It’s National Mentoring Month and the concentrated focus on and celebration of mentoring brings me joy. There are rich discussions of the definition(s) of mentoring, meaningful enactment, and acknowledgements of the hard work of dedicated mentors being carried out in physical and online spaces (see #NationalMentoringMonth for Twitter-based discussions).
This National Mentoring Month followed the recent release of the NASEM’s (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) consensus study report on The Science of Effective Mentoring in Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine, and Mathematics (STEMM) in late 2019. This report and the accompanying online guide have a wealth of information based on mentorship literature, the thoughtful input of multiple mentoring scholars and experts on inclusive/equitable mentoring, and suggestions for effective implementation.
While I’m encouraged and inspired by ongoing discussions far and wide on the importance of impactful mentoring, I’m also contemplating some ongoing discussions and initiatives related to “mentoring” of minoritized and marginalized scholars in academia. There is growing interest in developing mentoring programs designed to increase diversity among the student ranks and of university faculty. Many of the initiatives focus on recruiting and supporting individuals from underrepresented backgrounds as they enter and transition into graduate programs, postdoctoral training, and ultimately the faculty ranks.
What I’ve been evaluating and contemplating is how many of these efforts still are firmly embedded in, advancing, or are aligned with deficit-based perspectives of the individuals from “diverse” backgrounds whom they seek to recruit and “support”. The deficit perspective – i.e., that you recruit individuals who need targeted or special guidance and assistance in how to “fit in”, survive, and have success in “high performing” environments – is undoubtedly still strongly at play in academic environments, especially at the student level as strongly invoked in most “leaky pipeline” analogies of poor preparation, low performance, ill fit, etc. We are strongly drawn to stories of persistence and grit of minoritized colleagues, which focus on individual traits of making it through a tough system without us asking questions of systems’ fallibility, pipeline blockages, or structural deficits.
These issues of focusing on deficits extend beyond students and also permeate approaches to diversifying the faculty ranks. What is less clear to me is whether there is a sufficient focus on whether the programs that are being deployed are structured as one more hurdle for a minoritized or marginalized person to jump over to show that they are “worthy” of long-term place in a community. Or, alternatively, I ponder whether these efforts are being thoughtfully and intentionally advanced with an equal chance to ask whether there is something in the environment(s) impeding the establishment and flourishing of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds.
So while I’m celebrating a focus on mentoring this month, I’m also asking how and WHEN institutions will start to truly ask questions about historic and persistent system failures to attract, cultivate, and retain a diverse faculty from the perspective of probing what environmental failures and dearth(s) in leadership exist which impede supporting the growth of individuals broadly.
I’m also keen to know when there will be earnest questions asked LOCALLY about the lived experience of those from minoritized and marginalized backgrounds who have entered and persisted in particular contexts. While there are certainly inquiries into this nationally and in other ways, the failure to ask locally can lead to the (false) perspective that the lived experiences of some marginalized individuals and groups are bad – but “we don’t have that problem here!” I contemplate frequently whether there is true interest in understanding whether the lived experience of local marginalized individuals (i.e., what represents climate) matches the institution’s or unit’s espoused values and expressed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (i.e., what represents culture).
We must cultivate the bravery to invite, fully listen to, and reflect on such perspectives, rather than assuming that the persistence of a minoritized or marginalized colleague is a sign of a healthy or supportive environment – or that some significant effort for retaining them has work effectively. A default position that the persistence of minoritized individuals equates to retention will allow institutions to blatantly ignore ongoing environmental or climate issues.
So yes, an opportunity to focus on the importance and power of mentoring during National Mentoring Month brings me joy…but there’s much still to contemplate.
One of the first things I’m contemplating is how radically the conversations would shift if we moved the focus from diversity to equity.
As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.