Science Reader Question: “I Could Show You the Ways of The Force.”

Film still of Finn holding a lightsaber

How did Finn learn to use a lightsaber? (© Disney and Lucasfilm)

DJ asks:

Why and when should we start mentoring and investing in those younger or at a less advanced place than we are academically?

As we’ve discussed previously, it’s really never too early to provide mentoring of one sort or another. Situations where we are complete novices, without anything to offer anyone else, are rare. We might be reluctant to help others at times, out of fear or for other reasons; at other times, we might want someone more easily controlled than a mentee. Still, mentoring opportunities of various sizes (which matters not) are all around if we are willing to look for them.

Does the existence of these mentoring opportunities create an obligation? Or, to put it slightly differently, is it sufficient to look around for people who want our help? Here’s where I think The Force Awakens is illustrative. While many people have already seen it, it’s still a new release so I will avoid spoiler-y specifics as much as possible. And if you’ve spent any time in academia, either as a student or teacher, I suspect you will recognize the personality types even if you haven’t seen the film.

One of the characters craves mentoring. He can’t seem to get enough guidance. In fact, it seems like he doesn’t know how to work out anything challenging for himself. Nor does he want to make decisions. He’d much rather been shown or told what to do by someone he recognizes as an authority figure. What makes someone an authority figure in his eyes is an interesting question, perhaps for another time. But he clearly believes he needs their direction and approval.

At times, I felt like the movie itself had a similar need for validation. It can be read as a mashup of all three original Star Wars films. “When in doubt, let those films be our guide.” I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. But in the context of 10-15 years’ worth of dissecting the prequel films, The Force Awakens earnestly wants us to accept it as genuine Star Wars in all the ways the prequels weren’t. While Star Wars itself borrowed from a range of influences, it felt much more content to be accepted independent of any recognition of or association with those influences.

From a mentoring perspective, I think we need to recognize those who think they need more mentoring than they actually need. We also need to be aware that many mentoring situations occur in the context of one legacy or another. Many of us struggle with impostor syndrome. An external signal that one is “in” may go a long ways to satisfying the needs that would otherwise drive someone to seeking excessive guidance.

impostor photo

One of these things is not like the others; will the impostor be found out? Photo by AlexRK

For another Force Awakens character, that sort of external validation is practically inconceivable. If you haven’t worked something out for yourself, how can you trust that it’s true or functional? When so many things come naturally to you, why wouldn’t you just take care of them? And if you have to work things out for yourself eventually, what’s the point of seeking a mentor? It may not even occur that knowledge or experience can be transferred that way.

I’ll admit I tend to fall into the latter mold. I’m introverted, I tend to avoid conflict and confrontation, and I don’t like feeling ignorant. So I am much more inclined to go off and work things out for myself, even if it takes longer or if the ceiling for what I can accomplish is lower. My graduate advisor seemed to appreciate this quality in his graduate students. And it’s becoming a running joke at my current job that my boss hired me, gave me an assignment, and then didn’t speak to me for about 3 months until I was finished. Not just about the assignment; he didn’t speak to me at all.

As you might expect, that’s how I tend to relate when I am the mentor, as well. I haven’t had many opportunities, but it’s been enough to recognize the pattern. As it happens, I’m currently overseeing an intern at work right now. It’s been challenging writing this blog series, all the while wondering if I’m living up to everything I’m asking you to consider. (Spoiler alert: I’m probably not.)

At the same time, I like feeling helpful and so I don’t usually turn anyone away if they come to me looking for help or guidance. And I can appreciate the value of taking a more active role in one’s own mentoring, making sure that certain needs are met and avoiding the pitfalls awaiting all of us from the problems we don’t even know that we don’t know about. So if I were to run across someone like our first Force Awakens character, I’m not sure how well I’d do recognizing when to say ‘no’ or encourage them to wrestle with something for themselves for a while. I mean, if someone is going to do that naturally, I’m perfectly content to let them. But I’m not as good at making someone do so against their inclination.

Maybe that’s really just another manifestation of my tendency towards self-sufficiency. If someone is coming to me for help, on some level they are letting me do something for them. And if I can just take care of whatever that problem is, then I’ll just do that. We may both be getting exactly what appeals to our natures. But are either of us getting what we actually need?

So, mentoring opportunities may abound, but discernment is still necessary to identify which opportunities to pursue. Our own biases can steer us towards or away from where we are most needed, and where we most need mentoring ourselves.

Do you recognize these styles of mentoring and being mentored? Have you seen other patterns? Which one best represents you?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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