At the annual convention of the Modern Language Association last month, I helped lead a workshop designed for women interested in careers in higher education administration. I accepted the invitation to do so not only because I feel privileged to have a satisfying career in an area about which I care deeply, but also because I believe in mentorship.
Mentorship. The word comes from Greek mythology. In the Odyssey, Mentor is teacher and advisor to Telemachus, son of Odysseus. He reappears in (among many other texts) a 1699 didactic novel Les Aventures de Télémaque by François Fénelon. But the word was hardly in widespread use when I was studying Homer in college or Fénelon in graduate school. Although I did not call them “mentors,” my college advisor, Sister John Raymond, and my Ph.D. director, Georges May, both encouraged me and profoundly influenced the career choices I made, as did several classmates whom I still consult, including my husband.
Today, of course, the word “mentor” is in frequent use, as noun and as verb, and suggests an important aspect of all kinds of education – indeed, of life. It nicely describes the sort of trusting intellectual interactions that largely define the student experience on College Hill.
In their forthcoming book, How College Works, Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton, and Christopher Takacs ’05, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, conclude that “[i]mproving higher education means focusing on the quality of a student’s relationships with mentors and classmates, for when students form the right bonds, they make the most of their education.” We naturally think of such relationships as occurring between teachers and students, but formative interactions also take place with conductors, directors, coaches and staff members. Dan and Chris (who was, coincidentally, the first Spectator editor with whom I met weekly after becoming president) base their conclusions on a decade-long study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Of course, fruitful mentoring relationships are especially likely to develop when the student-faculty ratio is low, classes are small, and faculty, staff and students interact routinely, both in the classroom and outside of it. In the Levitt Leadership Institute, for example, students work intensely during winter and spring breaks with Ambassador Prudence Bushnell and her colleague Christine Powers, as well as with members of our faculty and staff, community leaders and each other.
A learning environment that emphasizes peer mentoring exists in many places on campus. In the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center, carefully trained student tutors serve as peer mentors, helping to foster a culture of writing. Alumni of the past quarter century – and students today – can attest to the importance this College places on good writing, and the success of this effort is due in part to the peer tutor model on which our writing program is based.
More recently, this model has been replicated in the Oral Communication Center, the Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning Center, the Maurice Horowitch Career Center, and in a new program that prepares upperclass students to serve as peer mentors for first-year students making the transition to college. Students who arrive at Hamilton thinking of themselves as consumers of information come to understand that, especially as mentors, they also can be providers of information. In other words, they have something to learn and something to teach.
The opportunity to choose from a large and talented pool of applicants allows Dean of Admission Monica Inzer and her colleagues to shape a class of students whose backgrounds and life experiences contribute in various ways to the education of their peers. Our students must, of course, be prepared academically for the rigor of the work they will undertake at Hamilton, but the Admission Office also considers what each applicant will contribute to our community. If this were not the case, Monica and her staff could be content to rank-order applicants by grade point average or standardized test scores and admit a class with regard only to a single dimension of past performance.
Faculty members also serve as mentors to each other. Beginning the week before the start of fall semester and continuing with monthly meetings throughout the year, Hamilton conducts an orientation program for new faculty, some of whom might be experiencing for the first time the satisfactions (and anxieties) of being part of a residential liberal arts college. A separate program pairs new tenure-track faculty members with senior professors for conversations about our expectations for teaching, scholarship and service. Senior members of each department also visit the classes of newer colleagues to offer advice. Our newest initiative, the Network for Teaching and Learning, organizes presentations, discussions and workshops about pedagogy, using Hamilton’s faculty as a resource to mentor beginning teachers and to expand the scope of experienced professors.
Hamilton also offers a mentoring program for administrators. The Hamilton Management Roundtable, established in 2010 by Vice President for Information Technology Dave Smallen, brings together directors across campus for discussion of the literature about management and leadership, providing a professional development experience and an opportunity to hone communication strategies for effective supervision. Small groups, facilitated by past participants of the program, meet for two hours biweekly throughout the academic year. Dozens of employees have already participated.
Collaborations and experiences such as these are among the advantages of the residential liberal arts college. When we are at our best, each member of our community has a mentor and serves as a mentor, and each of us consumes and provides the information that helps shape graduates who contribute to society.
Joan Hinde Stewart