Mentoring is Absolutely Essential for the Future of the Professoriate

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman-current-sittingYesterday as I was chatting on Facebook (yes, I do that) with a faculty member at a different institution than my own.  He’s brand new on the tenure-track at a research university.  In addition, he is African American at a traditionally White institution and as such, most likely has to contend with additional pressures.  I don’t know this man well, but had been introduced to him by a mutual friend.  As we were chatting, he expressed concern over balancing teaching and research.  I immediately switched into mentoring mode, offering advice on which journals to approach, how to limit the time spent on prepping classes, and how to carve out writing time during the academic year.  His response:  “You don’t even know me very well.  Why are you being so generous with your time?”

My immediate response was “Because someone mentored me; in fact several people mentored me.” One of these individuals was Asa Hilliard.  Asa was a larger than life figure, but never too large to spend time with young people.  I remember when I was a new, nervous faculty member with a small child in a strange city, Asa welcomed me to the department and welcomed my family.  He embraced me as a scholar and person.  This amazing intellectual would get down on the floor at eye level with my daughter and make her giggle — such humanity and care in someone who could have chosen to just go about his work or worse yet, bask in his ego.  Instead, Asa mentored and gave the best advice: stay out of office politics, rise above petty academic jealousy, and swallow your pride when necessary.  These are lessons that I think about daily and that I pass on to my own students and mentees.

All too often, once we reach a comfortable level of success in the academy, we forget about those who are coming after us into the profession.  I have been told countless stories by Ph.D. students about how they approached a faculty member and were rebuffed.  I have been told the same stories by young faculty members who approached those senior scholars they admire.  I know that people are busy, but there is always enough time to answer a quick question, to lend an ear, and to provide mentoring to future faculty members.  What is most disturbing to me about the rebuffs I mentioned is that quite often the person telling me about them is a student or faculty member of color.

My first book was a biography of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, sociologist, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and president of Fisk University.  While researching and writing the book, I became intensely familiar with Johnson’s approach to mentoring scholars and leaders.  Under his leadership, Fisk University became an incubator for talent, especially future faculty members. In fact, his students told me that he gave them “all the tools they needed to take on the world.”  This phrase stuck with me and I have striven to emulate Johnson’s approach.

I believe wholeheartedly that in order to have a productive, caring, empathetic, student-oriented future professoriate, we as current faculty members must invest the time in mentoring young scholars.  Of course, there are many ways to do this.  One can co-author publications, co-present at conferences, explain the book writing and grant proposal processes, share ways of simplifying class preparation, etc.  One of the ways that I take care for young scholars is by meeting with them for coffee or lunch at national conferences — providing a low stress way for them to ask for advice.  I never turn someone down who asked to meet with me (unless I run out of time!).  Why? Because I was rebuffed as a young scholar and I remember how it felt.  I was told by a senior scholar as I asked for a copy of one of her conference papers,  “I don’t have time for you.”  It stung!

I urge all scholars to think twice before ignoring a request from a young person.  In order to make sure that the academy is a healthy work environment for research and teaching, we need to provide the proper guidance and nurturing to future academics.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).


7 responses to “Mentoring is Absolutely Essential for the Future of the Professoriate

  1. Very true what described in this article. I know from personal experience at U of Florida. DQdelaP

  2. I think it is very rude and selfish. I tend wonder when something like this will, that young scholar just goes off and reports the faculty member for being so rude. Are institutions higher learning actually institutions of higher learning or breeding grounds for self-indulgence?

  3. I could not agree more as I believe that mentoring is the most important thing that we do as academicians,especially for those who do not have the advantages of the privileged class. In fact, I have just finished a book to be published later this year that is about the importance of Mentoring and Diversity.

  4. Marybeth, this is a great essay and honors the spirit and essence of Baba Asa in a variety of ways! He was indeed a great mentor and I can remember going to his office and leaving with an additional list of books for me to read after each visit. 🙂

    As one of your former graduate students, I can of course also attest to the fact that you have been one of my greatest mentors and that you have indeed gone the extra mile for many of your students! I will continue to honor your investment in me by passing the torch and paying it forward with every opportunity that I have to touch the life of a young person.

    Thanks again for your public words of wisdom!

  5. Once again, Dr. Gasman is right on point with not only her ability to mentor, but her desire to do so: equitably. In another of her articles titled, “Advising Students to the Ph.D.: Are We Equitable in Our Support?,” Dr. Gasman offers us her method of self-assessment in the area of equitable mentoring to her students, stating that she “write[s] down the name of all my doctoral advisees” and takes note of “the collaborations” and “introductions to opportunities” she has “made for them” for the purpose of determining if she is or is not “being equitable in her support of students” (Gasman).

    At the time I was a frustrated graduate student nearing the end of my doctoral program. I commented on the aforementioned article, stating that whether on campus or hundreds of miles away, the mentoring I received at my university from day one was seriously lacking. To my surprise, Dr. Gasman emailed me personally. I was elated because this was not her responsibility. Over the course of six emails, Dr. Gasman offered me some great advice, and even offered me to contact her further regarding the value of publishing. Again, this was NOT her responsibility, but by doing so, Marybeth certainly demonstrated her commitment to student achievement by understanding the important role faculty advisors play in building the future foundation of our universities, colleges, and community colleges.

    In this article Dr. Gasman passionately states that she “believe[s] wholeheartedly that in order to have a productive, caring, empathetic, student-oriented future professoriate, we as current faculty members must invest the time in mentoring young scholars,” and she is absolutely correct.

    Now having completed my doctorate, apprehended my first university tenure-track position, and assigned my first 7 mentees, I am now in the position to be the polar opposite of my experience as a mentee. Because of Dr. Gasman reaching out to me, and my faculty advisor, who increased her commitment to my program in its final throws, I understand clearly that faculty advisors can make or break a student’s will, can increase or decrease the fractures in university teaching, and can build or destroy the equity in the university’s student body. I am committed to demonstrating my support for my new mentees by applying the characteristics Dr. Gasman suggests mentors must have to help build the future “student-oriented future professoriate” (Gasman).

    Thanks again Dr. Gasman. You will be hearing from me very soon.

    Peace and Blessings.

  6. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  7. James D. VanWright

    Wow, powerful article!

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