Undergraduate Professors Inspire, Uplift Students Through Mentoring
By Brenda Straka
SPSP's Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring Award recognizes excellence in teaching and mentoring at colleges and universities that do not have social-personality Ph.D. programs.
This month, we asked past recipients of this award to share their thoughts, approaches, and philosophies on mentorship, advice for students, and their take on the struggles and joys of mentoring. Below are some of the themes from these conversations.
Dr. Richard Miller is a Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. (Winner 2016)
Dr. Andrew Christopher is a Co-Chair and Professor of Psychology at Albion College in Michigan. (Winner 2017)
Dr. Neil Lutsky is the William R. Kenan Jr., Professor of Psychology at Carleton College in Minnesota. (Winner 2018)
Teaching and mentoring are "other-focused" activities
As evident to anyone who has ever acted in a mentoring role, mentorship requires designated and thoughtful time dedicated to someone else's goals, aspirations, and projects. Oftentimes, these align with those of the mentor, but not always. Mentorship requires attention to and consideration of a student's individual needs and ambitions.
Miller: One of my favorite sayings is by Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball. He suggested that our lives are unimportant, except for the influence we have on others. This is certainly one of the greatest joys of teaching—the difference we are allowed to make in the lives of our students.
Christopher: Mentors should be supportive and fight for opportunities for their students even when the mentor might not share a student's interest in a certain direction.
Lutsky: One of the most fundamental of practices—which can generalize to a host of other life circumstances—is putting ourselves in the shoes of others and respecting how others are likely to understand or respond to the stimuli we put before them. What will others make of some research or teaching prompt? Can we try to anticipate that? Can we collect some pretest information to assess our anticipations?
Flexibility is key
No two students are exactly alike such that no single method of mentorship will work for every type of student. Flexibility and an open-mind can help mentors orient themselves to an individual's needs and better equip a mentor to offer tailored support to a student. Additionally, the only constant in life is change and mentorship is no exception! As you progress in your career, your role as a mentor and the types of mentees you work with will likely change over time and a mindset of flexibility may help you quickly adapt to these new dynamics.
Christopher: I am not sure I have a set mentoring philosophy, other than trying to meet students where they are professionally and personally—whether that's helping with career or graduate school aspirations or just providing guidance to students who may need help in choosing the correct major…As I get older, students may seek younger faculty and bond more easily with them than with me now. However, I may have the chance to mentor more faculty…
Mentorship is a two-way relationship
While you may lead your mentee to believe otherwise, as a mentor, you might not always have all the answers. While you are focusing on teaching your students, it's important to allow them to teach you as well! Take time to listen to your students and hear their ideas.
Lutsky: My primary expectation is that I will learn and otherwise benefit from my work with students…If I do have a [mentoring] philosophy, it is this: respect your student collaborators--for their efforts, for their interest, for their thinking, for their real contributions to some common project and shared curiosity. This comes about due to the sheer effort and time students are willing to invest in research projects and teaching activities. It comes about because my student collaborators bring their own ideas and insights to discussions we have about research topics, articles, hypotheses, materials, and the possible meanings and limitations of findings… And when I and some group undertaking benefits in these ways, I can draw attention to that and thank my mentees for particular contributions. This, in turn, rightly gives them the sense that they can do science.
Christopher: I would recommend to any grad student or relatively new faculty member is to get involved in organizations that focus on new career people ... they provide a great chance to meet folks who will be long-term colleagues and potentially friends. Mentorship keeps the ball of research rolling.
Challenge students to learn in new ways
There is no "correct" or "best" way to teach or mentor students. Different students will respond to different techniques so it's important to instill variety in your methods and approaches.
Miller: In a rapidly developing field like psychology, I believe it is important to impress upon students the tentative nature of behavioral science. By emphasizing the experimental approach in class, involving students in the research process and encouraging a range of research interests, I believe that I have begun to teach students what psychology is and what it can be to them in the future…Undergraduate research can encourage students' intellectual curiosity, spark their desire for discovery, and provide them with an outlet for their creativity…When undergraduate students do research, they experience a type of learning that goes beyond that provided by traditional coursework. Research invariably leads to a better understanding of, and a deeper appreciation for the area being investigated… by conducting original research, students learn how to learn on their own: to formulate a researchable question, to select an appropriate means for answering the question and to understand when the question has been adequately resolved, all important skills that provide the foundation for lifelong learning.
Lutsky: …I know mentoring gives me the opportunity to help students understand and appreciate certain psychological concepts, lines of research, research standards and procedures, ethical concerns, and values in a context outside the classroom. I know when I make particular choices (e.g., in designing a study) I have the obligation, as a teacher, to explain what reasoning lies behind particular norms and practices we will follow…
Mentorships is more than just a professional relationship
Mentors and mentees alike are more than just teachers and students– they are real people with a variety of interests, backgrounds, values, and goals. Additionally, "work" and "life" are often not separate entities. Instead, they often influence one another. Just as it is important to help your students develop studies and mind deadlines, it is equally important to show interest in your students individual lives.
Christopher: One of the most important parts of mentoring, over and above professional work, is cultivating personal relationships...mentoring is something organizations can try to stimulate, but cannot force. A mentor and mentee need to find a bond between them naturally, not as orders from above, so to speak. Organizations can provide these opportunities with social events and such, but from there, it is up to the individuals involved to make the mentor-mentee relationship go in the right direction…I think the key to working with students who have diverse professional interests is to find something we have in common, whether it is school or professionally-related or not. It's important to understand that every student has different needs, there is no set mold, and you have to be open to what students want to do.