Mentoring, redux

Li interviewd me on Friday for the department “oral history project” that Leda is spearheading this semester (mentioned in the comments to “Ghetto Talk”). I’m not sure where it’s going, what the plans for it are, but it was an opportunity for me to reflect on what I perceive in terms of present department dynamics and speculate with Li about possible meaning(s).
In my abnormal way, I woke up this morning thinking about it. 🙂

I’m wondering if we’re at or near a tipping point, when the composition of faculty shifts enough from “old hands” to “new blood” to generate the conditions for a cultural shift. Elaine Myers, in revisiting the instantaneous transmission myth of the hundredth monkey makes two points:
1) “The truly innovative points of view tend to come from those on the edge between youth and adulthood. The older generation continues to cling to the world view they grew up with. The new idea does not become universal until the older generation withdraws from power, and a younger generation matures within the new point of view.”
2) and “creating a new alternative does not automatically displace older alternatives. It just provides more choices.”
I don’t the median number of years our faculty has served (if someone knows or could calculate it that would be way cool, my guess is its at least around the upper teens or lower twenties), but there are people who’ve been associated with the department for more than 40 years! This is incredible, I think, in this day and age, and a tribute to the positive aspects of department culture.
Yet there are features or aspects of the department’s culture that really aren’t all that great, at least for graduate students. I know there is a calculus among faculty needs, graduate student needs, and undergraduate student needs with which I am not intimately familiar, but I do have a strong suspicion that improving the climate for/among graduate students will have not only a positive effect upon undergraduate education but also a ripple up effect on faculty.
Li and I spoke about last year’s mentoring project. The thread here includes some odd bits from me about mentoring in general, but there is a fair amount of discussion about the dynamics of international and domestic student interaction if one reads through and checks out the comments.
The memory I woke up with was someone telling me last year, when we were just getting the mentoring project rolling, that the climate of the department changed when international students started coming. I don’t the comment was intended in a negative, accusatory way, but rather that this person simply noticed that the culture of humor and practical jokestery that had existed for quite a while faded around the same time that the population of international students began to increase.
I’m not surprised, as I think about it, that humor was the “first casualty” of integration, because humor is notoriously hard to translate across cultures.

7 thoughts on “Mentoring, redux”

  1. Yeah, humor. Isn’t that interesting. I’ve often sat around with U.S. peers, listening to the funny, creative, imaginative goofing around that flowed effortlessly from their mouths. I knew that I understood what was funny (most of the time), and I knew that some of them made allusions that not even all of them could understand – but still, there is the sense that the conversation should only include the pros, and I’m only to play the role of passive audience. Then again, I’ve been in the very same situations in Hungary where only one of the participants was a foreigner, and after a while the air gelled with uneasiness over the fact that there was no way that person understood the jokes, even though we were speaking English for his/her sake. Humor is an intrinsically dividing force (those ‘in’ vs. those ‘out’) for sure, and it’s interesting that someone linked it to cultural change.
    Oh well, I’m not saying anything constructive here – just glad to spend some time away from work…
    But Steph, are you sure that people want change in the department? And if they do, do they want the same change as you, a change for more involvement, more collaboration? I know I do – I get a funny feeling when I think about how little I work with other grads, and how little group thinking (in the positive sense) I do outside of classes. What is it that keeps us isolated? What makes us not want to break the isolation? What is the nature of this isolation? Is it part of my ‘isolation’ that at the end of most days I find myself wanting to get home to Nora? Maybe. Dunno. Would love to find out.

  2. I wonder about intellectual isolation too. I haven’t been in the program long enough but I feel that I’ve thought little with other grad students outside my classes this semester. In my masters program, I definitely felt more involved with other people’s projects and debated my papers with them. Maybe this is too soon and that will happen here as well. I am not discounting the possibility at all. I do question though if this is what a Ph.D. program is supposed to do at some level, enable you to protect your intellectual “interest” as an indicator of what is to follow.My previous program did not have a Ph.D. track so were the stakes lower for folks? As I debate this, I am also aware that this department does seem more interactive in many ways than other places and I am probably jumping into the fire here! But it’s interesting to reflect on “academic training” and what it is supposed to do.

  3. I’m not sure that people want change, but I do perceive evidence of some desire – among a cross section of students and faculty. I seriously doubt folks want all the same kinds of changes that I do, but I’m optimistic enough to hope that there might at least be a bit of overlap! Partly, I think its a matter of finding each other and creating the spaces for interaction.
    Speaking of which, the hottest thread going recently is “linking” at
    Sreela you may have pegged one of the most crucial points of tension: “intellectual isolation” vs “intellectual interest”. Again, I wonder if these *need* to be as severely opposed as they seem to be.

  4. On change:
    You know, change does happen on its own accord, in what’s usually called an “evolutionary” mode (which seems to imply that humans have no actual control over it). I guess I’m making the case that since it IS going to happen, anyway, that we assert some energy towards trying to guide it in certain ways. I figure that means the first step is some kind of engagement around desire. So, David, your question has brought me full circle! 🙂

  5. I haven’t been able to play curmudgeon or contrarian for a few days, so let me play devil’s advocate.

  6. Limited limited limited! 🙂 It is bad timing (end of the semester) and chances are good I won’t be here tooooo much longer (!). I know my tone can certainly come across as “accusatory”. I don’t know if that’s mostly “my wrapping” or reader’s “filters.” SOMETIMES it is me, my whiny human frustration eecking out even when I *know* I’m not supposed to! (Does that make me quinetessentially “American”? Doing my own individual thing irregardless…?)
    Here’s the “theorizing” I did while reading tonight:

  7. On the faculty being overwhelmed via email. (obviously including mine!)
    Leda has spoken of this since I arrived. Lisa just sent out an email about her inbox being full and rejecting incoming mail. I do *know* that time-management is a real issue. For us too! Seems like an opportunity ripe for some creative problem-solving….! (Am I too much or what?!)

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