Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Mentoring

My idea of mentoring may be somewhat skewed. Unlike the Homeric character and friend of Odysseus from whom we get the term, though experienced within my field, I don’t see myself as particularly wise. As for advising, it is at best a risky business. Who knows what results will arise from any particular choice in life? Random occurrences, serendipity, and quantum fluctuations in the universe (that whole butterfly effect thing) can lead to all kinds of unintended or unexpected results.

Telemachus and Mentor. Illustration from  
François Fénelon's, Les aventures de Télémaque, 1699

So the classic definition of mentor as “wise advisor” feels a bit unsettling to me. I am uncomfortable with the idea of appearing in the eyes of my students as someone notable or worth emulating. Epictetus, the teacher of future Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosopher, said to “ suspicious if you appear to others as someone special. Be on your guard against a false sense of self-importance.” In other words, don’t get a swelled head.

Mentorship is deeply important but it carries with it carefully defined boundaries, relationships, roles, and expectations. Consequently I tend to see my role as an educator more in the vein of a facilitator, coach, or collaborator, working with students rather than for them (or myself for that matter), to help them develop as rich and meaningful a response to their world as possible.  As an artist I believe it is my role to foster imagination, technical skill, and critical thinking in order to generate the most effective and rewarding communication of ideas from the student.

In general I tell my students “this is what I would do,” and remind them that ultimately the choices and consequences are theirs and theirs alone. I seem to follow a response stemming from the way I was guided in my own career. Little nudges here and there, referrals, suggestions, passing along opportunities, or subtly encouraging a particular and promising direction are my preferred methods.

But like Odysseus’ son and Mentor’s ward Telemachus, how and when they choose to become an adult (read professional) and what they seek in life, with all its rewards and responsibilities, is ultimately incumbent upon them

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