The Mentoring Process
Crucial to many of the projects sponsored by CCHA is the assignment of a mentor from a different institution to assist an individual college team in implementing a plan of action to strengthen the humanities at their campus. Fortunately, CCHA has had many years of experience with very successful national projects that have included a mentoring model. Typically, mentors are faculty members or administrators experienced with previous CCHA projects and familiar with the dynamics of working with a team. This kind of experience is quite valuable in facilitating a team's work and helping to avoid a number of problems common in any institutional project involving people from different constituencies. A project may deal with technological innovation, curriculum, program or faculty development yet the fundamental issues and obstacles are remarkably similar.
The Mentoring Process
One of the mentor's main tasks is to ensure that a team's plan of action is appropriate to the needs identified in a team's proposal. Just as important, the plan ought to be the result of a "grass-root" effort at the institution. In their enthusiasm, team members may have not quite clearly identified institutional needs, may not have undertaken a thorough consultation process and/or may have devised a plan that does not adequately respond to the needs identified. Ensuring a clear identification of that need and an equally focused plan is, undoubtedly, the greatest challenge both for a team and a mentor. An equally important challenge is for the mentor to ensure that the plan of action for the institution is embraced by the institution itself, not just by team members who may have their own particular vision for what is needed at their college. Securing institutional "buy-in" into a plan that typically calls for change is often a very delicate proposition which, if not handled properly, can derail even the most exciting and innovative project. It is for this reason that mentors must insist that proposed plans of action be widely disseminated at the institution and that team members strive to create an atmosphere of inclusion that will help build wide endorsement for the plan.
While showing genuine enthusiasm and support for the team's ideas, mentors must frequently play a devil's advocate role and ask questions to encourage team members to think through their plan, re-evaluate it and modify it, if necessary. It is often the case that a team's initial project undergoes a number of changes, in consultation with the mentor, after taking into consideration certain variables that the team may not have recognized in the beginning. Mentors must be ready to assist team members in thinking through this process, helping them come up with a plan that truly responds to institutional needs and is doable within the time frame imposed by the project itself. At the same time, mentors must constantly keep in mind that this is the team's plan and not the mentor's. Hence, the mentor must strike an effective balance between being a good listener and a source of ideas and suggestions. The importance of regularly scheduled communication with team members, via telephone (conference calls) and e-mail cannot be emphasized enough. This ensures that the mentor is in touch with the team's thinking and is able to provide feedback on ideas, suggest possible solutions to certain problems, gently prod the team to keep focused, and help build collegiality among team members.
The Mentor as Advocate
One of the defining moments of a mentor's responsibilities comes with a site visit that is built into the process of implementing a plan of action. The site visit affords an opportunity for all involved to highlight the institutional plan at the college among faculty and administrators, stress the importance of the plan as a model for other institutions, and reaffirm the confidence that CCHA and NEH have placed on the college and the team to bring about results. At this point in the process, mentors come to the college as representatives of CCHA and NEH to evaluate progress made, assist the team in smoothing out some rough spots, verify institutional support with faculty and administration, and perform whatever task the team may feel is helpful in advancing the institution's plan.
If there is an ideal moment for a site visit, it is at that point where the team feels that the mentor's presence on campus would provide a strong impetus to the project's development. A mentor's heavy schedule during a site visit often involves meeting with presidents, vice-presidents, deans and department chairs, college public information officers, and budget managers. It may also include giving faculty presentations and workshops; making presentations before boards of trustees; and even working with faculty who may need to be reassured that change is not necessarily bad or who may need to be brought into the process. The reality of institutional politics cannot be ignored. A mentor needs to be both an advocate and a skilled politician in order to help create a climate of trust, excitement, and commitment.
During this visit a mentor may lobby for necessary funds, or remind administrators of a commitment made for reassigned time, equipment needs, or office space. The needs may be modest or substantial, but the mentor is there as a spokesperson for the team and as an advocate, not only of the team but also of the college. After all, a successful project that produces effective institutional change will bring national recognition to the institution and highlight its accomplishments. This can translate into increased visibility as well as additional funding opportunities for the college, something that everyone happily embraces.
Irvine Valley College
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