My last post considered some questions about mentoring in anthropology and whether we as anthropologists have anything specific, particular, or unique to add to a discussion that is happening in many places, including the scholarship of teaching and learning, undergraduate and graduate research, schools of education, and specifically in anthropology. The comments on the post provoked a lot more thinking about mentoring on my part, so here I want to pull out some of the comments and questions to elaborate further. I’ll post on one or two questions at a time this week.
Mentoring and Anthropological Praxis:
In my last post, I suggested that mentoring might be something to consider as part of anthropological praxis, which led to questions about what exactly I envision to be anthropological praxis as well as how mentoring might or might not fit in. I’ll elaborate on mentoring more below, but first just a kind of simple explanation of praxis and how we might think about a specific anthropological praxis:
Praxis, as I use it, is the process of developing critical knowledge that leads to action (which then leads to critical knowledge, etc). Critical knowledge is knowledge that communities (that could be communities of academics or other kinds of communities) produce through experience, analysis, and dialogue. Critical knowledge is founded on an understanding that “truth” is partial and perspectival. In other words, the knowledge we produce may or may not (and perhaps more often does not) reproduce the status quo or what my students and I have talked about as “received wisdom” (that we didn’t have any input in creating and that often doesn’t match our own experiences). Often producing critical knowledge begins with recognizing a disconnect between our experience in the world and what other people say about the world. We might be talking here about personal (or individual) experience, field work experience, organizational or academic experience, or other kinds of experience.
Action, in the words of Shawn Ginwright (in Camarrota and Fine 2008) who was borrowing from James Baldwin, works to “make the world a more human dwelling place” (see this bibliography for reference information). That’s vague, broad, and clearly open to quite a bit of interpretation, not unlike the rest of this framework. But I think this is where the anthropological perspective fits in quite nicely. I’m not arguing that we, as anthropologists, somehow have a corner on studying “the human condition” or “culture” or “human experience” or however else you might talk about what anthropology is at an introductory level. But I do think we have some ways of talking about human experience that lend themselves to this kind of framework. I’m still working out my own details on that, so I’ll leave it at this suggestion here.
Action doesn’t have to mean political action or what we might broadly gloss as “social justice activism.” I see mentoring as part of praxis in both the development of critical knowledge and as an action in and of itself – but one that I want to approach with a little bit of caution. Let me explain a little further by way of response to some great comments on my last discussion of mentoring.
What Is Mentoring (and should I be calling it that)?
Several people asked me how I define mentoring and suggested some possibilities for how I/we might think about it. Here are some highlights:
Ryan said that teaching (and mentoring) should “be about finding ways to open up a space for investigation and dialogue about humanity”.
John McCreery pointed out that there are different ways that philosophers and other intellectuals have thought about teaching/mentoring. Referencing Stanley Cavell’s book Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, he said, “conventional models of learning assume travelers all climbing the same peak. Those higher up the slope have a duty to lend a hand to those lower down and the right to insist that they follow instruction based on superior ‘been there, done that’ knowledge.” However, alternative views suggest instead that “we are all learners traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations.” In this scenario, we might all be teachers at some points and learners at other points where we cross. The momentary teacher models his/her expertise, but the momentary student decides what to do with that teaching. Mentoring in this model is collegial. Says John McCreery, “People on both sides recognize that there is something to be learned from the other. There is mutual respect and a willingness to reserve judgment. Leaping to conclusions is not allowed.”
Finally, Andrea L. Jenkins asked, “Is ‘mentoring’ the verbiage that really fits within the mold of critical pedagogy, or even just anthropological praxis in nominally instructional settings?” She suggested that the word mentoring may not really get at what is happening as we engage praxis. How can we talk about these “many directions” suggested in John McCreery’s metaphor of teaching/learning as traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations?
I like this “fellow travelers on a great plain” idea. It gets pretty close to how I think about mentoring. A more conventional model of teaching/learning is like the banking model of education that Freire outlined – the teacher is the actor who disseminates the knowledge, while the students are the passive recipients of that knowledge which they accept without question. That kind of model assumes quite a lot, including that all students have the same goals for education (to ultimately think just like the teacher). Many educators have long argued that alternative frameworks based on a more “collegial” understanding of the teaching/learning relationship are better models for education because they are more likely to produce critical thinkers whose newly produced knowledge has the capacity to “make the world a more human dwelling place”. So I won’t focus on that argument here except to say that although we may all be fellow travelers we don’t all have the same power to reach our ultimate destinations, something that I think is really important to consider in this mentoring relationship. What I do want to consider is how mentoring fits into the ways that I/we practice anthropology.
Andrea brings up a good point about the terminology used. I haven’t come up with another word yet, but here are some preliminary steps towards definition of the process that I’m currently calling mentoring. I want to use a modified version of the framework for a public anthropology in Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda’s recent article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly (Take a Stand Commentary: How Can Medical Anthropologists Contribute to Contemporary Conversations on “Illegal” Im/migration and Health?).
- Mentoring is about listening (on all sides of the relationship). But it isn’t just about listening. It is about listening to voices that don’t always confirm what we already know or think we know. So as a mentor, I have to be willing to acknowledge the experiences of a mentee even if it contradicts my own thinking (and vice versa). This is part of that dialogue Ryan was talking about and leads us towards the collegiality that John mentioned. Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda, although not talking about mentoring, suggest that the work we do as anthropologists might better be framed as “engaged listening,” rather than “giving voice”.
- Mentoring is about teaching (again, all sides of the relationship). But it often takes place outside the classroom. As a mentor, I have to be willing to teach from what I know, but in a way that allows space for the co-construction of knowledge, what Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda call “democratizing knowledge.” Both as part of mentoring and as part of producing anthropological knowledge in other ways, this kind of co-construction of knowledge has the potential to “push anthropological theory, methods, and publishing in fresh directions.” Perhaps co-producing texts in a mentor/mentee relationship, as many of us have likely participated in, is one place this is already happening?
- Mentoring is about offering up and sharing experiences. This is where the dialogue that Ryan talked about comes fully into the picture. Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda argue that anthropologists who seek to engage in a public anthropology must learn to “translate ourselves” for different audiences. The same, I think, is true of mentoring. In some ways, this translation is just basic to communication, but I think the call to translate ourselves is more complicated. It involves not just “being clear” but also understanding as much as possible the positionality and experience of others so that our words “make sense” in some way even if we disagree.
- Mentoring is about shifting and rethinking power relationships. But it does not eliminate them. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine any relationship being constantly one of completely equal sharing of power, and often in academic mentoring relationships, the imbalance is strikingly obvious (full professor mentoring incoming undergraduate student for example). But if we think about mentoring in the context of Freirian praxis, we can be intentional about using the relationship to shift and rethink power relationships. I think that can come through thinking about mentoring as I’ve outlined above.
So whatever we end up calling it, and I agree with Andrea that mentoring might not be it, this relationship is one that I think happens unintentionally quite often. I don’t mean that we don’t realize that we are mentors or mentees, but rather that the relationship is sort of naturalized as it emerges from institutional structures, the frameworks of college education, and for anthropologists anyway, the dynamics of the field. It is a relationship in which dynamics of power are always at play, and it is one in which there is potential for mentors and mentees to have significant impact on the academic world, on their own personal communities, on their field communities, etc. For those reasons, I think it’s worth being more intentional about how we mentor and mentee. In the next post, I’ll get a little more concrete about what this relationship might look like.
Willen, Sarah S., Jessica Mulligan, Heide Castañeda. 2011. “Take a Stand Commentary: How Can Medical Anthropologists Contribute to Contemporary Conversations on ‘Illegal’ Im/migration and Health?<http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1387.2011.01164.x/abstract>” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 25(3): 331–356.
Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University.
UPDATE: References added.