Who’s your guru?

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January 2008:

There I was, a lone soldier occupying the potentially hostile territory known as Introduction to Women’s Studies at UVic. Guys don’t often take women’s studies classes, and when they do, it’s likely a feeble effort to pick up chicks. I, of course, was just curious about the subject matter — I swear! But it turned into something more: it’s where I found my mentor.

March 2012:

“You know, sometimes you have a student in your class, and you think, ‘I want to mentor that student’… sometimes the student is oblivious to it, and it takes the student a year or two before they realize that you want to mentor them. And I’m pointing at you,” the professor said, smirking behind her nerdy-chic spectacles. Janni Aragon, senior instructor of political science, undergraduate advisor and former women’s studies instructor: my mentor. In the three years since, my women’s studies professor has become my most trusted advisor.

WHAT IS A MENTOR?

Mentoring includes being an adviser, teacher, role model, friend and supportive advocate. University is a place where mentorship should happen (Plato even called his students “the group of friends”). But that’s not the nature of the institution today, at least not at UVic. The obstacles before professor-undergraduate relationships are increasing as traditional avenues to mentorship are shutting down. Some departments are cutting the directed studies and research assistant positions available to undergrads. UVic’s writing department, for example, has refused to offer any more directed readings — a private class with a curriculum tailored to a particular area of research in which the student and instructor share interest.

Unfortunately, undergrads are getting less and less face-time with their professors, as most faculty give graduate students priority. Aragon explains in a blog post, “These are the students we can ask to complete research work with, co-author with and get more ‘service’ credit with for our mentoring.” With more and more graduate students populating campus, opportunities for undergraduates to assist with research are sparse, and office hours for first-year courses are often delegated to graduate students.

While UVic does offer a peer mentoring service, a student’s best bet for quality mentorship often lies in a professor. Professors have the experience and the networks that peer mentors have yet to cultivate. They are also the people evaluating you and your peers; they have a good sense of your abilities and potential. The academic advising centre, however, doesn’t look at your work, nor do the student ambassadors employed by Student Transition Services. They’re just there to teach you the basics like which classes are required for your program and that the Student Union Building is referred to as “the SUB.”

A mentor does more than simply give advice on class schedules and paper topics.

“There’s more of an investment of [the professor’s] time,” Aragon says in an interview. “It’s a holistic sort of approach, a special kind of relationship because the professor is looking at the success of the student in all areas of life. Not just the thesis.”

Students often direct their complaints at the academic advising centre. “The service sucks, the lines are long and the staff are miserable,” says one fourth-year student. Professors are better suited to nurture intellectual curiosity and, in the short term, to help students get the grades and credentials needed to break away from the pack of job-starved alumni. If not for Aragon, I would be stuck with average grades and a subpar resume. Her support has bolstered my self-confidence and guided me towards success. She has also recommended me for jobs through her vast network of colleagues and social media contacts.

ASK A PROF

Unlike most professors, Aragon spends about 80 per cent of her time teaching and 20 per cent conducting research, which fits well with her self-imposed mandate to work as a mentor. She says that her own mentors have played a big role in shaping her life and career, and now she’s paying it forward.

Aragon, however, is a rare breed at UVic. Most professors don’t tailor their advice to the keeners; often they just tell students how to pass the class. With research papers and their own careers topping their agendas, most professors don’t have time for the social visits that reinforce the relationship. These are the informal meetings — the cups of coffee and the sleeves of beer — over which you to get to know each other. It’s the small talk that inspires a deeper level of commitment in both mentor and mentee. When I decided to drop out of the honours program, the first person I told wasn’t my mom, my friends or my girlfriend. It was Aragon. In five minutes she responded to my email (this is typical even after 9 p.m.), suggesting we get together for a drink.

Matt James, associate professor of political science, former undergraduate advisor and my honours supervisor (before I dropped out), does not share Aragon’s mandate to mentor.

“I think that stuff is dramatically overvalued, actually. These are things students are often better off figuring out for themselves,” says James.

The current business model makes it much too hard for professors to invest in those occupying the bottom of the university hierarchy, says Brad Bryan, director of UVic’s minor program in technology and society. Bryan doesn’t see himself as a mentor. Being available, he says, “is tricky . . . ’cause it’s certainly not part of the job, right? There’s no pay increment, nothing that says, ‘mentor.’ Specifically for undergraduate students, it’s office hours and that’s it.”

Being available, however, is the first responsibility of a mentor. “So . . . uh . . .” Bryan hesitates, “if there was to be something about the university professors and undergraduate students having a mentoring relationship,” he says with a chuckle, “you’re gonna want to try to encourage professors to see it as something worthwhile for themselves —unfortunately.”

Bryan is in the midst of a career change he didn’t ask for. After working as a sessional instructor for years, he is leaving teaching to work in tax law. He wonders how the university “might systematize something that has so far only developed organically and without outside influence.”

It’s a money problem. In the university’s draft of the 2012 Strategic Plan, (which was approved in January 2012), the University’s Planning and Priorities Committee notes a 48 per cent increase in the number of graduate students over the last ten years. Seeking to continue the trend into the next decade, the Committee’s priorities may be detracting from undergraduate students’ experience.

“I’ve had students come into my office before and say, ‘Where do I sign up for a mentor?’” says Aragon. “And I feel pained because we really don’t do that here. You don’t sign up for a mentor. It just happens.” More accurately, the student has to make it happen. He or she usually needs to convince a professor to see him or her as someone who deserves special attention — someone worthy.

A NEED TO FORMALIZE?

The problem with an informal system is a lack of accountability that creates risks for both mentor and mentee. On the one hand, spending time with students outside of class and off-campus leaves professors vulnerable to allegations of professional misconduct if the two have a falling out. On the other hand, professors hold a disproportionate amount of power over the students they mentor. For some professors, the temptation to exploit their mentees is too much. Aragon knows this all too well. She didn’t have to worry about sexual exploitation, since she went into graduate school already married, but she recalls being asked to house-sit and to drive one of her former mentors to the airport during her time at graduate school. “I thought that I was privileged to be asked to do it,” she says. “I didn’t realize that other people got paid for it.”

THE MURKY WATERS OF STUDENT AFFAIRS

Would the undergraduate student experience really benefit from more professor–student interactions? With the exception of one professor, every person out of the dozen interviewed for this story (students, former students, professors, administrative staff) said yes. UVic even offers the UVic Mentoring Program to its staff. The program’s webpage is fully equipped with sections detailing a brief history, the matching process and testimonials, stating that, “Mentoring benefits individual employees as well as the organization as a whole.”
Why, then, don’t more students and professors build these relationships? Is it the impersonality of the classroom or the timidity of inexperience? Maybe formal mentorship programs can only emerge within a specialization, within a particular area of research or career path.

The Indigenous Governance (iGov) program at UVic offers an attractive model. The iGov program offers a mentorship course that unites student, teacher and community in an effort to teach leadership from an Indigenous perspective. The 14-student cohort, however, is what makes this program work. It also has cultural and political components that inspire a deeper sense of commitment and accountability, especially amongst Indigenous students, who account for 75–80 per cent of those enrolled says associate professor Jeff Corntassel. While the political purpose of decolonization makes the year-long iGov mentorship class special, the aspects of networking, community building and leadership development place it within the general mentorship mold.

On a campus-wide level, however, it would not take too much money, time or effort to establish a place where students could sign up for a mentor by indicating what they’re interested in studying. They could then be introduced to a professor who has indicated interest in mentorship. Still, Aragon says this is “more apt to happen at an undergraduate-serving institution” like a community college. If you were one of the 17 012 undergrads who enrolled at UVic in autumn 2012, then you had 3 187 graduate students ahead of you in the line to draw a mentor from the limited pool of 873 permanent faculty members and 861 sessional instructors.

Formalizing mentorship has been suggested before and it may come up again, says April McNeil, transition officer for Student Transition Services.

“I think it’s something I could see UVic moving towards,” says McNeil. “There’s a lot in the works right now that won’t come out for a couple years . . . around becoming a 24/7 campus.” McNeil does not elaborate on how UVic can become a 24/7 community in a city that pretty much closes at 9 p.m. UVic’s Planning Committee was unavailable for comment.

UVic’s Division of Student Affairs — which is not run by students but is in charge of creating the student experience — calculates student experience in two ways. One is with a big, boring, 25-page survey that leaves much to be desired in its methodology and performance measurements. Rather than follow well-known best practices for survey development, the questionnaire uses confusing scales and is simply too long, thus creating a large non-response bias. The second stream that carries undergrad feedback to the UVic administration is through the University Relations Committee, which may reach all students for feedback.

THE EFFECTS OF MENTORSHIP

After conversations with my mentor, I’ve developed less selfish goals and become a better, more well-rounded human being. I now volunteer at the SPCA as well as a legal advocacy centre to do what I can for my community. For me, access to a mentor has resulted in consistently better grades, several publications and a passion for social justice. Surely I would have figured this out on my own, but I know that I’ve saved a lot of time and soul-searching by having had a professor who cares.

With so much to gain and so little to lose, it’s interesting that universities don’t invest more in permanent faculty and in the mentoring of undergraduates. The student experience of mentees is better, their resumés are fuller and there is less student attrition. Money should be spent here rather than on campus beautification and other superficial measures.

This feature has been revised to reflect the wishes of sources published in its original print version who had not realized their comments would be used or interpreted for publication.

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