The Value of Professional Mentoring

The Modern Language Associations’ Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession has just published “Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession” (Web publication, 27 April 2009). The MLA report, as the authors put it, “suggests that the story of women’s professional lives is a complex one and that no one cause can explain women’s status in the profession.” While it would be interesting to discuss what the authors of the report call an “accumulation of microdifferences” that may add up to the substantial difference in time between women and men in attaining the rank of professor (and I hope someone will post a comment on this subject here to incite further discussion on this thread), a preliminary reading of the report has me highlighting the places in the discussion that call for creating a culture of professional mentoring and that document the disincentives that keep us from doing it.

The MLA report can help us to see the institutional and professional and personal conventions that devalue working together to create sustainable professional lives. For the report describes the professional structures that we perpetuate every day and that devalue the day-to-day collaborations that can improve the quality and effectiveness of our professional lives as teachers and scholars:

Moreover, a faculty member’s conscious retreat from undervalued or devalued forms of professional activity—including the creation of new courses and other kinds of teaching and mentoring that are often at the heart of institutional mission statements (activities from which, the survey shows, respondents drew substantial professional satisfaction)—is certainly not likely to enhance the quality of instruction and the general educational experience we provide our students. Rather than consider these activities as impediments to professional progress, institutions should encourage an appreciation of these contributions for the significant value they add to the intellectual worth of the institution. In short, standards for promotion should be brought directly into line with the numerous, essential, and vitalizing activities that sustain day to-day life in colleges and universities. Similarly, standards for promotion should explicitly recognize many of the activities, grouped under the catchall term “service,” that are necessary to further our professions or enhance partnerships between academic institutions and community organizations. The term “service,” now used to cover a huge spectrum of activities, often does not begin to capture the myriad possible contributions of faculty members, and thoughtful attention should be given to making distinctions among different kinds of service contributions, such as leadership to the profession and community engagement.

The authors have it exactly right, too, that the results of the survey of associate professors should be read in relationship to the Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion as well as the recent report from the American Association of University Professors on contingent academic labor. The call to calibrate standards for promotion in relation to the values of the people who help to define the mission and values of institutions can lead to positive, incremental changes. For instance, we should be working in our local contexts to allow our work that aligns with our mission and values to be recognized as such. And we should be talking more in fora like this one to better understand the relationship between the work that we do and the work that we wish we were doing.

Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities

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A few summers ago I went out for an afternoon walk around Auke lake, near Juneau, Alaska, with another professor teaching with me in the Bread Loaf School of English summer session. Alison and I picked our way over large roots and ferns, past a stand of enormous Sitka spruce. Our meandering conversation was much like our walk, following turns and twists, stepping over muddy spots, and catching glimpses of the lake through the trees.

Over the past few weeks I have been writing a talk on scholarship that I have been asked to give at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference. Thinking about scholarship has me rereading the writing of Alison’s father, Wayne Booth, and I’ve been mulling over his insights about the profession of English, and enjoying his playful way of engaging with the ironies of our professional lives. In an essay he wrote for the book Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, “The Scholar in Society,” republished in his collected essays The Vocation of a Teacher, Booth laments the rules of the game of scholarship. How, he asks, can we find our way to a new reward system that emphasizes inventive service to scholarship and society? He realizes that it is not a question to ask established scholars who are benefitting from the rules of the game as it is currently played. And he acknowledges that any young scholar who “does not succumb to ambition, mendacity, or cowardice, and produce instanter that book or article that should in fact have five more years of gestation,” will, of course, be asked to leave the game (62). So Booth turns from literal to allegorical thought and imagines a visitor from a strange land called “Eupaideia, a land that has miraculously ordered its scholarship according to a reasonable ideal.” In Eupaideia, as it happens, has organized its educational system around what they want: citizens who are curious about how to make life more humane. As the visitor explains, they have related scholarly inquiry, publication and reward in a different way.

tippyaukelake“Both college and school teachers are judged, for retention and promotion, mainly whether they can arouse the elected committee members’ curiosity about the subjects they teach. Each teacher whose fate is in the balance can choose any method for interesting the committee: published writing, unpublished essays or lectures, tapes, a prolonged group discussion. If curiosity is roused by where she will go next (that is, about what she may be able to teach next time around), she is hired, retained, or promoted. Every five years each teacher undergoes the same test, throughout her life, and those who fail are, regardless of their age, given a one-year sabbatical to allow for preparation for a second try; if after a year of free inquiry she still cannot arouse anyone’s curiosity, she is asked to seek employment in some line of work not centered on competence in the Curiosities. What this has meant for us is of course that nobody writes and publishes unless that route has for her proved the best way to learn. We were a bit surprised to find that the amount of writing did not go down markedly, while the amount of publication dropped by about seventy-five percent. Obviously most scholars find that trying to write a coherent statement is the best way to learn, yet most find the results of the try not ready for publication” (63).

As it turns out, the young scholars learn early a devotion to the task of discovering what is truly interesting about the world and to teaching the arts of such discovery. But, as Booth concludes with a brief commentary on his brief allegory (with a little help from William James and Max Weber), the Eupaideist’s scheme would hardly work in a fallen world.