Avoiding toxic mentoring

On September 20-22, I had the great honor of attending the workshop A conversation on professional norms in mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl. The workshop presented many great topics for conversation about the norms in our profession. The workshop’s program can be found here.

During the weekend, I had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on mentoring. Mostly from the perspective of having been the recipient of some rather awful mentoring experiences. My talk was titled “Avoiding the academic savior complex: How to mentor underrepresented faculty.”

I shared stories of three types of “mentors” I have encountered in my journey through academia. This included:

  • The self-proclaimed mentor – This was someone who volunteered to be my mentor, and who promptly started listing me in their CV as their mentee. Their mentoring was nonexistent. They only wanted to make sure they could say that they were mentors to women and people of color. Being at the intersection I was two birds and their “mentoring’’ a single stone.
  • The self-serving mentor – Their advice was based only on what they thought they could gain from me and my work. They asked me to work at all hours of the night, saying that producing scholarship at a fast rate would be what would make me successful as an academic and that this was more important to me than to other of our collaborators since I was starting a tenure track position. This was self-serving, as they were also listed as authors on that work.
  • The only-in-public mentor – This type of toxic mentoring has been the most emotionally challenging. This person in public plays the role of a big supporter of my work, while in private they provide me with very toxic advice. Here is an example. I once posted on social media a call to other academics to also request service work from white cisgender men. This was in light of being very overwhelmed with the high level of service invitations I was receiving. Their response to me in private was to continue to sacrifice more time to service commitments as this would start a conversation that could lead to some potential research collaboration. Years of evidence has shown me this is unlikely to occur.

These are obviously examples of toxic mentoring. Having shared these stories with the exceptional scholars in attendance at the workshop, Michelle Manes, Luis Leyva, Adriana Salerno, and Francis Su provided me with the following resources to share with you. (Thanks go out to them!)

Below are some articles on good mentoring in mathematics, author abuse, and lists of organizations that provide training on mentoring.

  • Bernd Sturmfels, Adventures in Mentoring, September 2019 Notices of the American Mathematical Society, p. 1301.
  • A. Susan Jurow and Jordan Jurow, We Need to Talk about Authorship Abuse, September 12, 2019, Inside Higher Ed.
  • COACh is a grass-roots organization that is working to increase the number and career success of women scientists and engineers through innovative programs and strategies.
  • NCFDD Mentoring Map – a worksheet to track your network of mentors.

These are just a few of the many resources available to those who are interested in becoming better mentors. But for me being a good mentor is intrinsically tied to being a good human being. Hence my definition of a good mentor:

A good mentor must value the mentee as a person. Of course this requires there to be a solid relationship that is built on trust and, more importantly, respect. A good mentor will offer advice, but it will be directly related to how the mentee may be able to solve a particular problem/challenge that they are experiencing. That is, a good mentor provided possible ideas, and not directions, and is never upset if the mentee does not take their advice. I think of a good mentor as a solid sounding board, someone who listens intently and provides a multitude of potential solutions – rather than telling me what they would do. Most importantly, and part of what is most challenging in academic settings, is that a good mentor has to have a mentee’s development as their primary objective, and should at all costs avoid trying to force their mentee to become their mini-me.

Being a good mentor requires a true commitment to helping a mentee reach their personal and professional goals. It is not easy and none of us are taught how to be a good mentor. This does not mean that we should not try to be better. After all, constant improvement and lifelong learning, are a part of what drew us to an academic profession, is it not? If that is the case, then we should continue to do more research on how to better ourselves as mentors.

If you have any additional mentoring resources please share them in the comments.

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