Conversations with scholar-mentors, Part 1

By Kathleen T. Heinrich | 04/16/2015
 
First of three installments focuses on those in faculty positions.


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Who are the senior scholars who mentor you and your faculty colleagues? Every group has at least one, and these scholar-mentors are easy to spot—not because they call attention to themselves but because their names are mentioned again and again whenever faculty members, often with tears of gratitude, credit those who made their scholarly success possible.
 
After 10 years of listening to tender tributes to these generous academics, I wanted to find out more about them, so I emailed the following invitation to colleagues I consider scholar-mentors:
As a consultant to scholars, I’ve become increasingly concerned about senior faculty members who scholar-mentor colleagues. Not only are these mentors rare and precious, they’re an endangered species, representing just 1 to 2 percent of faculty groups. For many scholar-mentors, their roles are not even official. In hopes of supporting this worthy work, I’m reaching out to respected scholar-mentors like you to learn more about your experiences.
Heinrich_Kathleen_ID_embed_SFW2Once recipients of these invitations agreed to speak with me, they received a list of questions to guide our 90-minute conversations. Prior to each exchange, I explained that my intent was to deepen understanding, raise awareness, and initiate a wider dialogue about the pivotal role scholar-mentors play in scholarly faculty development. Even though I was not conducting a formal research project, I promised respondents that their identities would not be disclosed in presentations and publications resulting from our discussion, and all agreed to the conversation being recorded. I also asked for names of colleagues they considered scholar-mentors.
 
Since then, I’ve spoken with 15 faculty members and administrators, some working, others who have retired. Early on, it became clear that the concerns, focus, and scope of scholar-mentors in faculty positions differed from those in administrative roles, and the perspectives expressed by these two groups differed from those who were near or beyond retirement. So I divided the respondents into three categories. Those holding faculty positions, I identified as scholar-mentors. Those in administrative positions, I called scholar-leaders. And those near or beyond retirement, I labeled legacy scholars.
 
What follows are excerpts from conversations I had with the five people in the first group—scholar-mentors who hold faculty positions. [Excerpts from comments made by people in the other two groups that Heinrich interviewed will be included in Parts 2 and 3 of the series.] Throughout, I neither defined scholar-mentoring nor asked participants for their definitions of the term. Instead, these are scholar-mentors telling their stories—shedding light on who they are, what they do, and what they consider challenges.
 
Who are these scholar-mentors?
All five are women, published authors, and grant-funded researchers. One spoke for all when she said, “I love writing and helping people write.” Beyond passion for their own scholarship, they were passionate about helping pre-tenure faculty members meet scholarly expectations. When asked to rate their passion for scholar-mentoring on a scale from 0 (no passion) to 10 (full of passion), one admitted: “I’m a 10, but I try to keep it down to a 2. I’m exhausting for people. It’s bad enough that sometimes people start to edge away when I come near them. Everyone says, ‘Don’t say anything, or she’ll tell you that’s a good article idea.’”
 
Three of these five scholar-mentors were paid for their services, roles that I’ve identified as formal. They included an endowed chair, a director of research who devoted 40 percent of her time to scholar-mentoring, and a part-time adjunct professor hired to scholar-mentor DNP faculty colleagues. For the other two, scholar-mentoring was an add-on, or informal, activity. As one observed, “It was not a role I was hired for or in my contract.” Whether formal or informal, the word pictures these scholar-mentors used to describe their roles included cheerleader, motivator, virus, and fertilizer.
 
All five women agreed there were upsides and downsides to scholar-mentoring, whether formal or informal. Positive aspects of formal scholar-mentoring include: Official work time can be dedicated to the task; an official title confers legitimacy to the role; and “slush funds” and other resources are available to compensate these mentors and to hire student assistants. On the downside, when the scholar-mentoring role is formal, administrators tell inquirers, “Go see her, she’s the mentor.” Formal scholar-mentors are thus expected to work with all comers, regardless of interest or motivation.
 
Conversely, the upside of informal roles is freedom to work with faculty members who are, as one noted, “truly interested in scholarship.” As for the downside, when mentoring is informal, no time is officially dedicated to the task, monetary compensation is not received, and, often, other rewards are not given by the academy.
 
What do they do?
Scholar-mentors who hold faculty positions help colleagues in the pre-tenure pipeline to, as one put it, “do something scholarly that would not have happened had the mentor not lent a hand.” Another said, “Scholar-mentoring is just what I do. I do know a good idea when I see one or hear one. I also know garbage when I read it. I know diamonds in the rough. There is a lot of writing that, with some polishing, would be exquisite.”
 
All five scholar-mentors prided themselves on starting where faculty colleagues are and offering advice on everything from “breaking things out into reasonable steps” to “tips on how to get scholarship done while you’re still getting everything else done.” As one observed, while they support faculty colleagues “with the technical part and the belief that they can do it,” their scholar-mentoring contributions ranged from one-offs of advice giving and quick consultations on specific questions to longer and more intensive interchanges.
 
Some in the group served as “resource persons with skills,” guiding faculty colleagues in meeting short-term, scholarly goals such as manuscript writing. Others mentored colleagues who, over a span of years, progressed toward tenure and promotion. These longer-term relationships involved helping mentees be introspective about the fit between their professional goals and academic life, take advantage of opportunities, and sequence studies to form a program of research.

What are the challenges?
While specific challenges may vary, three stood out in my conversations with scholar-mentors who hold faculty positions.
 
1) “I can’t do it for them.”
Unlike relationships between scholar-mentors and students, relationships between scholar-mentors and faculty colleagues are “collaborative partnerships” or “team efforts.” Because scholar-mentors and junior faculty members are equals, motivating colleagues to undertake or persist in scholarly endeavors can be a challenge. One scholar-mentor commented, “I spend a lot of time wondering, ‘How do you get writers to develop?’”
 
Sticky situations with faculty colleagues taught scholar-mentors who spoke with me the importance of a strong, personal, and collegial relationship as well as the need for what one called “reciprocity.” One scholar-mentor approached a new faculty colleague to co-author an article that never materialized. She told me, “If I had to do it over again, I would spend more time getting to know her. We needed more conversation to build toward authoring.”
 
Another of the five respondents recalled “jumping in and doing a lot of the writing for a person who needed a publication, but she just wasn’t passionate. It went nowhere.” Yet another said, “They have to be passionate about it. They have to be willing to invest their part. I’ve learned that I don’t do any writing until they do.”
 
2) “I’m not a therapist.”
While scholar-mentors who hold faculty positions might dream of, as one put it, “a cadre of faculty members who share the same vision, interest, and passion in disseminating results,” each of the five found it challenging when self-confidence issues stymied the scholarly progress of some colleagues. This included experienced faculty members who hide their fears and resistances to scholarship beneath a bravado that masks the fact that they are not producing. As one observed, “We have faculty members who talk a good game. They really do have the impostor syndrome. I am trying to figure out how to be helpful and useful for those people.”
 
3) “I can’t know everything.”
Even though none of the five scholar-mentors were officially prepared for the scholar-mentor role, all were, themselves, scholar-mentored. One observed: “I’ve had some very good mentors myself, so I know what a huge difference it made. What I would call preparation is based on my own experience as a mentee.”
 
All five inherited what one called “a legacy of rigor,” which they, in turn, pass on to the faculty colleagues they scholar-mentor. Despite this legacy, one noted, “I am not a fountain of knowledge. There is a limit to my ability to be a scholar-mentor. It is important for scholar-mentors to know what they know and to know what they don’t know.” These knowledge gaps include content areas such as the scholarship of teaching and learning as well as relational issues: for example, balancing the challenge and support needed to motivate faculty mentees.
 
Passionate and isolated
In this first installment, I’ve drawn from conversations I had with five senior faculty members who scholar-mentor colleagues. Whether scholar-mentoring is part of their formal role or an informal add-on, they are passionate about giving their faculty colleagues the scholarly support, skills, and self-confidence they need to succeed.
 
If the greatest gift these academics give is paying forward the scholar-mentoring they enjoyed as graduate and doctoral students, or as junior faculty members, their greatest challenge is the isolation that comes with being scholar-mentors. As one noted, “We are so alone.” There is no cadre or network of scholar-mentors with whom they can compare notes. Although they considered their own scholar-mentors “lifelong friends,” none asked those mentors for help with their scholar-mentoring challenges. Rather, they resolved difficulties on their own and applied the lessons they learned in new scholar-mentorships.
 
In the two installments that follow, I will explore how scholar-leaders and legacy scholars live out their roles as scholar-mentors. RNL
 
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 programs for nursing faculty groups.
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