Sharon Parks on Good Mentoring

The word “mentor” is used promiscuously in our society, Sharon Daloz Parks remarked recently at a gathering of several dozen higher education professionals at Goshen College. Titled “The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be” and sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal, the conference offered a venue for faculty, staff and administrators to engage in conversation over several days about what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” further circumscribed at this conference as “the tragic gaps in higher education.”

Parks’ talk, which she titled, “Working the Gap, With an Open Heart, an Informed Mind, and a Little Courage,” offered both analysis and words of hope. In it, she wove together many strands from her previous work on student development and meaning-making in the college years. The talk was a treasure trove of insights and research, and upon returning home I pulled her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams off my shelf to re-read portions of it. Here, I will focus on her comments about good mentoring.

First, and perhaps foremost, a good mentor sees you, Parks began. Recognition, not in terms of awards or publicity but in the sense of simply “being seen,” is a basic human need. In Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Parks writes, “If we want to learn about the formation of a person’s life, a helpful question to pose is ‘Who recognized you?’ or ‘Who saw you?'” (128). She goes on to underscore the point that young adults need people from “beyond the parental sphere” to recognize both their promise and their vulnerabilities (129).

If we take Yoda as the exemplar of a good mentor, Parks noted, then we should notice his two most prominent features: his large, heavy-lidded eyes and his enormous, well-attuned ears.

Wise words from Yoda

Next comes the “mentoring two-step” that involves the right mix of support and challenge. A good mentor “recognizes that the young adult is still dependent in substantial ways upon authority outside the self, while at the same time the mentor is a champion of the competence and potential the young life represents,” Parks wrote in Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (129). Support and challenge both must be “rightly timed,” and we must admit that we don’t always get the timing or balance right.

A former student (who over the years has become a cherished friend) remembers with unexpected fondness a time when she came to me after an exam, embarrassed about how poorly she had done. She claims that I said, somewhat flippantly, “Well, I guess you didn’t work that hard in preparing for it, did you?” I don’t recall saying that. Nor does it correspond with how I think of myself as a mentor! I can only assume that whatever I said was offered within a context of care and support, because she received it as a needed nudge and challenge to work harder.

The third, crucial ingredient, completing a triangle with support and challenge, is inspiration. Good mentors inspire—they “help in the formation of a worthy dream,” Parks stated in her remarks at Goshen, condensing a longer discussion in the book. There, she wrote: “in the midst of… rocky, sometimes exhilarating learning, the mentor serves as a steady, inspiring point of orientation… To varying degrees and in different forms, mentors worthy of the name embody and inspire the possibility of committed and meaningful adulthood” (131).

Like the concept of mentoring itself, the idea of “inspiration” suffers from overuse, and is often conflated with merely being “up-lifting” or positive. But such encouragement, unmoored from support and challenge, and from recognition (seeing the realities of both the young adult and the world they inhabit) is empty. The inspiration stems from the ability of the mentor to see the promise of the young adult before them. As Parks makes the point in her book, this does not mean that the mentor accepts everything that comes from their student “as golden.” An inspiring mentor understands the potential of the young adult and helps them develop “the capacity for what is true, worthy, and life-bearing” (132).

In my re-reading of these pages from her book, I was taken aback by this insight, captured in a sentence that could easily be skipped as one moves to the next section:

A good mentor is an antidote to mere cynicism.

Sharon Daloz Parks in Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (131).

Cynicism in young people is a profound threat to their well-being. It is also a very real temptation for mentors, beleaguered workers in “the tragic gaps” of higher education.

Parks went on to make two other points about good mentoring. Here, her comments veered in a slightly different direction than the sequence of topics in the book, which leads me to wonder whether these points have become even more pressing for her since its publication in 2000.

First, she suggested that we need to resist hierarchical models of mentoring and as an alternative offered the idea of “shoulder-to-shoulder mentoring.” This is an especially helpful insight, I think, for NetVUE campuses working on initiatives that support embedded and multiple, cross-campus forms of mentoring. Today, robust, effective mentoring on our campuses is less and less inhabited by the faculty “sage” in the office. As Tim Lacy recently captured this idea, the realities and opportunities of contemporary mentoring culture happen in a wide variety of places and spaces. {See his “Care for the Whole Person.”}

Parks went on to describe such “shoulder-to-shoulder” mentoring in cross-generational terms, affirming that college and university campuses have the advantage of being institutions where such cross-generational conversations and activities can and do take place. We can likely do more with those possibilities, paying closer attention to how different perspectives can be brought to the fore, including drawing in alumni and retired faculty and staff.

In a Niebuhrian mood, Parks further underscored that good mentoring “is accountable to the promise and the realities of the next generation.” In “shoulder-to-shoulder” mentoring, we can “make meaning in ways that are faithful to reality,” Parks went on to say, “and not fanciful thinking.”

In the book, Parks goes on to consider the potential of “clay feet” when it comes to mentoring: “The false mentor may attract the engagement of young adults for any number of self-aggrandizing reasons” (133). Sadly, I have witnessed this on several occasions over the years. She is speaking a harsh truth here, and we should be provoked by her prophetic words.

Parks’ reflections at Goshen simultaneously named some tough realities and offered some needed reminders, the ultimate effect of which was a sense of hope. Good mentoring is not rocket science but nor can it be reduced to a series of scheduled appointments, online resources and e-portfolios. Done well, it is complex, human-centered, and deeply relational.

If you are looking for a short reading to prompt some discussion about good mentoring on your campus, I highly recommend the first eight pages of Chapter 8 from Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, which was republished this past March by Fortress Press. At nineteen, the book itself is now “a young adult” (about to enter college?!) but there is so much there that bears re-reading and continued reflection. May the force be with you in this important work.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

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