Transformative Mentoring Communities

Steve Volk, September 5, 2016



               Marge Piercy, “To be of use”

York Minster Cathedral, England

York Minster Cathedral, England

Our work as teachers, at its best, can be transformational for the students we reach. We work hard to make this happen even if the results we seek are often hidden to us or only apparent years later. The labor of teachers reminds me of those medieval architects who planned the great cathedrals certain only that they would never see the results of their efforts. If we are fortunate, we discover that the seeds of growth we scattered have taken root. A student from years ago sends us an email of thanks, or we come upon a happy notice in the alumni magazine or the New York Times. And we are very pleased.

And we should be. Even if we are quite privileged to be teaching where we are, we are nevertheless part of a higher education sector that faces massive challenges, from growing student debt to decreasing legislative support for the very notion of a liberally informed public. And the crisis in higher ed is but a small part of the nation’s problems, tested as it is by growing inequality, persistent discrimination, and a political system that has become increasingly unhinged. And our country is part of a world torn by violence and baking under the fierce sun of climate change.

Still, in the face of all these impediments, those who work in our colleges and universities (not to mention in the K-12 sector) are committed to the proposition that we can make things better one student at a time. Yes, in the most transactional sense, we claim our salaries on the basis of just doing our job, not changing the world, but our job is teaching and the goal of teaching is individual (as well as collective) improvement and empowerment. We seek to make a better world one student at a time.

My question for today is whether we ever pause to think about ourselves, as faculty and staff, and our own needs for formation and transformation, in the same way? Our frustrations with our institutions may be myriad, but rarely do we take the time to see ourselves as we see our students, as individuals needing to be nurtured and mentored one person at a time, to create better selves, better communities, and a better world. We talk constantly, depressingly, about what makes our work disheartening, tense, fragmented. We complain; we become cynical. But can we take the steps needed to change what we can, one person at a time, until we again find our values confirmed in our institutions, until we have created the communities that can sustain us? Can we rebuild trust and find some shared way forward?

I’d say yes.

The Friendly Invitation, 1802. John Kay engraver. New York Public Library

The Friendly Invitation, 1802. John Kay engraver. New York Public Library

What if you received an invitation, in the form of an email, phone call, or personal conversation, that invited you to participate in a community of “respect, regard, acceptance, and trust, in which others want to see and encourage the best in you.” Would you accept that invitation?

This question was posed in a book by Peter Felten, H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Aaron Kheriaty and Edward Taylor, Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education (Wiley 2013). I discovered it while hunting for some advice on programs of faculty mentoring. What I found was actually a proposal (and a template) for creating sustaining communities can liberate spaces within higher education where faculty and staff can, in the words of Parker Palmer, “reflect on our work and life,” while “remembering our calling, exploring meaning and purpose, clarifying personal values, and realigning our lives with them.”

The authors of Transformative Conversations present a case for the creation of small groups, Formation Mentoring Communities (FMCs) — which I have taken the liberty of renaming Transformative Mentoring Communities (TMCs) — in order help in crafting the kind of professional, personal, and institutional lives we seek. These are voluntary, free-forming groups that come together to engage in meaningful conversations designed to build trust, reinvigorate ourselves, rebuild the communities that sustain us, and by extension, nudge the academy to resemble more of what we want it to be.

If TMCs are the Solution, What’s the Problem?

One needn’t have experienced the past few, trying years to know that as faculty and staff we face many trials in our college communities today (not even mentioning the broad structural impediments of finances, equity, and access). I would point to four of these as I think about the challenges we face as we attempt to shape new communities to address them.

Building trust among colleagues:

In general, we relate to colleagues through the organizational channels that our institutions have designed (departments and offices, faculty or staff meetings, committees, etc.) and as a part of the culture that permeates higher education (often competitive, not always willing or able to overcome historical patterns of discrimination, increasingly tied to the consumerist orientation of parents if not students, legislators if not administrators). Sometimes we meet through other, fortuitous overlaps: our kids’ schools, soccer clubs, religious practices. Many of these interactions are useful in getting to know one another; others make this more difficult. Large faculty meetings are designed to accomplish specific tasks, must follow specific procedures, and are (shall we say) not particularly known for nuanced or sensitive dialogue. Departments and programs can be friendly, but your colleagues will be called upon to evaluate you at some point. As small as our colleges are, we have few opportunities to sit down and talk with others at length and over time, to get to know them. And we cannot address our differences or build the trust needed to move ahead unless we know each other.

Attending to the relation between work and self:

As members of an academic community, we are busy in multitudinous ways. We teach, carry out research, rehearse and perform, write and paint. We advise and mentor students, go to athletic events to see our students compete and plays to see them perform. We have lives that may include partners, children, and, if we work at it, friends. (A pair studies in the American Sociological Review from 1985 and 2006 found that the number of people, including family members, with whom randomly selected interview subjects discussed “important matters” has declined over time, and wasn’t very large to start with.) We attend countless meetings where agendas are handed us, work carried out, and outcomes evaluated. In 30 years of teaching I noticed that the “unoccupied” spaces I had – “free” time between given tasks – diminish precipitously. When I began teaching, I would find 5, 10, 15 minute periods between larger obligations that I could use to think about what I was doing. Now, since I can answer an email or a text in 30 seconds, there is no space small enough that I can’t fill with some kind of work (or what has come to pass as “work”). I’m find myself with no time to think about what I’m doing, how my values are reflected in my work, how my work is reflected in larger transformative missions.

Developing a culture of mentoring:

Colleges and universities have developed many mentoring programs, some better than others. Most offer “coaching” models where senior faculty/staff members advise junior faculty/staff. There are a number of concerns with such a model, beginning with the most obvious: in a true mentoring relationship, both partners in the relationship have chosen each other, they are not assigned to each other. But, beyond this, the standard mentoring relationship accepts that there is a status difference between “mentor” and “mentee,” and that the learning or advice goes in one direction. We all need mentoring.

Build community:

Even given that much of our professional time as is spent with others in teaching, meetings or committee work, the work we do can be profoundly isolating. Most often, we carry out our research, study and plan by ourselves. We often think that the challenges we face in our classrooms, in residential education, or in the library or art museum are challenges faced by each one of us, alone. Reward structures often heightens competition rather than collegiality. Further, as academics, we are by nature critical rather than nurturing, always ready to answer “yes, but” rather than valuing what is said to us. We must attend to the communities we need for support and growth.

From "The River Dee. Its aspect and history" (1887). British Library

From “The River Dee. Its aspect and history” (1887). British Library

Transformative Mentoring Communities

In Transformative Conversations, the authors suggest that Formation Mentoring Communities (FMCs), what I’m calling Transformative Mentoring Communities (TMCs), are one way to begin to address these challenges.

TMCs are small conversation groups of 4-8 members “characterized by solidarity, concern, reciprocity, and mutual respect” [19]. They are “cooperative, egalitarian arrangements that focus on the good of group members themselves,” that exist “to help participants explore, form, articulate, and live out their values” [21]. The conversation groups come together of their own initiative, meet on a regular basis (usually bi-weekly or monthly), and form a particular kind of community – one aimed toward formation and nurtured by conversation.

As important is what TMCs are not: They’re not committees (with obligations, timelines, external outcomes), they are not sponsored (they do not “report” to anyone), no one is required to attend a TMC,  and they are not therapeutic groups designed to heal wounds (although they may do just that). TMCs offer a type of organization through which faculty and staff can create new ways of relating to each other and new forms of realizing one’s own values.

For the authors of Transformative Conversations, TMCs can create new possibilities for collegial interaction and institutional change.

  • They create hospitable spaces where participants will be listened to, heard, and welcomed.
  • They offer safe environments for their members. The notion of the “safe-space” is a charged topic in higher education today as relates to students. The members of TMCs understand, on the other hand, that we will be more likely to take risks, to “let go of the reins of self-consciousness that bind us to the known” when we are in hospitable and, yes, safe environments.
  • Academics rarely talk of courage but it takes courage to recognize and act on one’s core values, and TMCs can help participants so this.
  • Honesty often puts us in contexts of vulnerability. In the academic world, we often either see ourselves, or expect that others will see us, as the “smartest people in the room,” the ones who know all the answers, who know what to do. TMC participants, on the other hand, have the honesty to bring their “imperfect selves” into the group.
  • Trust is foundational to TMC communities – trust in each other so that participants can speak honestly, listen attentively, and be more present. And trust in a process whose end is not scripted or known and can take a long time to develop.
  • As diversity is a condition for human growth and flourishing, so TMCs need to explore diverse aspects of individual and group identities, taking the time to build the trust necessary for deep engagement across differences.
  • TMCs require the humility to admit that we don’t have the answers, whether we have been here 35 years or six months; we don’t know where the journey may take us but are optimistic about the possibilities.
  • TMCs require that participants be accountable for their actions: as professionals, to the members of the community, and to ourselves. In this context, accountability is a process of encouragement, not evaluation.
  • The purpose of the TMC is not specifically to build friendships, but that is often the result. The authors, all of whom have participated in their own TMCs, describe the friendships that evolved in their own mentoring communities as what Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics, books IX and XIII) called “genuine” friendships. They were built not only by affection but by “concrete acts of the will.”

How Do You Create an TMC?

TMCs can be created by individuals who have come to the conclusion that they want to be a part of institutions that affirm their values and unite them in a nourishing community, and that to do so takes time, energy, dedication, and commitment over the long run. They come from faculty and staff who recognize that the communities we want to create, the institutions we hope to strengthen, are not going to arise from a single convocation, from multiple workshops, from lofty strategic plans or from administrative mandates. They will only come when we decide to change our own culture, when we engage in our own “transformative conversations.”

Two women in conversation on the street, 1913. New York Public Library.

Two women in conversation on the street, 1913. New York Public Library.

Who can create an TMC? You, me, us. Transformative Mentoring Communities are usually groups of 4-8 people, faculty and staff, who commit to meet on a regular basis, usually every two weeks or at least once a month, and set their own agenda as they develop. They begin when individuals reflect on their hopes and aspirations, think about who on campus might share similar intentions, and invite those others to join them in a conversation where they can “work toward what is best for each other.” Members can come from one’s department or office, but they don’t have to (and TMCs should avoid having individuals in the same group who are involved in a formal evaluation of one another’s professional work). When thinking about the membership of an TMC, consider the issues on campus that are most contentious or that could most benefit from prolonged and engaged conversation, where building trust is positive goal. Consider diversity and joining together individuals at different career stages; think about bringing faculty and staff together. But, above all, try to find a common thread for your TMC, something that can weave the group together.

You can invite members to the group by talking with them and asking them for their reaction to the very idea of a “transformative” conversational and mentoring group. Ask colleagues to lunch to explore the idea, explaining your own hopes for a group and why you are asking them to join.

Once the membership is determined, all you have to do is choose a meeting space and time. Group members should commit to set aside that time for a regular meeting. Usually, it’s up to the convener to set the agenda for the first meeting, to provide a framework for why the group is meeting. The group can decide to read something in common, to react to a quotation, poetry, or particular topics. The agenda is free for you to pursue as you create your communities. Once established, the basic rules of the TMC are collaborative stewardship – no single individual is in charge of the meetings or the process — shared facilitation, confidentiality, and a commitment to creating a different sort of space on campus where the traditional ways of operating do not apply.

TMCs are about helping their members strengthen the values that shape their lives and determine their practice. To the extent that these groups expand and incorporate more and more people on campus, it is my hope that we will be able to change our culture and our institutions to better reflect who we are and what we believe is important. In the end, it’s up to us to make these changes.

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