaching aid and advice?  Support for other decision-making, such as child-bearing, and attempting the elusive ‘work-life balance’?"  She says her assumptions have recently been shaken because many people appear not to receive the kind of mentoring they desire, although she doesn't say why that should change her view of what a mentor does.

In my admittedly partial experience, when I hear people discussing mentoring of faculty, their discussions usually seem to break down into a few general categories: 1) The mentor, often a professor at the school where one was a student, helps the mentee to get a teaching job.  2) The mentor is a Virgil for the pre-tenure years, teaching the mentee something about faculty etiquette and politics, and about what is needed to write tenure-worthy scholarship (or how to avoid writing pieces that might harm one's tenure chances).  3) Often, mentoring is spoken of in broadly political terms, frequently related to identity or affinity groups.  The background assumption is that the web of old-school contacts that gave undue advantages to members of the (white, male) majority is still alive and well.  Accordingly, it's important, not to fight directly against that system, but to reproduce it for others who have been traditional outsiders.  

I suspect that with mentoring, as with many other topics of discussion, it might help to shift the ground a little and think more in terms of duties than rights.  We might ask not so much what the mentor does to help the mentee advance, but what the mentor and mentee ought to owe each other as a matter of ethical obligation.  The ethics here are broader than the relation between the two individuals: they may involve the profession as a whole.  We often focus more on certain kinds of positive aspects of mentoring--helping the mentee advance, providing him or her with emotional support, and so on--and less on the mixture of positive and negative advice that a mentor-mentee relationship with complete integrity might involve.  

Advice concerning tenure is a prime example.  It would be reasonable for a mentor who to counsel an untenured mentee to do some of the following: avoid getting involved in internal faculty controversies prior to tenure; cite one's own colleagues in one's pre-tenure pieces where possible; avoid clashing directly with a senior colleague in one's pre-tenure scholarship; avoid certain "controversial" issues, at least at some schools; in some cases, conceal one's politics; and so on.  All of these might constitute good advice in some cases, if tenure is the goal.  (Not to beat a dead horse, but even if this is good advice, instrumentally speaking, the relative ease of obtaining tenure may affect how essential it is.)  But, on a broader view of mentoring as involving a deeper duty to the mentee, and also a duty to the profession, it might be bad mentoring.  Festooning one's writing with flattering cites to one's colleagues, for instance, may be relatively harmless in the short term, but it does not serve a valid scholarly function and therefore detracts from the writing as scholarship; it may also teach bad long-term habits.  It is practically sound advice to encourage an untenured colleague to stay away from internal controversies while junior; but, at times, it may also amount to a recommendation that the junior scholar abdicate his or her duties as an academic and a member of an institution, and again may teach bad habits--and, still worse, may lead the mentee to counsel others to do the same when he or she in due course becomes a mentor.

I don't mean to be too perverse about it.  I suppose mentors ought not give advice that will harm their chances at tenure, all else being equal.  But there are reasons, it seems to me, to think that a mentor's primary duty is not to advance his or her mentee, but to help him or her become a good academic and not merely a successful one--and that, in turn, it is a mentee's duty to try to become a good academic, and to argue back against a mentor whose advice, while instrumentally sound, underserves important matters of academic integrity.

I wonder whether a mentor might also have a duty to become better educated, at times.  From what I have seen, it appears to be common that a mentor's advice to a mentee on the job market will be to take the best possible teaching offer--by which he or she often means nothing more or less than taking the job at the most highly-ranked law school available.  Some of these mentors appear to know little of what is happening at lower-ranked schools, whether good or bad.  But I'm not sure such advice is good for the academic profession, even if it makes sense from a point of view that takes our current values as a given.  If a mentor is going to give advice about which offer to take, perhaps that mentor should be obliged to know enough about both the schools involved and the particular personal and professional needs of the mentee to give more meaningful advice; perhaps that mentor should even be obliged, as a matter of academic duty, not to take our current values as a given in offering advice.  Conversely, it may be a mentee's duty to argue back against advice from a mentor that takes such conventional but often mistaken values and hierarchies as a given.         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 29, 2011 at 07:48 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I agree with Dan: protege and mentee strike me as different things. Mentee is a direct object of mentoring (teaching, coaching, advising); protege is a subject of promotional efforts directed at third parties (arranging interviews, name-dropping). It is possible to mentor someone without also engaging in promotional activities on their behalf and vice versa.

Posted by: anon | Dec 30, 2011 4:27:32 PM

With respect, Paul, I think mentee is less "fancy" than protege, and in these circumstances, preferable. Many of us think some degree of being mentor or mentee is good ol' sweat of the brow laboring, but proteges require an artfulness that perhaps neither the mentor nor the mentee has, not to mention, perhaps some swagger. Moreover, someone's protege is more likely to be in that person's area and method, whereas a mentor might be a little less intellectually enmeshed with the mentee. So, take back the mea culpa!

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 30, 2011 2:22:20 PM

Nicole, thanks, and thanks again for your original post. Incidentally, a student of mine quite rightly deplored my using "mentee" instead of "protege." I had "protege" in mind when I wrote but, for some terrible reason, I used "mentee" instead. Mea culpa.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 30, 2011 1:53:06 PM

Paul, thanks for your very thoughtful response to my post. I think you hit on an important point, that we have layers of accomplishments, and we have different ways to achieve our goals. A mentor can help a mentee to see that the long-term view is one that looks beyond the relatively short goal of tenure (in a lifetime of work). Perhaps one way to think about it is that a mentor can see the various paths more clearly, and sometimes a mentee may have to make choices when presented with the paths, or categories of possibility, that you've set forth.

Posted by: Nicole Huberfeld | Dec 30, 2011 1:41:04 PM

Paul, wonderful post. It might also be that, for some of the reasons that you discuss, from the point of view of the mentee it is worth having a few mentors -- a small community of wise men and women to go to for advice or insight on various fronts. Mentors are well-intentioned but not infallible or unerring; they have their prejudices, outlooks, foibles, tendencies, and so on, and this is all to the good. The idea is not really so much that it is "useful" to have multiple sources of input about previously unknown information before making the optimal decision. It's that you get a sense of the roundedness of a mentor's range of dispositions by comparing the tenor of advice that he or she gives against other people's thoughts. A mentor is a kind of friend, and it might be that treating the mentor like a (knowledgeable) friend, rather than a sage, makes it more likely that a real friendship will have developed by the time you no longer need mentoring.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 29, 2011 11:31:41 AM

Paul's argument that becoming a good academic, rather than merely a successful one, cannot be stressed enough, and I'm not certain everyone knows that. As a junior faculty member, I've dedicated myself to making the tenure process as superfluous as possible. I concentrate on teaching and publishing as well as I can, and serving the college to the best of my abilities. By taking my attention off the tenure process and directing it toward my duties--and by locating the boundary of "sufficient" and extending myself well beyond that--I've discovered that I love my job even more than I thought I would. If you love your job (and are continually humbled by it, as I am) tenure will take care of itself. Perhaps I'm grossly naive, but I trust that my colleagues will steer me in the right direction if I've gone off course. If they don't, then I'm at the wrong institution and I'll go somewhere else. Failing that, I'll find something else to do. Obsessing about tenure is a natural state of mind, but it's not the only state of mind, and I doubt it's the healthiest. Do your job and challenge yourself and you'll be fine. P.S.: I have a mentor, but he and I don't click. It used to bother me, in the few minutes that I chose to think about it. I stopped thinking about it, and developed the above mind-set.

Posted by: Andrew | Dec 29, 2011 9:45:31 AM

I agree that information is a valuable part of the relationship. I would add only that: 1) It may not be the only value of the relationship: modeling and moral reinforcement (not just moral support) are also possible values in the relationship. 2) It's not as clear to me that the kinds of advice I'm stressing here are always things that everyone already knows, or that the kinds of prudential advice that a mentor might offer are always things that junior faculty don't know or can't easily figure out for themselves, especially in an age when there are vast reserves of discussions of these kinds of questions on the Internet. That said, I don't think the mentor should refrain from giving information at all on the basis that the information will encourage the mentee to make the wrong choice; I just think the mentor may have an obligation to advise the mentee to do the right thing, even if he or she also discusses what might be the expedient thing.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 29, 2011 9:06:11 AM


A good post, but let me advance something of a limited counterargument. To me, the value of a mentor is information advantage -- I want someone to tell me what I don't already know. The ethical values that you are talking about are also ones that everyone already knows. A mentor who simply says that one should never take political considerations into account in one's scholarship is very upstanding and admirable, but not very helpful. A mentor who details what disputes truly divide the faculty and require particular caution, etc., imparts useful information because those things are not obvious to someone starting out.

Posted by: TJ | Dec 29, 2011 9:01:52 AM

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