More than just meet and greets: Transylvania prioritizes mentorship of new faculty

New faculty (first row) and their mentors

In this post, Professor of Spanish Jeremy Paden discusses the value of mentoring new faculty members.

The truth about teaching is that every new course you teach can leave you with the feeling of being an imposter. As a young professor, not only do you teach multiple new courses, but often you’re in a new town, and, of course, at a new institution. All this newness can be overwhelming and, at times, unsettling.

Some graduate programs have a strong mentoring component — others don’t. Some try to schedule the teaching of graduate students in such a way as to ensure students get to teach the full sequence of college-level classes, even upper-level special topics, before leaving for their first appointment. Some incorporate formal and informal conversations about teaching, service, research and the various roles professors play in the day-to-day life of a university. Others rely only on informal conversations between graduate students and their dissertation adviser. Or, at least, that’s the way it was 20 years ago. Over time, more and more graduate schools have realized the importance of explicit, formal mentoring and made it a part of their programming.

Even then, it is one thing to teach a class as a graduate student and another thing altogether to be the professor of record for three courses and to be a colleague expected to contribute to the life and direction of the department and college. Even those who come from graduate programs with strong mentoring can feel unsettled.  

I was such a professor in my first appointment. My graduate school had an excellent pre-professionalization component. Yet, at my first job most of the mentoring was informal. At some point in my third year there, I did stumble my way into a monthly pedagogy lunch led by a bright political scientist, who had been tasked to lead an excellence in teaching office. But this was targeted only to teaching — and it was voluntary and not extensively advertised.

Another truth about teaching is that each school has its own culture. Leaving one culture for another can be strange and uncomfortable.

When I came to Transylvania University, I was pleasantly surprised to find the school had a more developed approach to mentoring young faculty. Along with the typical human resources sessions and meet and greets with deans and heads of various services, we each were assigned a tenured faculty mentor, and we met with a cohort on a monthly schedule during the first year to discuss various aspects of life at Transylvania.

This year, Sharon Brown, a professor of exercise science, was asked to lead the mentoring effort. She kindly invited me to co-lead it with her.

The formal part of mentoring at Transylvania tries to make sure our new hires in ecology, English, religion, Spanish and theater meet the heads of various offices — from the president and deans to the registrar, head librarian and various people in student services. But we try to provide more than just introductions. Over the course of the year, we will meet to discuss such things as life at a small college, student advising, how to remain active as a scholar, how to navigate the general education requirement and university governance — and answer any other questions they might have.

New hires are assigned a senior faculty mentor, preferably outside of their division, but one who might have academic or personal interests that overlap. At a small college, one doesn’t have the luxury of being in a community of scholars where multiple people share your expertise. At the same time, you get to have intelligent, well-educated conversation partners whose training and interests are vastly different from your own. The beauty of these kinds of cross-disciplinary relationships is that not only might they teach you something about the world at large, but they introduce you to another viewpoint from which to understand the university, and possibly even new modes of teaching.

Teaching is an art that takes time to develop. It is an art honed through practice, through reflection on practice and through conversation with others about practice. Finding one’s way through the curious web of relations that make up a new college also takes time. Though one might be able to find one’s way without a guide, having a conversation partner who walks alongside new faculty as they get to know their new school helps the individual and community flourish.