Technical Communication Teachers As Mentors in the Classroom: Extending an Invitation to Students
By Zimmerman, Beverly B Paul, Danette
In this article, we argue that mentoring of technical communication students must occur within the classroom. In our survey of students, we found that most students felt they had not been mentored. In our ethnography, we found that although students could define the term mentor, many were conflicted about its value. This confusion made students less likely to seek out or recognize mentoring opportunities. Students recognized mentoring practices that teachers implemented; however, they did not necessarily identify those practices as mentoring. We conclude that confusion arose from students’ ambiguous views about mentoring and the lack of standard mentoring practices in the humanities. Therefore, teachers who intend to mentor in the classroom must (a) be more explicit in implementing elements that distinguish mentoring from teaching (e.g., intent and involvement), (b) extend an invitation to students to be mentored, and (c) help students develop a professional identity. Over the last few years, many voices have called for the mentoring of undergraduate students as a means of improving their college education (Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, 1998; Galbraith & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2000; Light, 2001; Zachary, 2000). Mentoring is generally defined as an experienced person guiding a less experienced person, often along a career path. Schulz ( 1995) argued that mentoring is valuable for students because it helps them to make better choices in course selection, to grow creatively and intellectually, to attain a strong sense of identity and self-confidence, to develop leadership skills, and to learn how to use the resources and work within the structures of an organization (p. 60; see also Pritchard, 2004, p. 16).
Yet, although a chorus of professionals and academic researchers are singing the praises of mentoring (including professional organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication [STC], 2002), less harmony exists on how mentoring should be accomplished or what counts as mentoring. Still, many universities, including our own, have concluded that mentoring is “fundamental to all good learning” (Brigham Young University [BYU], 2005, p. xii) and have instituted formal programs to help faculty mentor undergraduate students. However, these programs are often geared more for research in the sciences and can be expensive, time-consuming for faculty, and beneficial for only a select group of students (Werner & Sorum, 2004; Wilson, Cramer, & Smith, 2004). For example, the $ 1.6 million spent on mentoring at our university in 2004 benefited less than 1,000 of the 30,000 students enrolled (M. Maddox, personal interview, February 25, 2005). Thus, despite the fact that both the professional and popular literature state that “everyone needs a mentor” (Mertz, 2004, p. 541), the majority of undergraduate students do not receive the benefit of mentoring by a faculty member.
The most logical place to reach all students is in the classroom; therefore, the technical communication (TC) community must consider whether teachers could mentor students in the classroom. Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted to determine how faculty can mentor large numbers of students, especially when mentoring has traditionally been limited to one-on-one contact with each student. In addition, little research in TC has addressed how teachers can mentor students in TC programs, particularly in typical programs such as ours in which there are only a few faculty members and the one-on-one mentoring of TC students would be a substantial, if not impossible, burden. Furthermore, although the classroom seems to be the most logical place to reach a large number of students, no research has tried to determine whether mentoring students within the TC classroom is possible.
In this article, we address the important issue of whether the project-based TC classroom can play a role in making mentoring available to a greater number of students in TC. In conducting our research study, we attempted to answer the following questions: How do students in TC feel about their mentoring experiences? How do students define mentoring and what counts as mentoring to them? If teachers attempted to mentor students in a project-based classroom, what teaching practices and activities would students recognize as mentoring practices or feel they benefited from? Is mentoring in the TC classroom a feasible solution for guiding large numbers of students?
To answer these questions, we conducted a two-semester study.1 During the first semester, we surveyed English majors regarding their experiences with mentoring. The following semester, we conducted an ethnography by interviewing and observing students in two upper-division TC classes at BYU where we implemented specific strategies for mentoring students. In this article, we first review the essential functions of mentoring to differentiate between mentoring and good teaching practices. Then we provide background on our TC program, the methods we used in our study, and mentoring practices we implemented in our TC classrooms. Next, we present the results of our study-what happened when we surveyed and interviewed students and when we attempted to implement mentoring practices in our classrooms. Finally, we discuss the need for adopting a new model for mentoring, one that would enable faculty to successfully mentor students within the TC classroom and ultimately more students within our TC programs.
Although a shared definition of mentoring might prove useful, there are two difficulties in finding one. In the first place, many scholars claim that a shared definition does not exist. In her literature review of mentoring and undergraduate academic success, Jacobi (1991) found there was no “widely accepted operational definition of mentoring” (p. 505). Mertz (2004) also made the same claim more than a decade later. It may be that there is no universal definition of mentoring because the research on mentoring comes from many disparate fields reflecting a diverse practice that has led to descriptions of various and overlapping elements and functions. Second, because our study was an ethnography in which we were trying to determine what mentoring looks like in TC at the university, we were hesitant to begin with a limited definition (in particular one from industry) at the outset of our research. Rather, we preferred to let the definition emerge, so that we did not preclude important elements of mentoring that have been previously unrecognized. Recognizing these two factors, we now review what previous researchers have said about mentoring in higher education because it will help explain how mentoring differs from other important relationships, such as teaching.
Essential Elements and Functions of Mentoring
A brief review of articles focusing on mentoring in higher education2 demonstrates the variety of elements and functions researchers have ascribed to mentoring. Anderson and Shannon (1988) outlined five essential attributes of mentoring: (a) nurturing, (b) serving as a role model, (c) performing five functions (teaching, sponsoring, encouraging, counseling, and befriending), (d) focusing on professional and/or personal development, and (e) developing an ongoing caring relationship. In addition, they argued that mentors display certain characteristics or dispositions toward their protege, including openness, incremental leadership, and expression of care and concern (p. 41 ).
Jacobi (1991) identified 15 diverse functions of mentoring and concluded that these functions reflect three components or outcomes that mentors provide in the mentoring relationship: (a) emotional and psychological support, (b) help with career and professional development, and (c) a role model (p. 510). Likewise, Cohen (1995) identified six behavioral functions that mentors perform: (a) conveying an empathetic relationship, (b) providing accurate and detailed information, (c) facilitating the consideration of alternative views and options, (d) respectfully challenging the protege’s avoidance of action, (e) sharing and disclosing life experiences, and (f) encouraging proteges to manage personal change (p. 29).
Golian and Galbraith ( 1996) reviewed many definitions of mentoring and found similar themes running through all of them. Although many of the essential elements they identified overlap with those of Anderson and Shannon ( 1988), Golian and Galbraith also concluded that mentoring is a “social and reciprocal” relationship between a more knowledgeable and experienced individual and a less experienced one, occurring within a specific context and providing personal, professional, and psychological development resulting in an “identity transformation for both mentor and protege” (p. 100).
Given this variety of elements of mentoring, we focused on three essential components: (a) a more experienced person guiding other person(s), (b) in professional and personal development, (c) where both the mentor and protege share a personal connection that is mutually beneficial. Because good teaching practices may also include some of those elements, it is important to further distinguish between mentoring and teaching. Distinguishing Between Mentoring and Teaching
Distinguishing between mentoring and other personal relationships, such as teaching, can also be difficult. Traditionally a distinction has existed in terms of numbers; that is, a one-on-one relationship equaled mentoring, whereas teaching involved a one-on-many relationship. However, there is nothing in the literature describing the essential elements or purposes of mentoring in higher education that would require a one-on-one relationship.
Several researchers have distinguished between mentoring and teaching practices or advisement in more substantial ways. Healy and Welchert ( 1990) argued that two elements distinguish mentoring from teaching and other “helping relationships”: “reciprocity between mentor and protege and accomplishment of an identity transformation by each party” (p. 18). For these researchers, mentoring involves a “mutual exchange” in which mentors engage with their proteges in activities that are geared to pass on a “professional legacy” and whereby mentors “invite” their proteges to adopt the mentors’ “acumen” or methods for approaching tasks and solving problems (p. 18).
Galbraith and Maslin-Ostrowski (2000) pointed out that mentoring is more than simply providing information or advising students about professional and career opportunities. Rather, mentoring “is a complex process between professor and college learner that supports a mutual enhancement of critically reflective and independent thinking” (p. 134). Thus, although mentors and nurturing teachers have much in common, mentors “support their students, challenge their students, and help their students construct a vision to further their educational journey” (p. 148). And although many of the elements of being a mentor are similar to those of being a good teacher, not every teacher, even a very good teacher, is a mentor.
Mertz (2004) further distinguished between teaching and mentoring in terms of two factors: intent and involvement. Intent refers to the purpose and ends of the mentoring relationship, whereas involvement considers what is required in the relationship. In such a case, the intent is more than simply sharing knowledge of a specific curriculum and the involvement is more than the time spent in the classroom during a specific semester. Thus, the end of mentoring is to help the protege advance professionally in the future, and it requires a higher level of involvement than does teaching or advising (p. 552).
In summary, although researchers differ on an exact definition of mentoring, teachers whose intent it is to mentor students do so by providing students with a role model or a sense of what they can become in the field, focusing on the students’ professional and personal development beyond the classroom, and developing a deeper and more ongoing supportive relationship with students, all of which help the students identify themselves as professionals. Because we did not want to limit our research to a specific definition, we focused on a broad concept of mentoring that we used throughout our study. That concept included the three essential elements identified earlier, and added the element of time. In other words, mentoring is (a) a more experienced person guiding other person(s), (b) in which the intent is for professional and personal development, and (c) where both the mentor and proteges share a personal connection that is mutually beneficial, and (d) in which the involvement is not limited to a specific curriculum nor is the time spent limited to a semester.
BACKGROUND TO OUR STUDY
To locate our study in its larger context, we provide background on mentoring at BYU, our program and classes, and our students.
BYU has always emphasized faculty-student interaction; however, for the last 5 years, it has placed increased emphasis on the mentoring of undergraduate students as a result of the 2000 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). In that particular survey, BYU scored well in “campus environment (99th percentile)”"academic challenge (95th percentile),” and “active and collaborative learning (78th percentile),” yet only scored in the 12th and 25th percentiles for “student interaction with faculty” and “enriching educational experiences” (Jenkins, 2000). The university, working on the premise that every student should have the opportunity to be mentored, instituted a number of programs including Mentoring Environments Grants and saw immediate improvement. In the 2004 NSSE survey, results for “student interaction with faculty” improved to the 74th percentile for first-year students and the 66th percentile for seniors. Results for “enriching educational experiences” increased to the 85th percentile for first-year students and the 75th for seniors (BYU, 2005, p. 1.5). In other words, BYU now compares favorably with, and in some cases leads, other national universities in terms of a supportive and challenging environment and is above average in providing student-faculty interaction and enriching educational experiences. Given these national standings and a specific emphasis on mentoring, BYU provided a good place to examine student experiences with mentoring and to determine whether mentoring in the classroom is practical.
Our TC program consists of an emphasis or concentration comprised of 9 hours of elective credit and 6 hours of general credit. The courses consist of an introductory course in TC, a document design course, and a web-based project management course. Students are also encouraged to take courses in rhetoric and editing and to complete an internship. For this study, we focused on the document design and project management courses because they simulate the work environment by providing students with realistic, deadline-driven projects. In both of these courses, assignments are constructed to assist students in obtaining career direction and skills both from teachers and from clients for whom the students work. The courses take a rhetorical approach to documents from the initial client contact through user testing, and assignments result in the students creating a portfolio and presenting their projects in an oral debriefing. In addition, these courses use industry-standard technologies and methods, allow students contact with professionals outside the university, and require regular one-on-one conferences between the professor and teams of students.
The purpose of our study was to understand students’ attitudes and experiences with mentoring and to determine whether students would recognize when teachers implemented specific elements of mentoring within the classroom. Our research consisted of a two- semester study using both quantitative and ethnographic methods. We began by surveying students in the English major regarding their experiences with mentoring. Then we conducted a qualitative study to provide additional insights about TC students’ attitudes and experiences with mentoring and to determine whether students would recognize our attempts at mentoring them. We believed that interviewing and observing students would provide us with the rich description we needed to better understand students’ experiences with mentoring.
Survey of Student Experiences With Mentoring
We began by developing a survey, which we field tested with two classes and then administered to 573 students from all sections of four English courses,3 one course for each level (freshman through senior), and two non-English-major writing classes (for comparison proposes). In our survey, we asked students whether they had a mentoring relationship with a faculty member and to describe their mentoring experiences. We found that most of the students (75%), and even more English majors (with 78%), felt that they had not had any mentoring experiences.
Our survey indicated that despite a growing trend of attention on mentoring across the nation and specific focus on mentoring at BYU over preceding years, most students in the English department still felt they had not been mentored. Our survey findings were also in line with findings of the BYU Alumni Survey conducted in 2001 (BYU, 2001), in which alumni gave mixed reviews about receiving career and personal advice from faculty (30%, poor or very poor; 37%, good or very good; and 33%, did not use). In this survey, almost two thirds of the students (63%) indicated that they either had not received career advice or had received bad advice from faculty. The survey also found that although English majors enjoyed the major and their professors, they felt unprepared for life after the university.
With this background on general English majors’ attitudes, we conducted interviews with English majors in the TC program and observed them in TC classrooms to obtain greater depth of understanding about student views on mentoring and to support the conclusions of our survey. Before conducting our qualitative study, we trained four undergraduate researchers to assist us. These research assistants familiarized themselves with past research on mentoring in higher education, particularly Anderson and Shannon’s (1988) conceptual model of mentoring and Jacobi’s (1991) review of the functions of mentoring. The students also read Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater’s (2002) book on how to conduct ethnographic research and they conducted several miniobservations under our direction. The following semester, we assigned two research assistants to observe each of the authors’ TC classes and to interview students enrolled in those courses.
Interviews With Students
The research team conducted interviews with our students using a list of questions about mentoring (see Appendix). The 24 interviews accounted for all but one of our students (one class had 15 students, the other 11 ; 1 student was in both classes). The interviews were recorded on audiotapes and later transcribed. After our research assistants had transcribed their interviews, we analyzed the data from the interviews and used a color-coding process to look for emerging themes. From the interview data, we found four dominant themes: (a) students’ definitions of mentoring, particularly the metaphors they used to describe mentoring; (b) students’ involvement in mentoring, including their motivations for seeking mentoring; (c) students’ concerns about mentoring and their comments about their lack of mentoring; and (d) students’ comments about their professors’ involvement in mentoring, including how professors encouraged or discouraged mentoring. Despite the fact that the data came from two separate classes and several interviews, the responses were consistent. We believe that using undergraduate research assistants to interview our students elicited useful and accurate information, as the students being interviewed felt more comfortable with researchers their own age. For example, we do not think that students would have been willing to say to us as Steve4 did in his interview with our research assistants: “They [our professors] are usually too old. They don’t know what it’s really like these days.”
Observations in the Classroom
Prior to the semester in which the students observed our classes, we outlined reasons why our classes naturally led to mentoring and discussed additional ways to implement more mentoring practices into our already existing courses, including introducing students to why mentoring was important and how we ourselves had benefited from mentoring. Building on Anderson and Shannon’s (1988) conceptual model, we listed appropriate practices for mentoring in our classrooms corresponding to each of these essential attributes of mentoring. Table 1 summarizes both Anderson and Shannon’s model and the specific things we did in an effort to mentor students, highlighting what we did beyond what we normally do in our teaching as well.
Because we had already attempted to be nurturing teachers, our plans for providing growth-producing activities and for adopting best teaching practices did not vary much from the practices we implemented in earlier semesters. We did, however, intend to implement more mentoring practices designed to help students identify themselves as professionals (through acting as role models and focusing on professional and personal development) and, finally, become more involved in creating fan ongoing caring relationship. Recognizing our own individual strengths as teachers and the differing nature of our courses, we did not attempt to do the same things. Rather, we attempted to implement the essential attributes of mentoring while working within our own personalities and responsibilities.
To ascertain whether or not we were successful in implementing in our classroom the mentoring practices we intended, our research assistants spent one semester observing our classes and documenting our mentoring practices. Although the research assistants were unaware of the specific mentoring practices we had outlined, they were familiar with Anderson and Shannon’s (1988) attributes of mentoring from which we had formulated our plans. The students who observed Beverly B. Zimmerman’s class were supervised by Danette Paul and vice versa, so that we were unaware of the data collected on our own classes until the semester was over.
At the end of the study, we analyzed the research assistants’ observational notes and listed the mentoring practices they had documented. There were 133 mentoring practices listed with an average of 33 practices per observer. We combined the four lists, eliminating duplicates and grouping similar practices together. Then we took the most consistently observed practices and assigned them to Anderson and Shannon’s (1988) essential attributes. Table 2 shows the attributes of mentoring, our intended mentoring practices, and the mentoring practices most consistently observed by our research assistants. Given that we were teaching TC courses, it is only natural that we would focus on professional and personal development. Therefore, in assigning mentoring practices to Anderson and Shannon’s model, we split “Focus on Professional and/or Personal Development” into two separate categories: “Focus on Professional Development” and “Focus on Personal Development.” In addition, we did not include Anderson and Shannon’s general category of “Functions of Mentoring” because these functions overlap with all of the other attributes.
Because mentoring within an academic setting is complex and occurs in informal as well as formal settings, research assistants were unable to document every instance of mentoring. Specifically, they were not present when students met with us in our offices for consultation, when we participated in STC-sponsored workshops, or when we discussed mentoring and internships in other settings (Danette Paul was the English Department Internship Coordinator). Nevertheless, the research assistants recorded what they saw as being important in the classroom, and we feel that their observation notes represent overall student views toward mentoring.
In our study, we found that most students could define the term mentor; however, some students showed ambiguous or conflicted feelings about its value. Although most students were confused about mentoring and did not necessarily recognize what teachers did in the classroom as mentoring, they did recognize the elements other researchers have noted that distinguish teaching from mentoring. In addition, our students saw an additional element: our invitation to mentoring. These results indicate that mentoring in the classroom is possible, but it requires that we adopt a new model for mentoring, one that broadens the notion of mentoring beyond the one-on-one model.
One might ask whether it really matters how students define mentoring, as teachers could continue to mentor students without having an agreed-upon definition. However, understanding what is involved in mentoring does matter, especially if everyone needs a mentor. For example, students’ preconceived notions about what counts as mentoring might limit their ability to recognize and accept opportunities to be mentored. On the other hand, teachers’ preconceived notions about mentoring might likewise cause students to miss opportunities to be mentored (Shellum, 2006). And, although students’ individual concepts of what counts as mentoring may seem to have little to do with the success of an attempt to mentor a group of students in a classroom, we found that students’ perceptions about mentoring had a strong and complex relationship with their classroom experiences. For instance, in the survey we conducted prior to the classroom observations, over one third of the students (37%) answered an open-ended question in which they described their mentoring experience (interestingly, only 25% stated that they had had mentoring experiences). Of those students who responded, only 14% responded with classical mentoring experiences such as joint research projects, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, internships, or undergraduate theses.
In addition, many of the responses did not distinguish between these classical independent experiences and experience related to students’ classes. The two most common responses students listed as mentoring experiences were receiving advice from professors (26%) and having one-on-one experiences with a professor (23%). Yet, students seemed to include any advice or any one-on-one time shared. For example, the advice ranged from how to do well in that professor’s class to career advice to general advice about topics seemingly unrelated to academics, such as shopping. In addition, some students mentioned specific classes or class assignments as sources of their mentoring. These findings show that the students had very diverse concepts of what counted as mentoring and that they did not exclude class experiences from mentoring.
Students’ Concepts of Mentoring
In both our survey and our ethnography, we found that some students showed ambiguous or conflicted feelings about the value of mentoring. These feelings were revealed in the metaphors students used to describe mentoring. Students’ descriptions of the purpose of mentoring ranged from “friendship,” a “big bond,” and a “lifetime relationship” to descriptions that could be described as parasitic, remedial, and insincere. In the interviews, for example. Colleen gave almost a dictionary definition of mentoring, but the relationship she described was both a mutually beneficial one and a vampire-like one:
It’s a one-on-one relationship where one person has experience and expertise in an area where the … second person really doesn’t. [Mentors] are a guide. … It’s kind of like a symbiotic relationship. The mentorees [sic] are draining that person of their knowledge.
Rebecca showed this same ambiguity by contrasting mentors with tutors, yet her explanation seemed to indicate that mentors provide a more caring but still standard response, rather than an individual one.
Tutoring is teacher/student, kind of distant: “This is what you need to know.” Mentoring is like: “I understand everything you are going through, blah, blah, blah.”
These students’ confusion about mentoring was clear, especially because their contradictory statements occurred in consecutive sentences. Regrettably, their responses are not atypical of the students in our broader survey of English majors. Furthermore, this confusion undercuts students’ ability to recognize mentoring opportunities and to participate in mentoring experiences. Our study revealed that students’ confusion arose from the following: (a) an unclear understanding of the purpose or value of mentoring, (b) uncertainty about how mentoring relationships are formed, and (c) confusion about the possibility of mentoring in the English major. Unclear understanding of the purpose of mentoring: “I was very independent and wanted to do it on my own.” Some students viewed mentoring as intrusive, especially the various programs that were mandated by our English department to provide more advisement and mentoring in general. For example, Carol said, “I was very independent, and I wanted to do it on my own.” Rebecca noted that “some students don’t want to be mentored,” stating that she did not like all this “over-involvement,” adding “Maybe [the registration hold imposed on students until they saw their advisors] is their way of mentoring me, but I’m like ‘leave me alone. I know what I am doing.’” Because these students did not recognize the value of mentoring, they would be unlikely to seek out mentoring or to recognize it when it occurred.5
Other students saw mentoring as strictly connected to job hunting, as a means for obtaining letters of recommendation or references on their resumes. Many students mentioned these aspects of finding a job, but for some students they were the only reasons for mentoring. For example, Mindy and Vanessa believed mentoring was only important for recommendation and networking.
Mindy: I don’t feel that I needed [mentoring], although I’m sure everybody does. It also probably depends on your postgraduate work and your goals, if you feel developing those relationships will help with letters of recommendation or establishing connections.
Vanessa: I don’t really see a point in having a mentor unless you’re in a job or you need them to write a letter of recommendation. … I don’t see [mentoring] happening a lot, but if you can find a way, it’s important.
These students and others like them did not realize that a mentor might help them select useful classes, understand areas of interest in the field, learn new skills, develop problem-solving strategies, or make career decisions, in addition to helping them find a job. Students such as these might wait until their last semesters to find the help they need. As a result, they might not take advantage of opportunities to prepare for life after graduation or to recognize other mentoring activities.
Students in a second group, like Steve, seemed to have a mentor but did not realize it.
I’ve had a teacher that I worked really closely with and the feedback that he gave on my papers was really good, but it didn’t really have much to do with a job. I always associate mentoring with occupations and things like that.
In this conception, mentoring belongs to a professional life, not an academic one. Students who saw mentoring only as the last step in the job process would not take advantage of the opportunity to have a more personal relationship with a faculty member and would be unlikely to seek out additional mentoring experiences.
A final group saw mentoring in its more traditional role as a guide, but in practice often experienced it as help with a paper assignment. One of the best examples of this was revealed in Holly’s response:
On our very first essay, [my professor] had us each come in, and he personally read [the paper] and reviewed it with us…. It was a great thing to do because it’s one-on-one time…. [He] talked about life, career things, what are your career plans.
Holly at first seemed to understand the value of mentoring even in a paper conference, but then in the next sentences she reduced mentoring to editing:
I’ve had two classes from him and he did that both times with the first paper. You could always go to him to review other papers that were due, but I never did. I didn’t need that much editing on my papers, I guess.
These comments demonstrated that although students could define mentoring, they were still somewhat confused about its purpose. Billy’s comments seemed to sum up our findings:
Students won’t take the initiative unless they feel the need to. You can’t just tell students to find a mentor because they’ll be like, “Well, why? I don’t need a mentor.” … If you show the need for mentorships, I think students will take it upon themselves to find what they need.
If mentoring is to be more successful for more students, the students need to have a clearer idea about the purpose or value of having a mentor. If they do not, they are less likely to avail themselves of opportunities and less likely to recognize mentoring when it is offered.
Uncertainty about how to form mentoring relationships: “I feel so forward saying, ‘Hey. Will you be my mentor?’” Despite the confusion in some students about the purpose or value of mentoring, our survey and interviews indicated that many students wanted mentoring. They simply were uncertain about how to develop such a relationship. In our survey, we asked the open-ended question: “What limited or prevented you from having mentoring experiences with faculty in your major?” The top reasons given for not seeking out a mentor were: a lack of information about mentoring (31 %), students’ limited time (28%), and the inaccessibility of professors (27%). Only 13% of the students we polled said that they were not interested in mentoring.
This survey indicated that 86% of students wanted a mentor. However, although students recognized in some cases their own culpability for not initiating or seeking a mentoring relationship (fear, shyness, lack of confidence, uncertainty), they implied that much of the problem rests with the faculty and the department. For example, the majority of the constraints identified by students (58% of all students who responded, 70% of all constraints) were from a lack of information (which presumably should be supplied by the department, faculty, or advisement centers) or from inaccessible professors. Yet the students’ responses to open-ended questions about what could be done to improve this situation put professors and departments in a double bind when it came to initiating the mentoring relationship. The two most common methods of assuring that interested students would find mentors are student-initiated contact with professors and formal mentoring programs. However, almost all of the students in our survey indicated reluctance to initiate such a relationship and ambiguity about the value of being involved with a formal mentoring program.
In the interviews, most students indicated they did not want to initiate a mentoring relationship because they were sure it would be awkward and they were equally unsure about whether such action would be appropriate or reciprocated. The students acknowledged that the awkwardness came from their own apprehensions as well as their belief that some teachers did not want to be approached generally or by them specifically. For example, Alecia said the following in her interview:
I’m hesitant about approaching them because maybe they just don’t care…. I’ve talked to some professors in their office hours, but it seems like I’m just taking up their time, like they’ve seen so many better students.
Other students indicated that approaching a professor would be “unnatural.” For example, during her interview, Vanessa indicated the awkwardness of approaching teachers by providing an imagined dialogue.
I have one class with them, and maybe they remember me, but it’s hard to come back and say, “Hey, remember me, I was in your class.” I feel so forward, saying, “Hey, will you be my mentor?”"Hi! I want you to like me and think I’m cool and write me a letter of recommendation.” It’s hard. It seems [like it is] really forced.
A main concern of these students seemed to be about the reciprocity of a mentors’ involvement. The students wanted to believe that a mentor would care for them personally and that they would not just be another burden on the professor. In both the survey and the interviews, students indicated that they wanted a mutually beneficial relationship. In the survey, students noted, “Someone with more experience helping someone who’s learning so it becomes a mutual exchange,”"symbiotic relationship,” based on “mutual interest.” In her interview, Tessa insisted that “the relationship should be equal. It’s easier to work together and get along if the two are on equal footing and the mentee isn’t far below the mentor.”
This sense that a “real” mentoring experience must be a “natural,” mutual connection complicates professors and departments’ efforts to offer mentoring as part of other department programs because many students viewed advisement as being artificial and opposed formal mentoring programs. For example, Billy claimed:
First and foremost, a mentor needs to actually want to help…. If you have a mandatory mentor program where professors have to be mentors, I don’t think that will work. … The mentor’s not supposed to just spit out the same advice to every person. They’re supposed to find out about each individual and then adapt their mentoring to that individual.
Although some students like Billy do not want formal mentoring because it is not personal, others students felt that such programs were the answer. Unlike Rebecca, who disliked the “over- involvement” of the English department’s attempt at a mandatory advisement program for sophomores, Alecia and Lee felt it was a step in the right direction.
Alecia: This would be an amazing program if when you were admitted into English, you were automatically assigned to a mentor who got in touch with you and set up an appointment.
Lee: Making students go to see their professor a certain amount of times throughout the year would be a good idea because that makes the students go to begin with. If they’re like me, they have other things they’d rather do. If students were forced to go, they would get a feel for the professor and how they are and they would get more comfortable being around them.
These comments made it clear that students do not know the best or most appropriate way of approaching professors; yet, they clearly want feedback and guidance from their professors as well as contact with them. Given all the uncertainty expressed by these students, one may be tempted to think that these students do not have the drive, confidence, or ambition to succeed. However, in our experience, even our brightest and most ambitious students have expressed these same concerns. These results indicated that obtaining a degree in a department that is not explicitly career oriented-within a university that privileges scientific and business models for mentoring over educational or liberal arts models-may result in confusion. Furthermore, the students’ comments emphasized Mertz’s factors of intent and involvement. The statements that professors have to “want to” or to act from “natural” feelings indicate the students’ desire to see or understand the professors’ intent to mentor them. The statements about “one class with them,”"just taking up their time,” and the student should be “forced to go” indicated the desire for involvement that is outside a teacher- student relationship. Confusion about the potential for mentoring in the English department: “It’s hard because there are no English companies.” Finally, some students wondered whether it is even possible for mentoring to occur in a major that is not explicitly career oriented. Billy stated that his experience as an English major has “been good”; however, he saw lots of room for improvement. Billy spent much of the interview discussing how unpractical an English degree was. When asked how the situation could be improved, he stated:
Students need to do a better job of applying things they learn, and then the teachers need to do a better job of pointing out how to apply the principles of what you’re learning to real world applications. … In English, it’s up to you to find an application for your degree.
In other words, Billy felt that each of the players-students, teachers, and the English department-all needed to do more and that the heart of the problem was the fact that English is not a “career- oriented” major. Our students responded strongly and often regarding the need for more discussion of practical applications of the major. The following responses are representative:
Rebecca: Teachers need to help me see more options because right now it’s [either] I could be a technical writer or an editor-all these mundane jobs. Everyone always says English is such a great major because you can go into so many fields, but I’m not aware of all those fields.
Anne: I didn’t even know about mentoring until this class. [One of the teachers] came into one of my classes before to talk about mentoring. [I thought], “Oh, that really exists?” … In English, we tend to bury ourselves in our work and just go on with life.
Steve: It’s hard because there are no English companies.
If students do not think that an English degree can prepare them for a career, where does that attitude come from? It may arise from a lack of awareness of the many possibilities available to students upon graduation. Or it may result because the students do not recognize that their professors can be a guide to help them prepare for life after the university. For these students, the invitation to be mentored was either lacking or unrecognized. Their comments argued for more specific discussions with faculty about which specific career options are available and how course content, optional activities (such as doing research with a professor or joining a professional organization), and internships could prepare them for various careers options.
The three themes that emerged from the interviews with the students in our two TC classes revealed that students are uncertain about the purpose, the mechanics, and the possibility of having a mentor while majoring in English. Clearly, these attitudes hinder both the students’ possibilities for having extracurricular experiences that would enhance their opportunities for mentoring once they graduate and the TC teachers’ opportunities for developing a strong mentoring program. Because the students’ greatest concerns were time restraints for both themselves and their professors, one place we could address these issues is in the classroom. Attempting to mentor in the classroom seems a logical method of accommodating all parties’ schedules, providing the needed contact, and demonstrating that mentoring is possible and available to all students in our TC programs.
Mentoring in the Classroom: Would Students Recognize It?
Given that students provided descriptions for mentoring that included classroom-related experiences, it seems reasonable that students would recognize when teachers integrated mentoring practices in their classrooms. As discussed earlier, we designed our TC classes with the intent of mentoring our students, and our research assistants clearly identified that we implemented these mentoring practices in our classrooms (Table 2). The question remains, however, as to whether students in our classes recognized our efforts to mentor them. Our answer is a complex one, and reflects both the realities of any classroom and our students’ ambiguous understanding of mentoring.
An analysis of the interviews of our students indicated that our attempts to mentor students in the TC classroom, like all classroom practices, yielded mixed results. Some of our students recognized our efforts to mentor them and a few even identified us as their mentors. Others, however, recognized that we were implementing specific teaching practices but did not recognize what we were doing as “mentoring.” Steve, for example, noted that one of us had helped him with his resume, suggested several internships, given him career advice, and written him a letter of recommendation but did not consider this to be mentoring:
I think Dr. _ does a good job. She’s a really good person to know and she’s really accessible, more so than any other teacher I’ve ever had. She’s very concerned with what we do after college. So I like that. I don’t know if I’d consider her a mentor though. I would say that I haven’t had enough one-on-one experience with her to say that she is a mentor. I don’t have one.
Still others seemed to miss the point completely. Donna mentioned to one of us that she had seen the article in the university newspaper about our research on mentoring. She said, “[Mentoring] is really important and someone should do something to help students.” As the discussion continued, however, it became clear that she did not realize that the study had been conducted in the class she had attended. Although Steve’s response is characteristic of the confusion students have about mentoring, Donna’s response may reflect her own participation in classshe came late, missed meetings, and was the only student who was not interviewed despite several appointments.
Although these two students might leave the impression that our attempts at mentoring were not recognized by the students, a closer look at the overall results makes it clear that the students assigned the instructors characteristics of mentors, believed that their classes offered some mentoring, and felt comfortable going to the professors for advice. In other words, they recognized our intent to mentor them. For example, all of the students but one (96%) described the instructors as helpful. The majority (83%) believed the instructors were willing to give them guidance, and most (88%) said that they would be comfortable asking the instructors for help or advice. When asked if they were comfortable in asking the instructors for advice regarding their professional decisions, two students indicated that they already had asked or were in the process of doing so. For example, Billy said, “Very. In fact I already did. I already asked her for mentoring.” Melissa said, “That’s why I am seeing her on Friday.” In addition, most students felt the class offered opportunities for mentoring (83%) and that it presented them with job, internship, and networking opportunities (79%). Furthermore, students believed that classes generally could be used for mentoring.
More important, most students recognized, whether they classified it as mentoring or not, that the invitation to be mentored had been offered. For example, Mindy said:
I feel that she wants people to come to her office hours and ask her questions and get help from her. I think she’s very inviting and very, very helpful when I was able to go to her office hours.
In response to the question of whether she would approach the teacher for mentoring, Jennifer stated, “So because the invitation’s already been extended and you feel comfortable, if you had a question, you would approach [the teacher]. Yeah, I would. Even after the semester.” Because some students’ definitions of mentoring relied on one-on-one time with the professors, we may never have been able to convince them that what we did in the classroom was mentoring. Nonetheless, we feel that because of our involvement they were clearly aware of our intent and that an invitation for mentoring had been made.
Is Mentoring in the Classroom Possible, Practical, or Even Necessary?
The mixed results of our study may lead readers to question whether mentoring in the classroom may be possible, practical, or even necessary. Therefore, we argue that mentoring is possible, though not in the traditional one-on-one sense, and it is practical because students recognized our intent and invitation to mentor them, and they saw the possibility of a professional identity for themselves and involvement in an ongoing mentoring relationship. But more important, mentoring is necessary.
When asked if mentoring was possible in other English classes, all but two of our TC students thought it was possible. Lisa stated: “Each professor is not going to be able to spend time with every student that they come across and provide experiences for each of them. That’s impossible.” However, most students thought that professors could provide some mentoring, and several students gave specific suggestions. Some suggestions were things outside the teacher’s control, such as creating smaller classes and making sure students were approached early in their studies, but the three most common responses were easily doable. First, students in our classes stated that teachers should require or invite their students to meet with them. For example, Mindy said, “Previous teachers that have been mentors for me [have] always been inviting us to come by on a personal basis.” Lee stated that mentoring could be improved by “making students go to see their professor a certain amount of times throughout the year.”
The second response students gave for improving mentoring had to do with teachers’ being open to students and identifying them as potential proteges. For example, Tom noted that if teachers are “approachable, the students feel comfortable coming and talking to them.” Joe suggested that “[t]he best way to achieve [mentoring] is to treat the students not as students, but as colleagues. Involve [students] in the research with them.” Some students felt, however, that teachers’ attitudes toward mentoring could not be changed. For example, Rebecca stated: “I think it has a lot to do with the teacher’s personality. If they’re just not the mentoring kind, then the students will have to find that elsewhere.”
Third, our TC students also suggested that teachers identify potential professions and careers. For example, Holly stated that teachers should “talk about life, career things, and your future plans.” Matt and Lee were more specific, wanting more teachers to tell them about internship opportunities. Dyson’s response seems to summarize most of the comments students made about what would be helpful: “If teachers would talk about it more,… encouraging students to think about their futures and what they would like to do, and [if teachers would] be open and invite students to come and talk to them, even in class-to talk about what they had done in their career.” Not surprisingly, these suggestions underscore the elements of mentoring that move beyond teaching (intent, involvement, invitation, and identity) and demonstrate that students recognize and appreciate these particular mentoring practices and they reflect the practices we attempted to implement.
In discussing our research with colleagues at conferences and forums and in the halls, most agree with our findings that mentoring in the classroom is possible, but they are concerned about whether or not it is practical. That is, they wonder whether mentoring will make too many demands on their already heavy workloads. Certainly, the idea that the majority of their students would see them as their mentor is enough to make most busy professors pause. However, although almost all of our students felt invited to be involved in future mentoring outside the classroom, only 15 of those interviewed said they would pursue that invitation and only 4 students actually identified us as their mentors that semester. During the semesters of the study, both of us had unusually busy schedules because of other obligations; yet, neither of us felt that we were devoting considerably more time to our office hours. Rather, more of our office hours (and our teaching in other classes) were focused on advising and mentoring. And, we felt that many of our class discussions were enriched by our students’ increased awareness of professional possibilities outside of the classroom. This awareness indicates that our students began to identify themselves as professionals.
Finally, some readers may ask: Is mentoring in the classroom really necessary? After all, TC programs by their very nature encourage students to plan for the future. We would argue that every department, program, and class would benefit from more explicit discussions of entering the profession-not just theoretical discussions, but specific discussion of individual options, opportunities, and career paths. Otherwise students may not recognize our intent to mentor them and therefore lose some of its benefits.
Our own realization of this occurred when we attended a regional STC conference where our research assistants presented early findings from this research. Although the conference was held within easy driving distance of our university, none of our other TC students attended. We noted a number of students in attendance from another university in our state with a large TC program, and we were feeling some “program envy.” Still, when several of these students attended our presentation, one of them asked: “How can we get mentoring opportunities? Where can we find a program like that?” We were surprised. Obviously, these students were being mentored: They were at the conference, they participated in the sessions, and they were enrolled in an excellent program. Yet they seemed unaware that they were being mentored.
We realized then the need in our field to talk repeatedly and explicitly about how teachers can be mentors. Recognizing teachers as mentors and finding more efficient ways for teachers to mentor is possible and practical. But more important, it is necessary because, as Colleen wisely stated in her interview, “Mentoring experiences- that’s what college is all about.”
THE NEED FOR A NEW MODEL FOR MENTORING
Mentoring students in TC is complex but not impossible. And although our study is limited in that it looks only at two courses at one university, it does suggest several important ideas. As teachers, we can show our intent to mentor students by mentoring them within our classrooms, using a model based on the strengths of our field. What this model will look like should be the focus for future research.6 Nevertheless, we can become involved in ongoing relationships with our students by establishing an open, friendly classroom environment, and by announcing opportunities not directly related to class content (such as research opportunities and internships). But intent and involvement are not enough. In addition, we must invite students to see us as mentors by explaining the value of mentoring, making our mentoring practices more visible, discussing our own experiences with mentoring, and encouraging students to meet with us in our offices. And we must help students create their own professional identity by informing them about the paths that are available to them upon graduation, by creating assignments and projects designed to help them see themselves as professionals, and by helping them see how the skills they are learning can be used in the larger world.
Unfortunately, the culture of English departments does not always encourage mentoring. Disciplines such as science, engineering, and business are more likely to mentor students by assimilating them into large collaborative research groups or existing projects with long-standing traditions of funding from external sources. Indeed, Wilson et al. (2004) reported that humanities and social science contracts for undergraduate student research projects at the University of California Los Angeles accounted for only about 20% of all contracts funded between 1997 and 2001, despite these departments having the largest numbers of students. Most technical writing programs have no clear model for mentoring because the traditional business and scientific models for mentoring don’t fit our research and teaching practices. As Wernerand Sorum (2004) noted, strong, collaborative research interactions between faculty and students are usually not found in the humanities.
Therefore, we must begin to change the model for mentoring by acknowledging that if every student is to be mentored, mentoring can no longer take the form of the traditional one-on-one relationship and should not necessarily represent mentoring practices in other disciplines. We must begin to change our culture to include mentoring by teachers in the classroom and by groups of faculty who want to work collaboratively with students (Galbraith & Maslin- Ostrowski, 2000). We must articulate the benefits of mentoring to students and make our mentoring practices less mechanical. We can and should extend an invitation to students to “come walk with us” as part of their educational journey and to do so in a manner that will change them and us in beneficial ways.
We thank our undergraduate research assistants-William Barren, Jessica Best, Emily Hull, and Nathan Robinson-for the time and effort they have contributed to this study. We would also like to thank the Brigham Young University College of Humanities for funding the Mentoring Environment Grant that made our study possible.
1 This study was funded by a Mentoring Environment Grant from the Brigham Young University College of Humanities.
2 Articles in technical communication focus primarily on mentoring in a professional setting. For example, a recent search on mentoring in the STC Technical Communication Library found 28 articles, all but 2 of which discussed mentoring in the corporate setting, or described ways to develop partnerships between students and practicing professionals. Recent STC mentoring guidelines are also geared for professionals. Articles focusing on mentoring in English studies usually focus on the training of graduate students.
3 This accounts for 69% of the students enrolled in all of the sections of these courses.
4 All students who were interviewed were given a pseudonym.
5 The students may have not felt they were mentored because some faculty did not see this as a mentoring assignment. In a meeting to discuss what the students should be told, the chair encouraged faculty to only discuss which courses were required for graduation.
6This study is part of a larger project we are currently undertaking that looks at a rhetorical approach to mentoring.
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Beverly B. Zimmerman and Danette Paul
Brigham Young University
Beverly B. Zimmerman, associate professor at Brigham Young University, teaches visual rhetoric and technical communication. Her research involves information design and ethnographic studies on the teaching of writing.
Danette Paul, assistant professor at Brigham Young University, teaches rhetoric, professional communication, and composition. Her research involves the development of chaos theory and the rhetoric of science.
Where are you from and what year in school are you?
What is your major?
What made you decide to choose English as a major?
What do you intend to do after graduating?
Could you describe briefly your experience majoring in English thus far?
How would you define the term mentoring?
Do you feel that you have a mentor, and if so, who is it and what do they do to mentor you?
Have you ever had a mentoring experience with a teacher? If so, what were they?
What are the ideal qualities of a mentor?
If you could give advice to students about the major, classes, the professors, or about your experiences, what would you say?
Do you feel that your course work in English has prepared you for what you will do after graduation?
Why did you enroll in this course?
Do you feel that this class provided you with an opportunity to receive mentoring? If so, could you describe it?
Do you have any experiences from this class where you feel that you received mentoring?
Has there been anything in the course that you feel will help you in your future?
What do you think could be done in classes to provide mentoring experiences for English majors?
Did you know this professor before you took this class?
Have you ever visited this teacher in her office?
How comfortable would you feel asking this teacher for mentoring?
What could this teacher or others do to better mentor English majors?
Do you have any questions about the study or about mentoring?
Copyright Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Spring 2007
(c) 2007 Technical Communication Qua