ducks curious about a ground-level camera
09
Nov
2016

Pedagogical Training via Relationship Building: The Value of Peer Mentoring

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Reviewed by Daniel Lynds and Elizabeth Lenaghan
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Curious minds...” by David Tomic; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graduate students enter graduate programs hungry to learn about research, teaching, and professionalization. They seek knowledge of their discipline, socialization from faculty and peers, and most importantly the tools to perform the jobs they attain after graduation. Faculty in graduate programs prepare their students for academic or alt-academic careers through coursework in research and theory, preparation for scholarship and possibly grant writing, and opportunities for the teaching of undergraduate students through assistantships. However, as the May 13, 2016 #digped chat on graduate student training revealed, some graduate programs do not either provide a focus or integrate teacher training in their programs, which leads to graduate students perceiving or feeling underprepared to teach once appointed a faculty position.

This Twitter conversation caught our attention. Specifically, the second point of the takeaways collated by Kevin Kelly about graduate students assuming responsibility for their education. We agree there are myriad factors contributing to graduate students’ preparation and experiences, and at times, graduate students must accept accountability for their growth. However, where the Twitter conversation addressed learning communities as a possible solution, we’d like to add peer-to-peer mentoring as another possible avenue for graduate students to consider in light of graduate student pedagogical training and career preparation.

Oftentimes, graduate students encounter peer support during undergraduate studies, where students of similar ages give encouragement or informative advice about a problem or experience. However, peer mentorship at the graduate level may feel different than the undergraduate level because of differences in age and experience. It is increasingly clear that graduate students, especially non-traditional students, come to graduate programs with industry and/or teaching experiences. The acquired literacy skills, from various social and cultural spaces, can often look quite different from the skills needed to engage with learning spaces. Those with industry experience may see differences in independence within academia versus team reliance in corporate settings or engaging in intellectual debate during coursework versus reporting on progress or results to a supervisor. Through a dialogue of negotiating contexts and relations, peers have opportunities to experience a Freirean transformation of growth through a profound commitment to the human experience and condition.

However, just as we recognize graduate students come to graduate programs with an array of professional experiences, we also acknowledge the potential for difficulty in navigating peer relationships. Tensions may emerge or conflict may ensue. In those moments, we encourage a turn toward Friere and his position on humility — that transformation and dialogue cannot occur when arrogance and ignorance form. Only through a faith in fellow peers with mutual trust and care can defenses recede and a true peer mentorship find footing. It is a position of courage, vulnerability, and love for humankind that allows for productive and healthy transformation.

With humility in mind, we believe peers have the potential to form supportive networks that can develop into mutual mentoring. Just as Charlotte Frost writes about peer-to-peer mentoring of early-career academics with PhD2Published, we see peer-to-peer mentoring of graduate students integral to graduate pedagogical training and professionalization because courage and love unite people for a common purpose. Any relationship that respects and supports its participants, instead of employing competition and authority as practice, promotes a selfless well-being and care for the other over self-interest. It is in this model that peer mentoring thrives.

As graduate students step foot in their classrooms as instructors-of-record, we affirm peer mentoring relationships can support growth in pedagogical training. Whether peers provide mentoring on the classroom climate, designing a course, effective assessment or developing participatory learning, peer mentoring affords space for personalized support, troubleshooting, and effective strategies to use in the classroom. Peer mentoring also provides a relationship of balance, where authority falls into the background and mutual backing and advice bonds peers in a path-making discovery process. We visualize peers approaching such spaces with respect and curiosity in mind — a willingness to authentically learn from another, as vested partners in each other’s growth and success — much like the relationship of student and teacher in student-driven participatory design. However, we want to be careful to note that we do not promote displacing mentoring among students in replacement of faculty mentoring because graduate students need the formal model of mentoring from faculty during their graduate training.

Formal models of mentoring may use one or more theoretical frameworks appropriate to the cultural and social conditions of the relationships of the people involved and in the institutional settings of their programs. For example, all mentors will not perform feminist methods of mentoring. Our approach to a peer mentoring relationship, however, is inspired from feminist philosopher Nel Noddings’ notion of an ethic of care, which emphasizes relationships, contexts, and explores ways to make accommodations to care for the individual and what is right or good for their growth. An ethic of care assumes a position of reflectivity, not necessarily reciprocity, for the individual’s education and development. Reflectivity assumes the carer — or peer mentor/teacher — considers how the individual received the care and grew as a result, instead of considering what is given back in return. This act, according to Noddings, provides joy within itself as the unassumed reward for caring relationships.

Under this context, an ethic of care model prepares graduate students to engage in peer mentoring relationships with a needed understanding and centering of their peer, and places her, his, or zir’s well-being at the forefront. What is powerful about such an approach is the position of care and respect for the prosperity of another. Additionally, such a path may transfer pedagogically when viewing students as partners in learning and assist with student-centered design.

Through an ethic of care model, we see graduate pedagogical training as partially student-driven participation that may, in effect, flow into classroom spaces and allow for student-centered design. The heart of student-centered design, just as Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel have written, is the empowerment of learners to unleash their potential for exploring the world around and taking a seat at the metaphorical table to engage with problems and find solutions. Learning takes place when individuals assume responsibility for their development, but learning also takes place through partnerships, discussions, debates, and the harnessing of knowledge energy needed to fuel intellectual success.

We believe the synergistic relationship of peer-mentoring under an ethic of care and student-centered design prepares graduate students to take responsibility for their education and their own pedagogical training in addition to all other types of faculty and programmatic support received. What we mean is that in addition to the faculty mentoring, structured coursework, programmatic milestones, and supportive camaraderie among graduate students, a form of peer-to-peer mentoring may emerge for early career preparation and teacher training. Certainly, graduate programs bear some responsibility for preparing their students for academic and non-academic career paths, including research and teacher training. However, we believe graduate students have occasion to establish and sustain networks of support with peers within and outside of their doctoral programs. Ultimately, such relationships prepare graduates for sustaining and successful early years as junior faculty or in alternative career paths. By taking advantage of peer-to-peer mentoring, graduate students should engage in forming key relationships and assert a stake in their professionalization.

What does such a graduate student peer mentoring model look like? How do peers begin the process of forming networks of peer mentors?

Though not focusing on graduate students specifically, Lynee Gaillet and Letizia Guglielmo have advocated that contingent faculty ought to organize self-mentoring groups and seek out what they call “networked mentoring.” It is this charge that we stress is crucial for the development of graduate students’ success as teachers and professionals.

Perhaps Timothy Briggs’ illustratration of his own use of “networked mentoring,” specifically through Facebook, verifies our point. In his video, Briggs shows how Facebook allowed him to mentor and be mentored by peers from colleagues across the nation, county-lines, and his campus. Truly, Briggs’ auto-ethnographic illustration exemplifies how networked mentoring affords graduate students, junior faculty, and seasoned scholars a means of peer mentoring through hybrid or “networked” mechanisms. While networked peer-to-peer mentoring may appear mundane and time consuming, in harkening back to Noddings’ concept of an ethic of care, we argue these connections and conversations should not be overlooked but cultivated, celebrated, and studied.

In fact, we argue that sharing narratives of graduate student experiences with peer-to-peer mentoring speak back to the history of mentorship as reliant on hierarchical relationships and traditional (i.e., non-digital) modes in several important ways. First, graduate students may speak to the larger political structures in higher education today. Second, they may find a supportive network of peers for advice and guidance with pedagogical concerns and/or informal training. Third, graduate students learn how to affirm, assert, and build a network of invested peers. Over and above that, we recognize that all individuals, regardless of academic affiliation or standing, have experiences, knowledge(s), and materials to share with one another that promote preparation and professional development for teachers, scholars, and colleagues. Echoing Morris and Stommel’s Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age, we stress: 1) that all graduate students have a right to be mentored; and 2) that digital tools afford graduate students the ability to establish and maintain reciprocal, peer-to-peer mentoring, relationships in powerful ways.

Surely, mentoring is an invisible labor. Peer mentors and mentees must recognize the investment given by others and themselves by demonstrating respect and appreciation for their commitments. Looking back to Nodding’s ethic of care for guidance, we restate that through reflection, mentors and mentees must take regular inventory of what they give and take. The investments a mentor makes in another’s well-being and development is considerable; in fact, one crucial lesson mentors can impart to their mentees is to articulate the reality of the time and energy mentoring requires.

As graduate students, we were fortunate enough to benefit from both traditional and networked forms of mentoring with our dissertation advisor(s) and faculty mentors across campus, and with

fellow graduate students, junior, mid-level, and senior faculty members from other institutions, and departments across the country. From these various interactions we learned that mentoring does not occur with one individual or through one modality. Indeed, text messages, tweets, emails, video-conference meetings, telephone calls, shared Google Docs, social media, and other digital tools have afforded us the ability to establish and maintain reciprocal, peer-to-peer mentoring relationships amongst ourselves and with others. Or again, as Morris and Stommel put it, “The internet has made it possible for anyone on the planet to be a student, a teacher, and a creative collaborator.”

As a note of caution, we acknowledge that while everyone has seemingly well-intentioned advice to offer, advice is seeped in subjectivity, oftentimes without the mentor knowing and/or taking into account the mentee’s well-being and/or values. Truly, it can be difficult to sort through advice to find what is most applicable to one’s own goals, values, and life circumstances. We urge readers to heed caution in considering the magnitude and variation of advice offered by well-intentioned academic idol.

Mentoring does not and cannot come from just one person. Although mentoring is often facilitated through one-to-one relationships, one person alone cannot realistically transmit all the necessary (personal and professional) guidance and support a graduate student may need in order to be successful. This is why it is important for graduate students to “diversify” where they receive advice and guidance. From personal experience, we suggest looking beyond one’s department and discipline; instead, look for advice and guidance from other successful people. Admittedly, mentoring does not always have to be “intentional,” that is, identified by the mentor as mentoring to a mentee. In fact, we consider tweets authored by our academic idols to be helpful sources of “unitentional” mentoring. Undoubtedly, this perspective and experience of mentoring in some ways mirrors advice-giving and/or seeking.

The most important lesson we have learned during our graduate student training has been not to focus so much on scholarship, teaching, and service, but to forge good working relations with colleagues—even during moments of tension—since at the end of the day, it is really about the people and how we find ways to collaborate and support each other.

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