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Mentoring: an anti-view polemic

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Summary

Does the mentor wish to mentor? Does the student who is to be mentored wish for a mentor? This is the central question which seems to be ignored.

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Sample Question Paper

2021

Semester 3

Module: Mentorship and its discontents

Time: Three hours

Questions

  1. The concept of mentoring is based on an ageist assumption that presupposes that seniority brings shareable wisdom with it. Discuss. (20 marks)
  1. Every act of teaching is an act of mentoring. Explain with reasons whether you think this has application in the Indian context. (20 marks)
  1. Every act of mentoring involves only two persons at a time and cannot be a public act as teaching in India inevitably is. Discuss this with reference to the economy of information produced by the Indic intellectual enterprise. (20 marks)
  1. Not every teacher can be a mentor nor every student a mentee. Present a case for or against this statement. You may use personal references to illuminate your case. (20 marks)
  1. Without being mentored, it is not possible to be a good mentor. Make a case for or against this statement. (20 marks)

 

Background, casually: My name is Jerry Pinto. I am a writer, a translator, an editor and a journalist. But my first paying job was as a teacher. I started teaching at the age of 14, students a few years younger than myself. I was then teaching Mathematics as a private tutor, arguably the lowest form of teaching, the kind that is despised by everyone. (Full-time teachers see the tutor as a parasite on the system; students see the tutor as a living mark of their failure and an imposition on what little free time they have from class and homework and so on.)

I began to teach journalism in my twenties so that for at least five years I was teaching in a classroom situation at the Social Communications Media (SCM) department of the Sophia Polytechnic and in various homes where I was a mathematics tutor. At the age of thirty, I stopped teaching mathematics and began to focus on my writing but I continued as guest faculty at SCM.  In the first twenty to thirty years of my teaching, I heard nothing about mentoring.

 

My understanding of education as it is practiced in India: Classroom education in India meant the transference of information. This information, we were told, was value-free. It was politically naïve. It is entirely likely that there may have been classrooms where Noam Chomsky was being taught in the same manner, a top-down in-filling. The teacher spoke. The student made notes. The student created answers, preferably six foolscap sheets for a twenty-mark answer. The student reproduced this and another teacher gave her something around 60 per cent.

This seems like a dysfunctional system but it seems to have worked for at least a hundred years, turning out, against the ideological structures on which it was built, defying its mind-numbing praxis, a reasonable amount of functioning adults.  (How functional? Perhaps we have only to read the newspapers these days to know how well or how badly the system has served us.)

In this situation then, the best teachers are those who produce the first classes and the first classes are those with the best memories, the best handwriting and the untiring arms. How do we fit mentoring into this schema?

 

Kinds of teachers: Here I would like to make a difference between good teachers, the best teachers and the legendary teachers. The legendary teachers are generally the sadists; they are equipped with an easy and ready wit and they take advantage of the inequality in the power equation in the class. Perhaps that was what drew them to teaching in the first place: a lifetime spent as a demi-god/dess with a battalion of eager acolytes to make or to mar with the whims of a god/desshead. The best teachers are the ones who produce the best notes and manage to guide their entire pedagogical model towards the highest marks. The good teachers are the gentle teachers and it is here that we might actually find some mentor material.

 

Implicating myself: I am myself a reluctant mentor. I believe that there is nothing so bad for the practicing writer as the teaching of writing. Your world is constricted to the academic space which is being turned, inexorably, towards the demands of industry. Your output is decreased by the amount of time you have to deal with mediocrity. (The good students are easy to deal with it; they need very little other than some support and tea and sympathy. The bad students are easy to deal with it; adjusting their grades a little will provide them with enough ‘inspiration’. The mediocre students are the problem; are they just late bloomers? Or will they get good enough to become B-List writers so precious to publishers’ backlists and festival directors?) And then there is the increasing amount of administrative work to which all academics seem heir. Finally, there is the new sensitivities of a student community that seems to walk the fine line between self-care and self-indulgence. How much can you push a student who says that she has mental health issues which do not allow her to work as much or as hard as she might like? How much can you not push such a student without completely losing all proportion to the rest of the class endeavour and the academic integrity of the course? Or is this pressure that we have long put upon our students merely an attempt at some form of payback, some way of taking revenge for the pressure that was put upon us? Are we simply saying to our students, ‘We suffered so it is only fair that you suffer’? How different is this argument from the one students use when they indulge in ragging?

None of this is what makes me a reluctant mentor.  I find the term difficult, I find the terms have not been set for the engagement and no one ever clarifies them.

 

Coda: I believe that mentorship can only be meaningful if the mentor and the mentored (I find the term mentee an ugly neologism that suggests mass-produced candy) are matched in terms of several vectors.

1. Willingness. Does the mentor wish to mentor? Does the student who is to be mentored wish for a mentor? This is the central question which seems to be ignored. Most teachers do not want to mentor the students who really need it, the academically struggling, the troubled, the lonely, the disengaged. Most teachers would rather have the academically bright students, the ones who are already turning their eyes to other skies, seeking visas and writing mission statements. In this sense, we are all then guilty of solidifying the status quo and maintaining privilege because these students, the gifted ones, the bright ones, are those who are nth generation learners. They have the benefits of understanding the system and they can play it effortlessly. They do not need us. We need them because these are the ones we generally teach.

2. Centrality of the student. When I was in college, it was clear that we were of secondary importance in class. We were told that we should make the life of the examiner easier. Please underline important points. Please write clearly. Teachers like… Examiners appreciate…The board is looking for…No one ever asked us what we were looking for. This has not really changed nor can it change in a time of syllabi by the cookie-cutter, curricula devised by bureaucrats badly disguised as academics, and most of all, the sheer pressure of the numbers. If we are to put the student at the centre of the mentoring exercise, how many can be mentored and how efficiently. If one has five hundred students sitting for an examination, how would you mentor even ten per cent of them? This means that the student ends up at the periphery again.

3. Congruence of intention. What is it that the mentor wishes to constitute as the core of the relationship? How is this defined by the student who is to be mentored? To my mind, the whole mentoring exercise requires the student to be a grateful recipient (again) of whatever the mentor provides. Does the student get a say? How can the student get a say? When there is an incongruence between the definition the student provides and the teacher provides, who is to adjudicate? How is this to be settled?

4. The lack of clear boundaries. Students seem to see the mentor as a cross between a parent and a therapist and a tutor. This is not what mentorship should be about. Mentors on their part seem to suffer sometimes from the Pygmalion complex, wanting to shape the student to create a certain maquette of the self. This is not what mentorship should be about.

5. Lack of clarity about outcomes. Can we understand what a good mentoring relationship is if we have no idea how it should begin, no idea of how it should be conducted, no idea of who should be asked to mentor, no idea about who should be allowed to mentor? Can we then ask for outcomes? Most institutions simply ask the student to grade their mentors. Mindful of the inequality of power, mindful of the possibility that one might need the mentor later for a recommendation or a letter, how are we to trust what they say?

 

Resolution: The mentoring exercise has been created out of some belief that students need more than what teachers can give them in the class. It has been created with two models: the perfect teacher and the perfect student. Their pas de deux is choreographed in the academic imagination as a perfect balance between Innocence and Experience.

No one who has ever mentored a young person will be fooled by it.

Mentoring in our present dispensation seeks to take a relationship that has to be stumbled upon by accident, by serendipity, by a willingness on both sides to take a gamble with their lives. Mentoring, it would seem, is always seen from the perspective of the person who has been mentored, how much they have got, how much they have benefited. This is not just unfair but it is also a measure of how little we think of the equity in the mechanics and mechanisms of education. Should mentors not be asked just as seriously how they benefited from the interaction too?

 

Resolution of the resolution: How does a mentoring relationship end? Presumably there is a moment when the student moves out of the academic setting and other students move in, also in need of mentoring. Presumably this moment coincides with the end of an academic term. Presumably only a relationship that is predicated on such an association could end at such artificial short notice.

Perhaps it might help if the ground were cleared of false hopes and expectations on both sides. Mentors need to know how little they are allowed to do and how little they can achieve and how heavy the investment is for that. The mentored need to know that their mentors are not there to find them jobs or get them placed in foreign universities.

It might help of both sides enter the agora on shared terms and both must return to that old value our systems seem to have neglected: learning by serendipity.

 

Jerry Pinto is a poet, novelist, short story writer, translator, as well as journalist. Views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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