Monday, November 10, 2008

On Mentoring

There is a fellow student at my university who is largely in the minority, like me. We have been buddies - we are fellow "tokens" in the department, and we relate to each other well in that respect. But that feeling of tokenism has stopped neither of us from pursuing our ultimate goals because we share a sense of dogged stubbornness.

I am more senior than this student, and I have at times taken him slightly under my wing. He is willing to ask me questions that I think he is not willing to ask others. He is definitely closer to me (research-wise) than anyone else in the department.

The issue is this - as a person who required a bit of "work" when I began graduate school, I can appreciate not writing someone off if they do not come in with ninja coding skillz and the ability to use the Force on all *nix machines to make them do their bidding. Because I couldn't either. However, my approach was to work my ass off trying to catch up to my nerdy boy colleagues who had been playing with computers since they were 3. I kid you not - THREE. And I am proud to say that I largely have caught up, and said colleague has openly told me he respects that I have taken myself from nothing to an ass-kicking name-taker.

While I worked very hard, I also had a great mentor who is the least gender-judgemental guy I have ever met in my field. He is also one of the most self-confident people** I have ever met (for good reason - he's good at everything.) I very, very, very much appreciate the willingness he had to help me, and I owe him a lot. I think, however, that we had a symbiotic relationship. He was willing to help me because I was willing to do my own legwork - I did not gratuitously ask him questions where the most logical answer is RTFM.

So, the way to overcome bad background is the ability to think, work hard, and a good mentor for when you need it.

Getting back to my fellow token, I have sometimes wondered how much work I would want to put into the kid. Because as far as I can tell, he doesn't seem to have progressed very far, even after several years, and it seems to stem from slightly illogical/non-rigorous thought processes. While I am sure I was no picnic, sometimes this guy asks me questions which I find extremely obvious, silly, or just plain pointless. I waver from wanting to help bring him out of his strange thought processes to thinking that it's useless and that I need to finish my own PhD anyway and that I don't have time to help someone who needs that much help.

I am not sure whether I am a bad person or just a practical one, or a combination of both.

My sort of fantasy life involves being a professor somewhere and finding diamonds in the rough on a yearly basis, all non-conventional geniuses, in order to obliterate stupid-ass norms in the field. What this means, however, is that I'll need to find the right students and the right balance between how much they are capable of and how much I can help bring that out. I am not sure I know how to do this.

In fact, I'm not sure how you really teach students anyway. I do NOT want to be a prof (if I ever get there) that selects students solely on their ability to widen my research empire/fame. However, I don't want to constantly pour money down toilets on people who are not going to pan out.

So, to Professors out there:

1) How do you select students?

2) How would you deal with this lad?

3) How do you decide if/when you need to fire someone (obviously I have no power to fire this guy, I'm not saying I do, I am just wondering, for future reference).

4) How do you determine if the work required:academic yield ratio for a non-conventional student who is not ready to hit the ground running is worth it?


**I have discovered that very self-confident and capable people are the least likely to be judgemental and put someone down. Because they are so good they don't need to artificially bring someone down in order to push themselves up. Thus, I am much more likely to respect someone's intelligence if they are blithe about what they know with no intellectual affectations.


Ambivalent Academic said...

I can't offer any advice on choosing students since I still am one but I wanted to say that I think you're awesome for taking another fledgling CS kid under your wing. Good for you for being there to help...remember that "helping" can sometimes involve a swift kick in the butt if he's mooching too much and not doing the hard work himself. Nice is nice, but pushing him out of his comfort zone (i.e., not coming to you for all the answers so he figures shit out for himself) can be kinder in the long run.

Mentoring is great but don't let it consume all your time - your job is to earn your PhD...there are other people whose job it is to mentor this kid and good on you for filling in the gaps for him.

Transient Theorist said...

I, also, am not a professor. But one way or another, I've been in tutoring/mentoring/teaching roles surprisingly often in the past. It can be really awesome and rewarding, and it can also be unbelievably hard.

I think the most important things are to realize that at least the first several times (and maybe for the rest of your career even), probably you won't strike the right balance. But, that's okay! Makes some sense that it would take a while to learn how to be a good mentor, just like anything else. It takes a while to figure out how you teach best, and to know what you can give, and what you can't.

When I worked as a peer tutor, we were always advised to very clearly set out ahead of time the boundary lines, so they're known right up front (ie, we will help you edit your paper, but we will not write even a sentence for you, or we can make up tons of example problems just like your math homework, and show you how to solve them, but you have to solve your homework problems yourself). Having those defined boundaries helped avoid sticky situations, both in terms of giving us standards to hold ourselves to (which can be really surprisingly hard when you badly want to help), and making it clear to those we worked with what to expect.

Over all, I really think it's best for everyone to make sure that the person being mentored really does have to work hard and think for themselves, with some amount of judicious guidance and encouragement. Learning to be persistent and work hard and motivate yourself is one of the best lessons out there, and not one you're liable to get as a mentee if everything's given to you easily. Someday reality will hit, and the farther you get before it does, the worse it hurts.

My lab group was always a mixture of a few hardened veterans, and a fairly large number of inexperienced underclassmen. Our prof was pretty hands off - always will to talk and work with you if you came to him, but rarely keeping tabs on what you were doing or holding you accountable. The students that made it in the lab are those that stepped up to the plate and went after a topic for themselves, out of their own motivation. And as they did so, they got support from our advisor, and from the senior students. I really think this is a good way to run a lab, almost like preparation for grad school. A lot of dead ends occurred, sure, but the people that made it learned a heck of a lot.

I guess ideally probably it would work best to let your students select you (1) by showing some initiative/curiosity/persistence when you defined some ground rules and given them a way to seek you out.

More than enough out of me.