Conversations with scholar-mentors, Part 3

By Kathleen T. Heinrich | 05/15/2015

Final of three installments focuses on those near or beyond retirement.


If you worry about the future of nursing scholarship, here’s some good news. Seasoned scholars—those near or beyond retirement—are grooming colleagues for scholarly success. I call them legacy scholars because their signature contribution is mentoring the next generation of faculty scholars.
Heinrich_Kathleen_ID_embed_SFW2Of the 15 senior faculty and academic leaders I talked with who scholar-mentor faculty colleagues, five are legacy scholars. They are notable for their reverence for scholarship, long-lived love of the profession, and wise takes on scholar-mentoring.
Who are these legacy scholars?
All are women, and they include two retired faculty members (a professor emerita and a journal editor); two retired nurse leaders; and a professor who scholar-mentors pre-tenure faculty members. Their professional journeys, begun in the 1950s and ’60s, are the stuff of which nursing history is made.
Their stories are set in a time when nursing faculty members and deans were master’s-prepared and doctoral programs in nursing did not exist. In the days before nursing conferences were common, these scholars learned from nurses who were pioneering leaders, and they became experts together. Their recollections are laced with firsts. They were in on everything from the dawn of computer usage in hospitals to becoming gerontological nurses before gerontology was a specialty.
Four of these legacy scholars are doctorally prepared, but only the professor remains an active scholar. While active scholarship is not a prerequisite for being a legacy scholar, “paying it forward” is. Intertwined with their generous desire to share is a generative wish to see others succeed. One observed, “I found a way to meet my own needs while influencing someone else’s positive outcomes.” As another explained, “I haven’t written for publication for a few years. I don’t need it anymore. I’m fostering scholarship with people still in the developing years of their careers. I’d rather be the catalyst who promotes and supports someone else, as [others have done for me].”
These legacy scholars regard nursing as a scholarly endeavor in which passion plays a critical role. One asked, “How can you mentor someone if you don’t have that passion?” As a group, they rated their passion for scholar-mentoring a 9.5 on a 10-point scale.
While none had formal scholar-mentoring preparation, three of the five drew on positive experiences with their own scholar-mentors. Because nursing was so new to academe and scholarship in those early days, it is worth noting that those mentors were often non-nurses.
What do they do?
Legacy scholars speak about mentoring faculty colleagues in much the same way as other scholar-mentors: allowing relationships to evolve, staying available, and starting where the protégé is. As one put it, “I’m always looking at my colleagues and trying to identify what they’re interested in, to see if there’s anything in my experience and contacts that they find relevant.”
Three qualities set legacy scholars apart from other scholar-mentors.
First, they bring a self-awareness to scholar-mentoring that’s tempered by humility. One confessed, “I’m a perfectionist, and that can turn people off.” They are realistic about their limitations as scholar-mentors. Said another: “It has to do with fit. For all that I love about what I do, I may not be the right person to help an individual reach the level they want to reach.”
Secondly, their desire to see colleagues succeed is not distorted by their own competitive urges. As one put it, scholar-mentoring is “having a passion, having the desire to share that passion, not being territorial about it, wanting to see someone else get that passion and even go beyond what you’ve been able to accomplish.”
And, thirdly, images they share of their scholar-mentoring role are as descriptive as their insights are profound. For example, in describing selection of faculty colleagues to scholar-mentor, one said she was drawn to those who “glow when they begin to discuss what they’re passionate about.” And when it’s time to end a mentoring relationship, it’s easier to let go if you realize, as one expressed it: “When the people you are mentoring go beyond you, you contributed to that. You are no longer their mentor. They will always treasure the mentorship that you provided, but they no longer need you because they’ve flown. So you find other hungry mouths.”
What are the challenges?
Below are three challenges unique to legacy scholars.
  1. Defining the role: Lacking a model, each legacy scholar performed the role in her own way. One addressed the upside of not having a role model: “There is no one else in our school who is a professor emerita. So no one knows what to do with me. I take advantage of this, so I have flexibility. I am a confidant, adviser, social and professional supporter, and I offer to be second reader on assignments for those in doctoral study.” The downsides, she pointed out, are loneliness and uncertainty: “If there was a group of us [legacy scholars], even someone else with whom we could compare notes or form an initiative to help our colleagues, it would be good. But I’m just out there by myself, which is kind of nice because I don’t have to follow in someone else’s footsteps. But, on the other hand, I don’t know where I’m going.”

  2. Fulfilling the role: To serve as a scholar-mentor, a legacy scholar must have direct access to faculty colleagues. The professor emerita, the journal editor, and the professor all have roles that make scholar-mentoring possible. The two legacy scholars who lacked formal access to faculty colleagues were often frustrated in their attempts to fulfill the role. One referred to herself as a legacy-scholar-in-waiting because she walks a delicate line between “trying to make myself available without seeming to hang in there.” The other described what it is like to yearn to share and not be asked to do so: “I offer. I’m always available. But faculty members never come back to me for any type of consultation. They’re losing out on so much. I can be a safe sounding board. They could avoid problems in the future, if they just came and shared. I think, ‘How sad!’ I would have jumped at the opportunity.”

  3. Staying relevant: Age may bring wisdom, but even legacy scholars who have access to faculty colleagues are concerned about relevancy. As one pointed out: “I am 78. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it. I don’t share that much because people put me in a different category.” Pressed to explain, she said she finds herself asking: “What are people saying behind my back? Have I outlived my usefulness? Are they wondering, ‘When will she really retire?’” She went on to say: “I just hope I recognize when whatever I am doing isn’t making any difference. And then, I, too, will fade away.”
Nursing’s wise women
The legacy scholars whose lived experiences I’ve highlighted are nursing’s wise women as well as our scholar-mentors. How can we support these and others in scholar-mentoring the next generation of faculty colleagues? By encouraging schools of nursing and professional groups to enter into creative arrangements with legacy scholars to offer them roles that come with scholar-mentoring access to faculty colleagues and urging faculty to seek them out.
This need for support extends beyond legacy scholars, whom I’ve discussed in this final installment of my series on scholar-mentoring, to scholar-mentors in faculty positions (Part 1) and those in administrative positions (Part 2). To provide that support, we must give more than just lip service to the value of scholar-mentoring! We must legitimize the scholar-mentoring role, and we must incentivize seasoned scholar-mentors to share their time, knowledge, and wisdom.
Summing it up
If the 15 people I’ve highlighted in this series are any indication, most scholar-mentors—whether in a senior faculty position, an administrative position (scholar-leaders), or near or beyond retirement­ (legacy scholars)—perform this important role for the love of it, not because they are assigned to the task. Without formal acknowledgement of scholar-mentoring as a respected activity that comes with recognition, reimbursement, and other rewards, the present arrangement is not sustainable.
Supporting scholar-mentors means attaching value to the function they perform. Activities associated with this role can be written into job descriptions, incorporated into course loads, or granted release time and may come with awards accompanied by prestige and financial incentives. Scholar-leaders—scholar-mentors who are in administrative positions—can be recognized by their institutions and by professional groups for fostering scholarly development of the faculty groups they lead.
As nursing education approaches an impending shortage of faculty (Nardi & Gyurko, 2013) and faculty scholars that has gone global (Heinrich, under review), supporting scholar-mentors, scholar-leaders, and legacy scholars by legitimizing and incentivizing their vital roles will go a long way toward securing the future of nursing scholarship.
Consultant, author, and speaker Kathleen T. Heinrich, PhD, RN, FAAN, is principal of K T H Consulting in Guilford, Connecticut, USA. Author of the book A Nurse’s Guide to Presenting and Publishing: Dare to Share, Heinrich conducts scholarly development workshop series for nursing faculty groups.
Heinrich, K.T. (under review). Increase your faculty group’s scholarly productivity by turning secrecy, subterfuge, and sabotage into truth-telling, transparency and trust. Journal of Professional Nursing.
Nardi, D.A., & Gyurko, C.C. (2013). The global nursing faculty shortage: Status and solutions for change. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 45(3), 317-326.
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