mentoring graduate students
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The Mentoring Continuum From Graduate School through Tenure
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
An unfortunate font choice limits the value of this otherwise helpful anthology. The font gives the text a strobe-like effect that resulted in my inability to read it in more than short intervals.
On one hand, this is fine. The Mentoring Continuum consists of fifteen essays each of which stands independent of the others. This allows the reader to dip in and out of the collection at will. On the other hand, however, doing so reduces the benefit of reading the essays within the three sections (Origins, Transitions, Dialogues and Reflections) into which they have been arranged. It is especially instructive to read the first two sections as a set of essays on a common theme: “Origins” treats mentoring relationships in graduate school and “Transitions” addresses the period from associate professor to tenure. As “Dialogues and Reflections” is not associated with a particular career phase, this section suffers less from the impact of the font choice.
Glenn Wright, editor and contributor, rightly points to “Graduate Student ISO a Mentor: A Dialogue about Mentoring” by Jan Allen and Kevin Johnson, as a quasi-summation of “many of the book’s main preoccupations, including mentee agency and responsibility, the virtue of peer mentoring, non-academic career preparation, teaching as a critical area of focus, and the key role of administration in providing the impetus, initial frameworks, and ongoing supports for mentoring efforts.” For those new to the conversation about mentoring, this chapter provides a nice introduction to the topic and associated interests.
I expected The Mentoring Continuum to be of interest to faculty, and it is, but I was pleasantly surprised by how appealing this book will be to graduate students. A number of the authors offer detailed counsel to students on how to get the most out of a relationship with a mentor and how to set up different types of peer mentoring programs within their institutions.
In the new market reality, many faculty members will find Paula Chambers’ essay, “Subject Matter Plus: Mentoring for Nonacademic Careers,” particularly valuable. Chambers reassures faculty that they need not be experts in multiple career paths outside academia. She challenges them, however, to follow any one, or better all three, of her recommendations for serving their students well in the current environment. First, “Manage Your Messaging”: Chambers explains why particular academic clichés need to be abandoned or rethought so students will be encouraged to consider nonacademic careers. Second, “Assess the Career Climate in Your Department”; Towards this end, she supplies a multiple-choice questionnaire that can be used to gather actionable information. Third, “Make Referrals to Available Resources”; Chambers provides an ample list to keep at hand.
This chapter, “Subject Matter Plus,” exemplifies one of the distinctive strengths of this collection – the blend of the personal, the practical, and the theoretical dimensions of mentoring. A notoriously difficult concept to define, “mentoring” is given substance as it comes to life through conversations between mentors and mentees, charts and tables, and ample bibliographies.
The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
I could not put this book down, and I strongly recommend that anyone concerned about higher education in America take it up.
In this volume, Leonard Cassuto expands on topics he explores in his Chronicle of Higher Education column (“The Graduate Advisor”) and integrates them into an argument to reconceive the role and nature of teaching in graduate schools for the benefit of graduate students and higher education in general.
What Cassuto means by “reconceiving” teaching at the graduate school level is something more fundamental than changing styles or methods of pedagogy. He wants faculty to help students succeed, personally and professionally, by seeing careers outside academia as worthy of professional pursuit. This is not, Cassuto repeats, a betrayal of graduate training, rather it is the retrieval of an earlier model of graduate education that envisioned doctorates serving in a broad variety of professional positions.
In this, Cassuto differs from common approaches to “fix the mess,” such as calls to expand the ranks of professionally preferred and economically sustainable positions by converting part-time, non-tenurable ones to full-time, tenurable ones (for example, American Association of University Professors 2015-16 Annual Report on “The Economic Status of the Profession”). Cassuto argues, persuasively, that this will not come to pass. The days of every freshly minted PhD stepping into a full-time, tenure-track job belongs to the past; specifically, the period between the end of WWII and the close of the 1960s. In the history of American higher education woven throughout the book, Cassuto establishes that the unique circumstances of that period led to those halcyon days for those aspiring to the professorship. Changes in demographics and policies (educational and public) force us to abandon hope of this returning and instead imagine, again, a more expansive job market for those with doctorates.
Towards this end, Cassuto recommends that from first contact with a prospective student through every stage of advising, faculty speak openly of the dismal academic market and approvingly of “alt-ac” careers. The chapters are arranged around the “life-cycle” of a graduate student (Admissions, Classwork, The Comprehensive Exams, Advising, Degrees, Professionalism, and The Job Market Reconceived) and offer concrete recommendations on how to adjust each of these phases in ways that will serve graduate students, graduate education, and by extension, undergraduate education and public life. The discrete changes he advocates (such as ways to reduce time to degree completion and alternate models of comprehensive exams and dissertations) are not original, but situating them within an enlarged concept of the possible uses of a doctorate is.
An expanded concept of the potential purposes of the doctoral degree requires a significant change of attitude among graduate school faculty; they must sincerely support, and at times initiate, student embrace of career paths that do not resemble their own. Jobs in high schools, in business, in government, and so forth, must be accorded the same respect as full-time, tenure-track positions. This attitude shift will be, I venture, more challenging than Cassuto acknowledges.
Cassuto is correct that this shift requires faculty to grasp, and leverage, the oversized role they play in their students’ lives. Interviews and anecdotes poignantly remind readers that the trust and admiration graduate students extend to their advisors may result in students shying from decisions that are in their own personal and professional interests for fear of disappointing their advisors. The prejudice that only a career in academia is worthy of doctorates exacts a tremendous toll on students. They sacrifice years, foregoing earnings and retirement savings, while accumulating debt and enduring personal and professional limbo. Cassuto rightly characterizes this as a “moral” crisis demanding action.