Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out. — Proverbs 20:5, KJV
Even if you have good mentors, learning wisdom from them is a skill. It’s an art that takes a lifetime, and I certainly haven’t mastered it. But the wisest people I know do several things. They ask good questions, they observe carefully, and they follow up with those from whom they’ve learned. Here are some thoughts on applying these patterns in your grad school mentoring relationships:
1. Finding good questions
It seems obvious that asking good questions is one of the keys to getting sound advice. But sometimes in graduate school I felt that I didn’t even know which questions to ask. Over time I found that it was helpful to ask questions raised by a specific project, questions raised by my own life, and questions raised by things a mentor does particularly well. I also found it helpful to have a general question or two that I asked a wide variety of people.
If you want to spend some time with a mentor figure but you’re not sure how to begin, scheduling a visit to her office with questions about a specific project is often a great start. It gives you something definite to talk about, it’s likely to be very useful, and it generates some clear questions. You can ask what you should be reading, what theoretical frameworks might be helpful, and who else might have advice on the topic. More generally, you can ask how your mentor would approach a similar project. One thing I wish I’d asked more often is, “What is your research process for writing a seminar paper/dissertation chapter/book chapter/etc.?” Comparing the different ways that people tackle their research is really helpful in sorting out how you want to approach your own.
Questions raised by your own current experience are good starting points for mentoring conversations as well, especially as you get to know a mentor better and know which questions he’ll have thoughts on. If you’re working to manage teaching and dissertation writing at the same time, you can ask your advisor how he balances work on his second book with teaching undergraduate courses. If you’ll be a TA for a study abroad, you can ask a member of your department who regularly leads them what you should know about the process.
Paying attention to things a mentor does well can also lead you to good questions. If one of your mentors does a spectacular job of keeping students interested in large survey courses, you can ask how she became so good at it. If another mentor excels at putting together conferences, you can ask what makes a conference panel successful. It’s nice to recognize what someone is doing well, and often that person will be able to give you a lot of ideas that will help when you have to teach a large survey course or plan a conference.
Another way to start good conversations with mentors is to have a question that you ask most people, if the opportunity arises. I noticed that a friend of mine usually had a question that he asked a variety of people. The questions changed depending on what he was thinking about, but he usually stuck with one for a while. It struck me as a good idea, so I often have a question tucked away as well. Frequently it’s related to something I’m studying or a project I’m trying to do. For me, the questions have varied widely. They included: “Have you ever convinced someone of something important by argument?” “What makes a good novel?” “What makes a friendship last?” and “What are you looking for in a conversation?” Of course, whether this is helpful in a mentoring relationship depends a bit on the individual situation. If you’ve come to ask a prominent chemistry professor about your latest experiment, you may not want to ask a question that broad. But it’s handy to have a few more general questions in mind if you’re helping your humanities mentor escort a visiting poet around campus or making small talk with professors you respect after an interdisciplinary conference.
What kinds of questions have you found it helpful to ask?
Some of the best things you can learn from a mentor may come not so much from what they say in conversation but from what they do. If a professor has a knack for making new students feel welcome, or a way of making course material profoundly engaging, or a talent for organizing a paper, it’s possible that he won’t even know he’s doing it. Even if he does, he may not feel it necessary to explain how he does it. But you may learn it from him just by watching.
When I was working on my Master’s degree, I had a professor who was adept in the art of patient listening. She could ask an opening question and then wait for a half hour of seminar before saying anything more. Her silence was an active participation. It invited students to speak and to explore further. When my teacher did say something, it was clear that she had been listening to everything and thinking about the best way to sum it up and advance the conversation. I have a long way to go in learning that skill, but observing her shaped in me a desire to become an attentive listener as well. Over time, I have realized more and more deeply how much knowing her transformed me. The kind of teacher I want to be changed when I met her, irrevocably and for the better. While she did sometimes talk with me about teaching outside the classroom, her example shaped me in a way that advice alone could not have done.
What have you learned from your mentors by observation? What qualities or habits have you observed? How has being around your mentors changed you?
3. Following up
I often look at mentoring through the lens of narrative: a mentor is listening to my stories and helping me to make sense of them. He or she is also helping to shape them by helping me understand the other characters involved and suggesting courses of action. I want my mentors to see the ways that their input has shaped my story, so I try to keep them posted on areas where their advice has helped me. Sometimes this takes the form of a short note or a comment in our next meeting. Other times, especially when I’ve noticed a helpful long-term pattern emerging because of something a mentor said, I try to tell the person about it face-to-face or write a hard copy thank you letter. It’s really encouraging to a mentor to hear that someone has taken their advice, and it’s exciting to see that advice becoming fleshed out in someone’s actions.
Another exciting thing sometimes happens when following up takes the form of a continued conversation over months or years. With one mentor, I’ve been talking about the tension between adventure and homecoming for nearly a decade now. We don’t talk about it every time we meet, but over the years it keeps coming up, and the conversation deepens as our experience grows over the year. It’s a conversation rooted in both the practical and the philosophical. We discuss both the Odyssey and our own experience of living in the same place or moving elsewhere. Having a few conversations with this sort of longevity is a great gift, one I’m more open to receiving when I’m looking for it.
How do you follow up with mentors? Do you have any stories of how mentoring shaped your work and life over time? Developing wisdom is a lifelong challenge, but finding and listening to good mentors will take you far in becoming wise. In my next post, I’ll turn to the art of maintaining relationships with mentors.
Update: 7/12/2012, 7:30 AM.