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On Mentoring and Being Mentored

posted: 10.30.14 by Andrea Lunsford

On October 24, 2014, I helped celebrate Lisa Ede’s retirement: her department at Oregon State University put on a one-day conference, called “Situating Composition” (the title of one of Lisa’s influential books), and Cheryl Glenn and I had the honor of giving talks at the conference. In addition to our presentations, we enjoyed two fabulous panels: one made up of current MA students at Oregon State, each of whom spoke for about ten minutes about their current research, which ranged from peer tutoring to comic books to dual credit composition programs. These MA students were smart, witty, and full of wonderful ideas. The other panel featured Oregon State alums, and each of these former students spoke briefly about the important role Lisa had played in their education, about her careful and attentive mentoring of them. When the day came to a close, the organizers had a big surprise for Lisa: Cheryl and I had the very great pleasure of announcing the Lisa Ede Mentoring Award, which will be given annually by the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition to someone who embodies Lisa’s mentoring ideals and values. It was a festive and moving and memorable moment, and I got to watch as it dawned on Lisa that the CWSHRC was establishing an award in her honor. Pure happiness.

This experience meant a great deal to me, since Lisa and I have been dear friends for 42 years now, have written two books and dozens of articles together, and have mentored one another through major professional and life crises. So I came away thinking not just of Lisa and of this richly-deserved award but of mentoring in general and mentoring writing students in particular. It seems to me that writing teachers, almost surely more than any other teachers, become mentors for their students—and that they remain mentors to them long after a particular class is over. Just two days ago, I drove to a local café to meet a student who was in one of my classes 10 years ago: she is now teaching at a Bay Area public school, and we have been in touch not only throughout her college career but ever since her graduation. Now she has a chance, with a small grant, to start a writing center in her high school, and so we worked on a plan for that for an hour or so, while she caught me up on her latest accomplishments. This student is not unique: I am—as I expect readers of this blog are—deeply involved with students I have been mentoring for years—and that I hope to go on mentoring far into the future.

In my experience, the first key to mentoring is listening: listening hard and long and well; listening “between the lines.” In our hectic lives, it’s rare when someone gives us their undivided, full attention, yet that’s a gift we can give when we mentor our students, past, present, and future. Another key, to me at least, is to give advice, but not too much and not too freely: where decisions are concerned, students have to come to them on their own, though this doesn’t mean I won’t state my opinions. I’m just not aggressive or overly forceful with them. Finally, I think most writing teachers take an invitational stance with students, reaching out to them in a friendly but not overbearing way. That’s another gift we can and do give with every class we teach.

Listening to Lisa’s students talk about her mentorship, about the way she listened, about the way she stuck with them through thick and thin, about the way she took time for them, made me appreciate the effects of mentoring all the more. One former student stood to say that in a time of great loss, Lisa had simply appeared at her door one day, saying, “I’ve come to take you for a walk.” The student said they took that walk, largely in silence, just being together: she said that moment of quiet mentoring and support will live with her forever.

So here’s to the mentoring that we all do: I’d like to honor so many, many writing teachers with the Lisa Ede Mentoring Award!

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