Reflections on Mentoring

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring lately.  As with many of these intriguing ideas that enter our lives, they often come in from more than one angle, arresting our attention and making it impossible to avoid thinking about them.

First, at the recent Biology Leadership Conference, I attended a workshop given by Mary Deane Sorcinelli.  Dr. Sorcinelli is the Associate Provost for Faculty Development at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She’s an expert in, what she refers to, as mutual mentoring and network mentoring.

In her workshop, she talked eloquently about the contrast between the more traditional view of mentoring (one senior person, taking you under their wing, teaching you all they know) and the more complex realities of today that require a network of mentors.  And a dynamic one at that – made of many nodes, to address the various needs and voids in our lives that are constantly changing.

Dr. Sorcinelli and her group have a terrific web site, with quite a few helpful resources on it.  Be sure to note to Mutual Mentoring Guide, available to download there.

With the richness of that workshop bouncing around in my brain, I found an excellent example of effective mentoring (that also fits into the model that Mary Deane introduced us to) in a metal smithing class I took up at the Emerson Umbrella in Concord.

Deb Richardson, in her studio

Deb Richardson is a jewelry maker, with a lovely, airy, and light-filled studio at the Umbrella.  This year she decided to break with tradition and offer a class in her studio.  Four of us enrolled in the eight-week course.  We met once a week for two and a half hours and, slowly, over the course of the eight weeks, became familiar with the tools and techniques of the craft.  You’d be surprised at how much chemistry was involved!  Bending, soldering, shaping, and hammering metal, it turns out, involves an intimate understanding of the way the atoms align, melting points, and properties of silver, copper, and gold.  I loved every  minute of the classes.  In our first session, Deb did give us a tour of the equipment and then demonstrated the creation of one item from beginning to end.  And then she let us loose.  Now, I should say that there are some safety issues involved here – flames, fan belts, drills, and chemicals – some of the gear required wearing masks or gloves and some needed to have fans running while you worked.  Nothing life threatening, but you could easily hurt yourself —  or damage her equipment, which, I was certain, represented a sizeable investment on her part.  But after that first night, Deb really did let us go.  She didn’t hover, she didn’t question – but she was most definitely present. Encouraging us, there to answer questions, supporting our efforts, giving us ideas when we needed them.  Quietly, certainly, confidently, but always leaving room for whatever it was that we were trying to do.  With something artistic like this, she clearly understood the importance of leaving space for whatever our creative impulses were.  It didn’t have to be done her way, or the way she would prefer it done.

What’s more, we all helped each other quite a bit during the course.  There were regular consults on design – what do you think?  Will this work?  How did you do that?  Often we would help each other with one of the more tricky procedures if Deb was busy helping someone else.

At the conclusion of the course, she asked for our feedback.  Since we were all, ahem, older adults with some life experience, we gave it to her – making modest suggestions about ways she might tweak the course here or there.

On our last day, I prepared an animoto out of photos I’d taken on a few occasions, while we worked. She was pleased to see it and asked if she might have a downloaded version of it to add to her commercial web site, which I was happy to provide.

All around it was a wonderful experience.  A little give and take, sharing expertise and ideas, learning from each other, and everyone’s the better for the time spent together.  While I don’t think I could become a professional metalsmith any time soon (or ever!), it was a wonderful study in mentoring and a good reminder that it’s less about a long-standing mentoring commitment and more about moments.

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One response to “Reflections on Mentoring

  1. Pingback: Gender Bias in Science « Stepping Stones

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