On mentoring. A response to Katarina Mihaljević

Professional philosophy has a reputation for protecting harassers in their midst. Although John Searle’s assaults are said to have been known since 2004, it was only this year that he has finally been sanctioned, a bit. Fostering such perpetrators not only speaks of an enormous sexism in the institutions in question, it also affects the normal or desirable relations between faculty members and students. Thus, it is not surprising that many public discussions about “the profession” revolve around the problematic aspects such as the effects of power imbalance. So much so that one might almost forget that faculty-student relations are not only poisonous but might even provide some remedies, also against the problematic culture in our discipline. Katarina Mihaljević argues that mentorship is crucial in education and even in combatting sexism. At the same time she points out that the precise nature of mentorship remains unclear: often neither students nor faculty members seem to have a clear idea of what to expect. In what follows, I would like to reflect on mentorship and its elusive nature.

During my years as a graduate student, mentorship wasn’t part of the educational programme. I just asked two of my professors for guidance and was very lucky in that they responded in an encouraging manner and supported me greatly and continuously. In my faculty at Groningen, mentoring forms a clear part of the graduate education. But that does of course not determine the nature of mentoring. According to one of many definitions, mentoring is a “process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development …” While at least some of us are trained to impart knowledge, it’s harder to get clear on what it means to transmit social capital and to lend support. A “code of conduct”, as Katarina envisions it, might provide a framework, but it can’t get to the heart of the matter, simply because questions of social capital and support are highly personal. In this sense, it is no surprise that the “rights and duties” remain and perhaps even have to remain vague. Nevertheless, there are a few elements that form a recurrent part of the conversations I have with students. In what follows, I’d like to list those that I find crucial:

  • Contextualising (content): No matter whether I am formally determined to be someone’s mentor or just happen to discuss a paper, I often begin by trying to figure out what the goals of students are. Why, for instance, does she want to write a certain paper? Is it related to a continuous set of interests or just falling out of the actual course work? Answers to this question help me understanding the philosophical drive of the student and, in turn, enable me to show a particular research question in its relation to wider issues inside and outside philosophy. My hope is that a particular piece of work makes sense to the student in a wider scope.
  • Contextualising (career): Where do you want to go with this piece of work? That is often my next question. Sometimes I receive an incredulous stare, but the point is to relate the actual work to wider life goals. Does someone see themselves as an academic or outside the university? And what difference might the work on a particular topic make? Sometimes people burn for a topic; others might wish to foster certain skills or just challenge themselves. – The idea is not to tailor the essay accordingly, but rather to get a sense of what matters to the student and whether I can say anything helpful at this point. If this goes well, the best outcome is some sort of confident projection of the student’s goals into the future. Ideally, the student seriously begins to see herself in a certain professional context or environment.
  • Understanding uncertainties: Obviously, this projection is not an attempt to fix the future. It’s about seeing obstacles and paths around them. To make this work, I try to connect to my own experiences as a student. This not in order to end up saying something like “do it my way”, but in order to understand: How would I have felt with such goals? How would I have felt about telling them to my supervisor? It helps me seeing the courage and worries involved in this projection. In some moments, I can then honestly say “oh, that would have worried me”, or “I would have loved to do something like that” or “faced with this, I wanted to do x, but never dared to.” Let’s face it: most worries are about performing well and how to get there. But in the background there is a larger story about belonging to a community. The crucial point, for me at least, is not to come up with recipes but to remind myself and others that it is part of the game to have worries or uncertainties. Mirroring that this is normal might help, and also put things into a balanced picture in line with other parts of life.
  • Advising: The forgoing items are mainly elements that figure in listening, “active listening”, still involving some talking on my part. Where does the advice come in? Ideally, students give themselves much advice while responding to questions. Most things suggest themselves when people unpack their ideas. One can steer this by asking things like “Have you asked yourself this?”, “Have you heard about that [book, conference, person]?”, “If you do x, you might run into the following problem.” – The idea is to encourage students to articulate their ideas in the strongest possible ways, to make them see objections, and show them the context in which they can be placed. This has a scholarly and a social dimension. Over and above the discussion of ideas, I find it crucial to impart an understanding of the network of people and institutions involved. Ideally, students feel encouraged to approach people whose ideas they find interesting, be it during talks, at conferences, summer schools or via mail. If students begin see themselves as a real part of the conversation I have reached one of the crucial goals in mentoring.
  • Limits: What I find equally crucial is to point out the limits of this process. Ultimately, I can’t do or help much. I cannot make promises that go far beyond the words spoken in such meetings. Of course, one can and should act on students’ behalf, be it putting them in touch with colleagues or relevant authorities, write a reference or help settle administrative processes. But that’s about it.

All of these steps are fairly elusive because they depend on the personalities of the people involved. This means that the crucial outcomes (or limits) of mentoring ultimately depend on the mutual trust that people have. That’s why students should feel free to turn away from a given mentor and turn to someone else if they wish. Personally, I always found it helpful to talk regularly to two people: one person who is more involved in the topics I care about; another person who might be more efficient when it comes to settling formal or even career-related issues.

Countering sexism, then, as Katarina envisions it, is ultimately an issue of fostering trust, confidence, and empowering ways of dealing with uncertainties. It should go without saying that this can only flourish in a climate in which perpetrators of any kind do not enjoy any protection. That is true of individual people and institutions as well as the wider discipline. But there is also a lot of sexism below the threshold of harassment. While good mentoring might be part of a remedy against this, mentoring is always related to a certain status quo. If mentoring is a form of guidance for going along with that status quo, it would involve strategies of coping with forms of sexism. It is here that I see the limits of mere mentoring. Countering sexism cannot mean gaslighting people into living with it.

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