Mentoring the Mentors at Central APA with Will Fleisher

Will Fleisher took part in this year’s Central APA Workshop “Mentoring the Mentors.” Here, Will shares his thoughts on the workshop, and his tips for mentors. 

What was the workshop about?  

The workshop was about providing guidance and support for people who work as mentors to undergraduate and graduate students in philosophy. In particular, it focused on mentors from programs meant to help improve the diversity of the profession.

Can you give an overview of it? 

The workshop involved four formal sessions, as well as more informal discussion periods during lunch and other breaks. In addition, some very hard-working people at the APA put together an excellent mentoring resource packet for all of the participants to take home.

In the first presentation, Professor Mark Hannink from the University of Missouri gave a presentation about a mentoring program for which he is the director, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD). The IMSD is a very successful mentoring program for undergraduate STEM majors, which has significantly improved the experience of students from diverse backgrounds at Missouri, and improved the retention rate for these students. This program is clearly worthy of emulation in philosophy, and so Professor Hannink provided some very helpful advice on how to set up similar programs in our own field, and otherwise build on the knowledge gained from the IMSD.

The second session was led by Professor Lewis Gordon from the University of Connecticut. The topic of this session was diversity, intellectual and otherwise. Professor Gordon offered a great deal of helpful advice on mentoring in general, and on strategies for improving diversity more specifically. The discussion ranged from high-level considerations, such as the value of intrinsically motivated research (rather than research for the sake of some pre-determined goal), to more specific advice, for instance, that it helps make office hours less intimidating to students to hold them in coffee shops or other public spaces, rather than in the office.

The third session was presented by a panel of graduate admissions officers, and focused on the nuts and bolts of the application process. This was extremely helpful, as these processes are not always transparent or easy to learn about. The session involved a great deal of information that will be useful for advising aspiring graduate students.

The final session was led by a panel of graduate students who were either former participants or current mentors from various mentoring programs, such as the Rutgers Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy, and Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI). In this panel, we discussed the strategies pursued by these programs, and talked about how to improve or supplement these strategies.

What was your role in the workshop?  

I served on the panel in the fourth presentation, due to my experience as a mentor at the Rutgers Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy.

What mentoring challenges were addressed?

Our discussions were wide-ranging, so I will just try to hit a few highlights. One recurring topic was the difficulty in finding resources and education opportunities on how to be a good mentor. Obviously, this is a lacuna that this workshop (and its counterpart at the Pacific) is helping to fill. But it remains a significant challenge. In most places, one is kind of thrown into the mentoring role, picking things up as one goes along, or by drawing on one’s own mentors when they are available (which seems to be the norm for pedagogical training in our profession more generally).

The workshop addressed this challenge in two ways. First, by appeal to specific advice about training mentors. For instance, Professor Hannink shared his program’s experience with training their mentors prior to allowing them to serve in the mentoring role. He talked about some of the particular materials they appealed to in giving this training, and their method, which was to have a several-day long, intensive workshop. Second, our workshop included many people with significant experience in mentoring, and they were able to share some of the features of their techniques, and some of their strategies. Professor Lewis, for instance, talked about his success in fostering a process-oriented intellectual environment, rather than a results-oriented one. This helped his students and mentees focus on what they took to be intrinsically valuable, rather than on meeting some exogenously set standards. Since such standards are set by the dominant culture, this is also helpful in fostering diversity.

Another challenge the workshop addressed is the intimidating nature of taking on the mentoring role. It is tempting to think that special knowledge and status is necessary for serving as a mentor. But, as Claire Horisk, one of our organizers stressed, one can be a mentor with respect to one aspect of a student’s pursuits, without having to be an expert in everything the student might need help with. Moreover, one important role a mentor can play is simply to put students in touch with other relevant experts, and other potential mentors.

Finally, another challenge addressed by the workshop is the difficulty in communication between groups with similar goals at different institutions, or even in different roles in the same institution. For instance, the way in which students, and even their mentors, might not have easy access to information about the graduate school application process, or even the application process for the various diversity institutes. Meanwhile, mentors from the different summer diversity institutes have not previously had a great deal of contact, nor had the opportunity to share information. This challenge was helpfully addressed, in part, by the discussions at the workshop, especially in the last two sessions.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned in the workshop?  

I was most surprised at hearing how few slots there were at summer institutes compared to how many students wanted to participate. Since I think these programs are valuable and effective for those students who get the opportunity to participate, it seems like there is a great deal of room for expansion of summer diversity institutes.

What are your top tips for mentors? 

Two things, drawing from what I learned at the workshop: first, seek advice from other mentors. Probably the best resources we have, at this point, is the experience others going before us have had.

Second be willing to try to help even when you know that you aren’t perfect, or might not feel well-prepared. Most likely you are underestimating your position to help others. And, you need not be an expert that can help in every aspect of the mentee’s life. You can serve as their mentor in philosophy (or in some sub-field, or just in professional issues) without having to be an expert in everything.

What do you hope participants will take away from the workshop?

I hope that everyone walks away with added knowledge and added confidence in taking part in mentoring programs. There is reason to think such programs are highly valuable for students. So having more confident, and more knowledgeable mentors in such programs would be a significant help. I also hope that the connections people made at the workshop will help us in improving our own mentoring programs.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks to that APA, and the workshop organizers, for putting on the workshop!

This post appears as part of a two-part series on the Mentoring the Mentors Workshop. Jill Hernandez’s interview on the workshop is available here.

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