Thursday, July 24, 2014

On mentoring: Some sociological ruminations

I always dug Miyagi, of course.  Who didn't?  He created some sort of Zen-like coolness out of waxing the car.  But upon reflection, he kind of had it easy.  He had one person to mentor.  This is not the case for teachers (or other types of mentors out there).  I'm just saying. :)

Sometimes you meet a student who comes in and says, "I have the next three years figured out- I'm so excited!"  Sometimes you hear, "I have no idea what to do with my life; I just really like thinking deeply about stuff."  Then you have the student who is taking care of two kids, works two jobs, and has no time for schoolwork...but really wants a college degree and the ensuing job it (presumably) brings.  Your role as a mentor is to put each of their lives in your hands, as much as possible, and help them make their goals, however vague or improbable they may be, a reality.  No pressure, right? 

I'm loving every one of our LAKES students this summer.  They are all amazing people, but each in their own ways.  We had our first meeting with the LAKES students about six weeks ago.  When I gave my "let's change the world" speech I saw fuzzy warm excitement from some and skeptic eye-rolling from others.  [This was in an environment where every student was motivated to do research.]  I was reminded that even with outstanding students my "mentor" role would be many things, depending on the student and the moment: from cheerleader to facilitator to friend to teacher.  

We all mentor others at many times in our lives.  We want to make that time with them mean something.  We want to make our lives count, for theirs.  How can we do so much for so many different people??  Of course, how we do so is shaped by those who mentored us, and I think our effectiveness depends on the variety of people we globbed onto...  

I moved to Phoenix as a junior high teacher 14 years ago, fresh out of my undergraduate program in Minnesota, knowing no one.  One person I connected with was an overly excited teacher from Oregon, who loved everyone and everything but had no interest in dealing with bureaucracy or details.  Another was a guy who worked at the same fly shop as me on weekends.  He was fishy as hell, loved the minutiae of fly fishing, and saw the world in an ultra conservative black and white.  A third was a sixty-something year old woman at an affluent Lutheran church in Paradise Valley who was into her second career- a faith leader for junior high and high school kids.  She always embraced people for who they were, at all times, and had a kind and boisterous laugh.  She wanted to show kids how to live like Jesus.  As far as I can tell, she was in the ballpark.

I didn't know much about a lot of things, but I wanted to learn about how to better live my life.  Each one of them taught me something different about how to help people.  They all had a warmness in them, but they had different ways of making that mean something to others.  

I think sociology has something to tell us about this process.  I've written about this elsewhere, but Randall Collins offers some insight into how creativity and innovation happens.  He wrote a book on the sociology of philosophies.  In it he argues, with research on some of the great philosophers from Antiquities through the Enlightenment, that creativity in solving problems comes from diverse cultural capital and strong emotional energy.  For a really brief synopsis, emotional energy is that positive, euphoric feeling you sometimes get from hanging out with other people.  My colleague, John Parkercommented about this idea on an earlier blog post of mine.  Cultural capital are certain things you say or do that resonate with another person, and you use those gestures to facilitate exchange with them.  Some types of cultural capital are used by elites in society to maintain their position (e.g. they drink wine in a certain way, use proper table manners, shine their shoes, etc.).  However, if you think of all gestures as different types of cultural capital you can imagine that it is quite valuable to build up a variety of this stuff.  If you are able to draw on a wide range of norms and values from many different contexts you will have a repertoire of things to use for future bricolage.  This, of course, is only really going to be a creative, transformational outcome if you combine that cultural capital with the energy you get from hanging out with others in an positive social encounter.

What this means for me is that I got a lot from many different people.  I truly believe it matters that you engage with diverse people and take what insights you can from them.  And you go into those encounters with an attitude of gratitude.  If you are a know-it-all then you will never really learn.  I still strive for that every single day from my friends, acquaintances, and mentors.  [Emphasis, of course, on strive.]

And, to bring it back to the beginning, I think the variety of mentors we had helps us more effectively mentor so many different people, and that also makes us flexible and adaptable to the moment.  Daniel-san had an amazing mentor, but that one person alone perhaps was not sufficient.  I don't know if I've been helpful to every student I've worked with, in the LAKES project or otherwise.  I hope so.  I think that the extent to which I have helped them is dependent on me taking them on with openness and the ability to work with different interests, values, and attitudes.  I'll keep working on refining that approach, but I know that I've also learned from them as I've done so.  Put simply, great mentorship is a dialectic, iterative process.  I have the hope that through mentorship with diverse students we can solve our problems together, with excitement and humbleness.  Or at least I'll make sure I have a few Two Hearted Ales along the way to maintain some level of emotional energy.  Maybe I'll change it up while I'm at it though, and start imbibing more mixed drinks. :)

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