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Who’s your mentor?

posted: 1.10.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Over the holidays, I received a number of cards from students for whom I served as a mentor, either formal or informal, like this one:

     I am so thankful to have you in my life. Thank you for all the support, guidance, and time you’ve given me over the years. Happy, happy holidays!

Every teacher loves getting messages like this one, of course, but this year such messages have made me think about mentoring, about mentors in my own life and about how often mentors are found rather than assigned.

When I think back to my own undergraduate years, I can recall one mentor vividly:  Dr. Robert Bryan.  He taught my introductory humanities course, and it was a big lecture class where we sat and dutifully took notes while he introduced us to “great works.”  I doubt if he knew who I was (other than a name on his roster), but it was in his class that I first seriously engaged William Faulkner, first read Kafka, and first attempted serious close reading.  So as the years went on, I got up my courage and went to office hours, always with a couple of questions I wanted to ask (one I remember is “who is the greatest American playwright and why?” though now I can’t remember his answer). What I do remember is that Dr. Bryan took my questions seriously and encouraged me to keep reading.  In my senior year, I labored over a timeline tracing out works of British and American literature and trying to fill in historical events, great works of art, etc.  Of course this was long before computers (I had a manual typewriter), so my timeline was a long scroll of paper, which I eventually took to Dr. Bryan’s office.  We unrolled it and he helped me fill in some (big) gaps, and then he asked if I would like to come over and have tea with him and his wife.  That was the first and only time any faculty member invited me into his or her home, and I was thrilled.  I went and we had tea, and the three of us talked about what we still wanted to read:  I left with a long list of “must reads” for after graduation. 

I don’t know if Robert Bryan considered himself a mentor to me—and I don’t even know if I knew the word at that point.  But he was a mentor, and a grand one, and he was one that I sought out: in that sense, he was a found mentor, and the more I think about mentorship the more I think that those are the best kind.  When I got to graduate school, almost a decade later, I was fortunate to have Edward P. J. Corbett as a mentor—and again, he was one I sought out and “found.”  Since Ohio State had no formal courses in rhetoric and composition at that time, I asked Dr. Corbett if he would let me do a series of directed readings with him; I started with Plato and Aristotle and kept on reading right up to Kenneth Burke.  I would go into his office every week and, like Robert Bryan, he took my beginner’s thoughts on rhetoric seriously, even if they were half baked (as I’m afraid they often were).  We kept this up for years, and thanks to Ed and his mentorship, I read and wrote and talked my way into the field.

Every year I have students I am assigned to mentor, and sometimes they work out wonderfully:  last year, one of these students graduated with honors English and is now in graduate school preparing to be a teacher.  But more often, the students that “find” me (often in the writing center, but other times just in casual meetings) create more successful mentoring relationships. Often these begin, as I did, with a visit to office hours.  Often they continue for years, well beyond undergrad school:  the note above, for instance, comes from a student who graduated five years ago.  So I’ve learned over the years to be mindful of the students who just show up, wanting to talk.  They aren’t always looking for a mentor—but sometimes they are, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it.  My job, as I see it, is to listen hard and to talk with the student as a colleague, as a fellow seeker of knowledge and understanding; to give the best advice I can offer, if it’s asked for; but mostly, mainly, to listen and to take the time to respect the ideas presented.  They are often a great gift.

Here at the beginning of 2013, I think about my own mentors and I think about the students I have been privileged to mentor over the forty-some years of my teaching career.  I hope to live up to the example set for me by Professors Bryan and Corbett.  That’s a good enough New Year’s Resolution for me, and maybe one you might consider.

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One Response to “Who’s your mentor?”

  1. Liz Middleton, Interlachen High Says:

    In my seventeen years of teaching, I have found that mentoring may be the longest lasting impact that I have. What I teach may too quickly be forgotten, but my use of old fashioned words like whippersnapper and my attention to questions and traumas on an individual basis is remembered years later.
    The way a student’s worries and confusion are addressed, the respect given this “half-baked” young person–is what keeps the student coming back. I like what you wrote about taking the student seriously and seeing him/her as a colleague. It is true–we are all in this business of interpreting, describing and arguing our way through life. The more support we can give and get the better. The urge to mentor is a strong one, particularly after being well mentored oneself.