The meaning of “meaning”

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

As many of us stay “safe” at home in the face of a persistent COVID-19 pandemic, I’m intentionally reflecting on the meaning of meaning and how that “sits” relative to the daily decisions that need be made about how we spend our time.

We have to make these decisions daily, even when things are more “normal” than in a pandemic. Yet in specific times like these where we are staying safe at home with other responsibilities—childcare and homeschooling, eldercare or coordinating such care from a distance, care of pets, additional chores that are intensified with increased time at home, and lack of access to some self-care options such as visiting the gym or leisure time and energy for reading—the range of flexibility that we have in making choices can be diminished.

With many of these “at home” responsibilities being things that can’t wait or be easily compartmentalized, options of “keeping up” with scholarly or professional demands can rapidly dissipate or the realities of what can be accomplished can be significantly less than anticipated. This is particularly true when also weighing the physical and mental costs for some of moving much of their work—teaching that has received much attention, but also other forms of work and meetings—to online platforms and formats.

While I consistently try to prioritize my own definition of success, impact, and what it means to have “meaning” in my work and purpose, changes in our environment are best met with a time of reflection about “meaning” in a particular time, space, and context.

The prevailing messages in many academic circles—and associated frameworks of support—are focused on the premise that we simply physically move our bodies from one work location to another and accordingly move our focus to our homes and the goal of keeping going. Across the nation, these messages of resilience are branded as keep “learning”, keep “teaching”, keep “researching” perspectives. Yet, the likelihood of these being spoken into reality is limited for many.

Many of us desperately need someone to “keep supporting” and “keep listening” to us explain what our true priorities must be in this time like none we have ever seen before. What is needed most in this time is grace and understanding.

Grace extended from each of us to ourselves, but also grace extended in what may be expected of us.

Also needed is understanding that each of us seeks peace and well-being in such moments in ways that resonate with our values, our own processes of making meaning, and through strategies that feed our motivations and sense of self.

What I am finding in this time is that something as BIG—as unprecedented—as this global pandemic is sending me on a search for and deep reflection about the “meaning” of “meaning”. Whereas for me writing can be a panacea, a celebration, a mourning, a respite, and so much more, in these times I find myself thinking deeply about the meaning of my writing.

Because each moment can seem weightier than the last during a global pandemic of this magnitude, I find it hard to focus on writing about topics that are only measured in terms of whether I’m being “productive”—quantity of words produced, words for the sake of words but not linked to improving someone’s possibility for advancing a “worthy” goal, words linked in some way to pursuit of status in an academy that may emerge from this crisis understanding its worth differently [or perhaps so I hope in regards to this latter point].

Yet, I know, as much as I know the seriousness of this current moment, that I process the world through words. Thus, writing will remain critically important to me in this moment.

So, as I reflect on meaning, I ask myself which topics can I engage, which words can I juxtapose, which phrases can I turn, that may bring meaning to the meaning of this time. I draw on all the sages, word-masters, and lyrical philosophers whom I can conjure to find a guidepost.

I know that I’ll write through the crisis, but I’ll follow the wisdom of Queen Mother Toni Morrison and I will be “writing for life”.

There's a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises.... If you write for ...

My writing in this time will not in the least be about productivity.

As writing is so frequently for me, it will be my way of processing the world, my way of finding meaning in the face of senselessness, my way of hoping that I can sit at the feet of whatever teacher I find in the universe and demonstrate my learning in writing.

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

May they bring meaning…and comfort…to you now and far beyond.

As always, if you have thought or feedback on this post, find me @BerondaM.

Effective mentors show up healed

Mentoring is hard work, but it can also be challenging to be mentored.

Being mentored requires vulnerability and trust that your mentor is committed to supporting you in YOUR stated goals and aspirations – personal and professional. As recently described in collaborative work with Dr. Stephani Page, this requires that the mentee is actively engaged and provides the mentor with space to grow, openness, active participation, among other things.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for mentors themselves to enter into mentoring relationships prepared to meet the core needs of mentees, which include personalization, guidance, correction, affirmation, and agency (Figure 1; also see Montgomery and Page, 2018).

Figure 1. Core Needs of Mentees from Montgomery and Page, 2018, https://www.nap.edu/resource/25568/Montgomery%20and%20Page%20-%20Mentoring.pdf

Part of this difficulty arises from the knowledge that mentoring too often takes the form of “imprinting”, or mentors training someone to pattern their behavior and actions after the mentors’ or the norm(s) of a group (Montgomery, 2019). This type of imprinting as mentoring often takes the the form of mentors promoting acculturation or assimilation in STEM and the larger academy (Montgomery, 2019). Unfortunately, this is often enacted as an “assimilate or fail mode” (Paris, 2019, p. 219). Too frequently mentors operating in these frameworks are individuals seeking personal affirmation themselves – confirmation for choices they have made including the paths that they have traversed and the goals that they have set.

Effective mentoring must start from a place of mentors being “healed”, i.e., understanding that their own affirmation and self worth cannot become a “group project” requiring specific personal efforts and actions or affirmation of those that they mentor.

Effective mentors SHOW UP healed and are able to mentor from affirmation not for affirmation.

To be clear, poor or negative mentoring can arise from both GOOD and BAD intention. We too frequently assume such mentoring comes only from bad mentors with bad intent. Certainly bad intention can lead to obviously poor mentoring outcomes such as bullying or exploitation (Figure 2). However, even good intent on the part of mentors can lead to negative mentoring experiences such as taking on mentoring when one is not well positioned or not available to offer meaningful guidance or inputs, or other such outcomes (Figure 2).

typology chart
Figure 2. From “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM”, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25568.
Image from https://www.nap.edu/resource/25568/interactive/mentorship-defined.html#section5

Fortunately, there are many (and continually emerging) options for ensuring that mentors can improve their mentoring skills. One of the latest of these resources is the recent report of the NASEM Committee on the Science of Effective Mentorship – full report now available here.

Fortunately, there is also this summarized advice:

References:

Montgomery, BL (2019). Mentoring as Environmental Stewardship. CSWEP News, 2019(1): 10–12

Montgomery, BL, and Page, SC (2018). Mentoring beyond Hierarchies: Multi-Mentor Systems and Models. Commissioned Paper for National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Effective Mentoring in STEMM.

Paris, Django (2019). Naming beyond the white settler colonial gaze in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 32(3), 217-224.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

Giving to others….and self

I do a lot of work with minoritized or underrepresented scholars in the academy. Many of the scholars are deeply committed to helping others, especially scholars from similar backgrounds and with fewer years experience in the academy.

As is the national trend for disproportionately higher engagement in service by minoritized faculty, many of the underrepresented scholars with whom I engage give selflessly and, often, beyond sustainable measures to support other marginalized scholars – especially students.

File:SakofaTime2.jpg
Image of Sankofa Bird which is based on an Ghanaian principle and frequently used to represent connecting the past with the present through intentional engagement and sense of responsibility to community.

In this giving, one of the targets often overlooked is self. It’s critical that scholars of the ‘giving to others’ persuasion also prioritize giving to SELF to ensure their own health and longevity. These individuals need to be intentional about scheduling self-care and maintaining an excellent routine of caring for self, in addition to caring for others.

Prioritizing self-care can be a challenge to marginalized scholars – who sometimes suffer from survivor’s guilt, imposter syndrome, unreasonably high & unforgiving (both often self-inflicted) expectations for success, or other counterproductive perspectives. Yet, the commitment to self-care has to be held as non-negotiable to promote long-term presence in, contribution to, and (sometimes) challenging of academic environments.

So I encourage each of you that have set a HIGH bar for task-related goals, such as writing and scholarship, for the summer to also set some summer self-care goals. For good measure, also set up a system of accountability to ensure that you give attaining your self-care goals your very best effort.

You DESERVE it, you NEED it….also the communities and individuals to whom you seek to give need your BEST effort and “cared for” self in the giving process. Giving to self frequently, well, and consistently is one way to ensure that you have access to your BEST self when you prepare to give to others.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter discussing #mentoring, leading, and sometimes #selfcare at @BerondaM