University of Delaware Online Research Magazine
University of Delaware Online Research Magazine

ISSN 2150-5128

Anne M. Boylan


Anne M. Boylan, professor of history and of women and gender studies, conducts research in American history with an emphasis on women and their rights. She has written several books, including her most recent work—Women’s Rights in the United States: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, 2015). She received the inaugural Torch Award for Women’s Equality from the UD Women’s Caucus in 2012.

Never underestimate the power of good mentoring

by | October 12, 2015

Afew years ago, a newly hired female faculty member had the following experience: A male colleague responded to her hallway greeting by saying hello and adding, “I hope everyone is making you feel welcome.”

On the one hand, he had made a pleasant gesture. But at the same time, she wondered why he took no personal interest in making sure she actually did feel at home in her new department. He assumed that others would take on that task and work to ensure her success as a new faculty member. Perhaps it did not occur to him that he could help mentor her, whether by providing some useful information about departmental practices or offering to share syllabi or discussing classroom expectations. Perhaps he had forgotten what it was like to be the “newbie” who has to learn everyone’s name, navigate the campus, move a research program along, work up new courses, supervise students and still find time to locate a physician or a child care facility.

But faculty mentoring begins with paying attention to such issues, having empathy and taking some responsibility for all new colleagues’ success. It is particularly important for women faculty and faculty of color, not only because they belong to groups that were historically excluded or marginalized within universities, but because many still experience intersecting forms of gender and racial bias that limit their access to in-group knowledge of how academia works.

Mentoring was not always the buzzword that it is today. In 1973, when I was beginning my academic career, the primary use of the term “mentor” was to refer to one’s dissertation director. The person got you through the Ph.D. process, wrote letters of recommendation for jobs and grants, and then you were pretty much on your own. Unless, of course, your mentor had come to see you as his (I use the pronoun advisedly) protégé, as someone he could shape in his own image or at least in his image of what a university professor looked like.

The system worked well for some aspiring academics, and even occasionally for women. Franz Boas, after all, found a protégé in Margaret Mead. But it disadvantaged others, especially those who, because of gender, race, ethnicity or life circumstances, seemed unlikely to fit the mold of the pipe-smoking professor in the elbow-patched tweed jacket who could spend his summers in the lab or writing books because he had a wife to take care of life’s necessary chores. As graduate students, the women I knew avoided, or were outright rejected by, such potential mentors. In my graduate school cohort, there was some mighty chortling when one of our number, who had been accepted into a famous professor’s seminar only because she was a nun, and unlikely to betray his investment in her career by getting married, left the convent and got married. (She subsequently managed both marriage and career quite well.)

Forty-two years later, things have changed considerably. Not only has mentoring become a field of research and teaching, with hundreds of books and scholarly articles—not to mention TED Talks—on the topic, most of them published within the past 20 years, but professional organizations and universities have established prizes to reward worthy practitioners. At UD, the creation of Mentors’ Circle and its dedication in 2001 reflects the general trend. Mentoring has arrived, and as it has, so has our understanding of its meaning and significance. Thankfully, too, the issues facing women in academia have changed, from dealing with blatantly exclusionary policies to removing the institutional vestiges of those policies through inclusionary practices. Mentoring is one such practice; it can facilitate the kind of institutional transformation that the UD ADVANCE program seeks, and that is particularly crucial for women in fields such as STEM, where long-held implicit assumptions about gender and achievement can still keep women academics from reaching their full potential.

Mentoring takes many different forms, and mentors appear in many different guises. At its most basic, it seems to me, good, informal faculty mentoring involves some of these elements: providing helpful (and wanted) advice or encouragement, offering guidance, taking an interest, smoothing a path, expressing empathy, sharing information so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to procedures and policies, offering to look over a colleague’s grant proposal or tenure file, and keeping everyone “in the loop” so that no one feels excluded. Formal mentoring programs, in which a new faculty member is paired with a mentor and the two meet regularly for career-oriented conversations, can increase the success (and retention) of talented faculty members.

I am particularly taken with the possibilities for using social media for mentoring, especially when one is the “solo” woman or woman of color in a department, grappling with gender and/or racial assumptions or stereotypes. Social media-based mentoring expands the range of available mentors and helps break down feelings of isolation.

Good mentoring is crucial to the career of any academic, but especially for those who don’t arrive at an academic post knowing exactly how to get from “newbie” to full professor in 12 easy steps.


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