Forget Mentors — What We Really Need Are Fans

OK, so I am not actually suggesting you kick your mentors to the curb. That would be unrealistic and counterproductive, given the way academe works. As we all know, mentors — starting with our dissertation advisers — have an outsize influence on our success.

But can you rely on them to power your career? Should you? Isn’t there a better alternative?

A mentor’s influence can persist for years after we’ve ended the formal teacher-student relationship. For a period after we get our Ph.D.s — or even for the entire duration of our academic careers — we might collaborate and write with the professors and advisers we worked with in graduate school. We may also find ourselves hitting up those same mentors for letters of support come promotion-and-tenure time, long after we’ve established ourselves as (supposedly) independent professionals.

Because we depend on them for collaboration, publications, and recommendations, our mentoring relationships are a major asset — if things go well. It’s worth noting that in order for them to go well, the relationships have to be not only collegial but dynamic, evolving from teacher-pupil or supervisor-subordinate to something closer to true colleagues.

If, however, our key mentoring relationships get stuck in a state of arrested development, or simply succumb to run-of-the-mill personality clashes, they become a huge liability. Suddenly the supports we were depending on are gone. Worst-case scenario: Our former allies may actively oppose our career progress.

There’s more to it than just practical issues, though. The problems can also be deeply emotional, something that stems from the extraordinary power our mentors have to shape not just our careers, but also the very desires we have to pursue those careers.

As Leonard Cassuto observes in his bookThe Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, academic mentors’ own priorities, past experiences, and other psychic baggage all get in the way of their ability to give appropriate guidance to students who are struggling to figure out realistic, appropriate, and authentically exciting career goals.

Professors have a powerful ability to steer their graduate students down particular career paths, Cassuto writes. And yet, few engage in productive, two-way conversations to identify paths that are both desirable and attainable. How many advisers sit down with individual students and ask: What do you want from me? “The default assumption,” Cassuto writes, “is that graduate students want to be like their teachers — but many do not, and most will not.”

Clearly, academic mentoring is an area rife with friction, conflicting agendas, and potential disappointment. Even more so than other professionals, we academics have to think seriously about whether pursuing ever-more and ever-better mentoring best serves us. In particular, we shouldn’t rely on mentors exclusively to power our career plans.

Here’s an alternative: Instead of expanding your pool of mentors, why not build yourself a fan base?

Unlike mentors, fans aren’t there to help you make decisions or choose between alternatives. Nor is it their job to point out your weaknesses and direct what you need to do next to become a truly worthy member of the profession. Fans praise and reward your work, but their praise feels less like a gold star from an approving authority, and more like useful feedback that shows your work reached people in the way you intended.

Mentors, more than anything, function to help you climb a career ladder — one over which they exert a fair amount of control and one that they approach by using their own ascent as a model.

Fans don’t haul you up the rungs leading to success, but they do something I think is more important: They spread the word about your work. They do so for the simple reason that they really like what you do, and want to share it with as many people as possible. You don’t have to worry that they only support you because they want credit for your work, are trying to turn you into their Mini-Me, or any of the other not-pretty side motivations that can make mentorship such a fraught proposition.

The fan dynamic is also inherently more flexible and less hierarchical than mentorship. Your fans tend to be less established than you, but that’s not always the case. I am a big fan of work by a number of people who are less well-known than I am, and I’m very fortunate to enjoy that same status from a few others who are above me on the professional food chain. The support can run in both directions.

As I see it, an “academic fan” is different from the blindly uncritical — or more disconcertingly, obsessive — person we might normally associate with the term fan. Academic fans are still academics, and will most likely apply a critical filter and appropriately high standards to the work you put out there, but they won’t always offer the kind of pointed, detailed, and undiluted criticism that we sometimes need. For that we need mentors — and reviewers, and promotion committees, and all the other critically important gatekeepers of our professional lives.

Mentoring remains an important ingredient of success. I’m just suggesting that it’s not the only, or even the most important, ingredient.

So how do you go about attracting fans?

I can’t offer a guaranteed formula, but here are some things I’ve observed about scholarship that inspires the kind of keen interest, advocacy, and word-of-mouth support that can turn into a fan base.

  • It starts with the quality of the work, with a few twists. Beyond just being good — in an academic sense — this kind of work meshes particularly well with the interests of a niche audience. It provides content that the niche audience sees as approachable and comprehensible, but with a good dose of novelty.
  • It also helps to come down solidly on one side of an issue that your niche audience cares about. People love work they can use, and what’s more useful than support for a treasured intellectual cause? Offer a clear and courageous point of view that they can then weave into their own scholarship.
  • It’s vital to get your work out in front of potential fans. Twitter has become a place where like-minded academics can trade whole scholarly works as well as smaller pieces such as blog posts, works-in-progress, and news items. Academia.edu, though not nearly as vibrant a community as Twitter, is another place to post your scholarship in a targeted way. You can also try reaching new groups of fans by publishing in new-to-you or nontraditional venues.
  • Finally, when you do get praise from a fan, don’t be afraid to go public with it on social media. Ask permission if it was conveyed to you privately, and always look for opportunities to repay the favor.

Those factors all played a role in my own — admittedly modest — experience on this front. It all started with an article I published in 2011 about the implications of memory theory for college teaching. It was a little atypical for my field (psychology), as it wasn’t a study reporting new data nor was it a traditional in-depth literature review. I originally wrote the article for graduate students in our department’s “Teaching Practicum” course. The goal was threefold: (1) Dispel some of the major misconceptions teachers tend to hold about how memory works, (2) synthesize the most relevant research findings about the topic, and (3) predict some trends in memory research that would be particularly important for college teachers to know.

My students had reported finding inaccurate or outdated information about memory on the web and even in their textbooks. When I went in search of readings about memory and college teaching, I couldn’t find anything exactly like what I needed. So I wrote the assigned reading myself, then ended up publishing a revised version in an interdisciplinary journal for college teachers.

My intent with that publication was mainly just to get the ideas off my chest and, if I was lucky, reach a couple of readers. But it ended up doing a lot more, generating an article and an interview with James M. Lang, the On Course columnist for The Chronicle and a major thinker and writer in the area of college pedagogy. Our conversations, and the articles that resulted, opened up avenues for me to continue engaging wider audiences of faculty members on the many ways that cognitive psychology and neuroscience can inform college teaching.

Fandom — both being one, and the experience of acquiring some of my own — has been a force for good in my own academic life. Prioritizing fans over mentors may seem like a subtle shift in strategy, but it ties into deeper changes that are — or should be — happening to our concept of what it means to be a successful scholar. The idea of academic success needs to move away from how well we follow a narrow path defined by those who came before us, and toward the impact we want our work to have on the world.

I’ve certainly benefited from the goodwill and hard work of good mentors. But a mentor isn’t a plan. You need your own plan, and making your own work fan-worthy is a good place to start.

Michelle D. Miller is a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University and director of its first-year learning initiative. She is author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Her website is here.

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