Innovative Mentoring – Mentoring Innovately

29 Jul

Originally Posted on September 4, 2011 in Societal Innovation


Having just been part of a mini-reunion of UIowa peer and faculty mentors, I’ve come back to this post in order to think about the mentor-related posts we’ll create during the coming academic year.  Originally created following as conversation nearly two years ago with David Roberts – curator of the Societal Innovations blog – I realize how deeply my personal experiences with PhD school mentoring had drawn me to David’s September 2011 post on “Three Requirements for Societal Innovation.”  The requirements –

  1. Accept the value and potential in each and every human being.
  2. Search for mutuality among both people and organisations.
  3. Learn to appreciate more nature and the environment (which I find myself recasting as “Learn to appreciate more the variations in human nature and the daily impact and opportunities of social and natural environments.”)

– were reflected everywhere around me in peer- and faculty-mentors working within the University of Iowa Rhetoric Program.  And, so I reblog here my own post from September 2011 as a spur for more thinking as we all move into a new term.  And I revise/reblog with this question in mind: as academics what images do we – or could we – carry in mind in building resilient teaching-related mentoring relationships – with peers and/or students, with colleagues on campus and/or in virtual personal learning networks – as part of our ordinary academic lives?

DSC02057Cousins and Mentors

Yup, I thought, with the small twist of wording noted above, my 54 first cousins were innovative mentors: value as ethic, mutuality as mode, appreciative as mindset, future thinking as focus, creativity as norm, history as those interactively and distinctly functioning vertebrae that held us up but we guided to new places by other nerves, tendons, bones, flashing bundles of neurons.

Because of the three dozen cousins within that mass that I grew up knowing well, I was pretty much mentored weekly, if not sometimes daily, through exhortations and examples that seem now fall into two slightly distinct and simultaneous categories:

  • just get over yourself: stop being scared or deferential – just make a decision;
  • just get on with it, a more positive spin of number one: you know what, how and why to do something so get to it with actions based on who and where you are engaging – just get on with doing it.

There was another twoness I learned in the richest of these interactions, the ones where the two involved both took on roles of “being a mentor” and “being a mentee.” An interaction that I now call simply “mentoring” (or when I’m with graduate students, “peer mentoring”) as I see mentoring for innovative, creative just futures as a process which engages all the players in:

26Mentorships as New Kinships

My first non-family mentor appeared, of course, thanks to one of my cousins who tapped a cousin from another family whose administrative assistant role allowed me access for setting up an interview with the college president for my college newspaper tryout: Networking 101. Got the interview. Got the job. Started my first college term with the college president who walked the talk of every faculty member being an active mentor to undergraduates as a mentee, who also set me on the path of multiple mentoring.

Happily Dr. Douglas R. Moore also did not subscribe to a conventional definition or enactment of “mentor.” That conventional definition being something like this: a trusted counselor or guide; role model, counselor, advisor, teacher, nurturer, friend, sponsor who is generally older and of a “higher” rank or stature than the mentee with the purpose of being engaged in mentoring as a “civilizing process” that involves passing along skills, expertise, insight and wisdom.

Like my cousins who carried on as active – rather than accidental – mentors in my life Doug Moore saw three traits:

  • the reciprocity,
  • the tripartate asking-listening-synthesizing as key to acting and envisioning, and
  • the absolute necessity for multiple mentors in any one life.

He also taught me to pay attention to how Athena functioned as mentor / Mentor in Homer’s The Odyssey. As a reminder: heading to battle, Odysseus charges his friend Mentor to guide, support and nurture his son Telemachus. Mentor as mentor / Mentor does little to fulfill his duties. It is Athena – in the guise of Mentor and in several other forms across the poem – who actually mentors Telemachus.

Athena as Mentor is a mentor, is she who acts from multiple, overlapping, simultaneous – interdisciplinary, interconnect – ways and brings to the enterprise, the exchange these embodiments:

  • cool, prudent courage;
  • excellence in arts and crafts – trumpet, flute, pot, rake, plow, bridle, ship; cooking, spinning, weaving: home, hearth, community;
  • willfuls strides as goddess of justice – a goddess of war with spear, aegis
    “going towards the awful strife” with an intended to restore order, to elicit courage, to be guided by circumspection, to enact the goddess of peace role;
  • deft manifestations of self as appropriate to the role for each discrete interaction;
  • pursuing generativity – choosing to see potential, to build on talents/skills in existence, collaborates in searching for best in people, builds from learning as a process of change, is directed by movement toward a future in the making rather than being guided solely by a past that needs extending.

In this redirecting, mentor was no longer only – or always or importantly – Mentor: male, older, higher ranking; nor did mentor have to be situated in a mentee’s workplace or habitats; not did it require transfer of skills, and guidance into existing structures; or matched to the mentee at behest of a common superior. And that “Athena as mentor ” was an Athena in multiple embodiments in her interactions with the one Telemachus with his multiple human questions and quests. In these aspects, Athena conveys the idea of multiple mentoring and Telemachus of the human with multiple, simultaneous and overlapping identities.

25Innovative Mentoring

For innovative mentoring, I find myself now thinking of a writing assignment framework from teaching in the 1980s – the “I” Search paper: “a personal research paper about a topic that is important to the writer. An I-Search paper is usually less formal than a traditional research paper; it tells the story of the writer’s personal search for information, as well as what the writer learned about the topic.”

“I” Search is about inquiry, ideas, issues, insights, inklings, inadequacies, inappropriateness, insecurities, incivilities, insistencies, imagination, information, ideals, intricacies and intimacies. An “I” Search is not about problem solving but about problem posing, which involves queries and quandaries that need sorting and understanding and prioritizing and discernment and judgement – hopefully in a judicious, perceiving mode rather than a condemantory, pernicious mode.

Mentoring as “I” Search – calls forth “I” as individual, institutional, instructional, innovative and insightful, calls forth mentoring that joins humans in generative collaborative searching so that the participants are able to

  • think in new ways about social, political, cultural, educational and personal structures and institutions
  • seek new options, frameworks, partners, alliances, means and modes of personal and collective action
  • “quest for new ideas, images, theories, and models that liberate our collective aspirations, alter the social construction of reality and, in the process, make available decisions and actions that weren’t available or didn’t occur to us before”
  • engage the anxiety of dealing with real concerns, rather than to cover it over with positiveness or postponement or suppression of expressions of dissent – making room then for discussions that address hurt, anger, injustice, despair

When I think about mentoring I don’t think about mentor, mentee; about issues and problems; about external mandates. I do think about mentoring: as people sitting together out of some common bond, interest, curiosity, accidental circumstance who imagine what could happen, what we each and together might make possible because we took time to talk, listen and imagine on our ways to making something in the world happen – new, anew.

In “Homer’s Mentor,” Andy Roberts posits that an 1699 French publication by François Fénelon’s, which extends the Odyssey story to the then contemporary moment, offers an enactment of Mentor as providing the wisdom, the support, the nurturing and the guidance” not found in Homer’s Mentor. In Fénelon, it is Minerva – Athena’s Roman counterpart – who assumes “almost exclusively” the role of Mentor – again, making mentor is a woman who transgresses shapes, roles, forms, circumstances to collaborate with another shaping action into the future.


Alexander, Ilene, Josh Casper, Douglas Ernie, Jane O’Brien, and Lawrencina Oramalu. SUCCESS for Faculty Mentors & Graduate/Professional Students. University of Minnesota, 2010.

Bushe, Gervase R. “Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About The Positive.” OD [Occupational Developer] Practitioner 39. 4 (2007): 30-35.

Stanley, Christine A., and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Cross-Race Faculty Mentoring Change, 37.2 (Mar-Apr 2005): 44-50.


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