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Panel examines faculty mentoring
October 27, 2014Tweet
For Ron Miles, the most important output of a university isn’t research: It’s the people.
“I’ve gotten patents, but the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is the kids out there for whom I have had some influence on their careers,” said Miles, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering, during a panel discussion on faculty mentoring.
Miles, who also serves as chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, was one of five panelists at the latest event in the Faculty Breakfast Series, held Oct. 24 in Old Union Hall. About three dozen faculty and staff members attended. The other panelists were Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; Shelly Dionne, associate professor in the School of Management; Matthew Johnson, professor of psychology; and Alysa Pomer, a doctoral student in anthropology and treasurer of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO).
The mentoring of graduate students and advanced undergraduate students is one of the most important topics that faculty members can discuss, Nieman said. Many people do not realize the amount of time faculty members spend on advising, he added.
“They take on considerable responsibility in supervising students and that entails a lot of time and effort – from when students begin the program through comprehensive exams and supervision of research to the thesis and dissertation,” Nieman said. “Countless hours go into that. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but in many ways, it is the most satisfying thing we do as faculty members.”
But Pomer said some graduate students have become “frustrated and distressed” because they believe they are not receiving satisfactory advising.
Students have expressed concerns over a lack of attention and feedback from advisors, she said.
“We’re finding a lot of times that we’re not getting an understanding of what we need to do,” Pomer said.
Pomer said establishing general faculty advising guidelines and a “bill of rights” for graduate students could be beneficial.
“Right now, there are no standards,” she said. “What happens when graduate students have (a problem)? We don’t know where to go. Who do we make complaints to?”
The GSO is working to survey all enrolled graduate students in order to get a “broader picture” of campus mentoring.
“We only hear about really good or really bad (advising),” she said.
Better time management could be one factor in improving advising, Miles said.
“There are lots of things pulling on (faculty members),” said Miles, pointing to factors ranging from getting undergraduate students involved in research to serving on campus committees. “It can be difficult to remember to set aside time with the people we are supposedly mentoring.”
Miles said he believes that there are two different views toward advising students. The first is that faculty members bear down on students for research results.
“You can think that as a professor, your research is going to change the world,” he said. “What you need is to get your minions to produce results so you can become more famous than you already are.”
The second view is the one that Miles subscribes to: “Then there is the camp that says: ‘My job is to produce people. The real output of my work on this campus is the people.’ The research serves to train the people.”
For Dionne and the School of Management, that training is a decade-long process. Graduate admissions decisions at the school are a 10-year commitment in which SOM works to get the students through to tenure at their first jobs. For example, former students might be informed about a special call for a journal and encouraged to submit their work.
“It’s those kind of mentoring things – six years after they leave us – where we want Binghamton’s name to be synonymous with the successful pursuit of tenure and putting great students out there,” Dionne said.
While much of the discussion centered on graduate students, Johnson stressed the importance of mentoring undergraduate students. Both students and faculty members can benefit from the services of the Undergraduate Research Center, he added.
“I love my graduate students and I learn a lot from them,” Johnson said. “That being said, some of my most memorable experiences are training undergraduate students to do scholarship and research.”
The panelists agreed that one of the keys to successful mentoring is one of the most basic elements in a relationship: communication.
“If you want to succeed, you have to be able to communicate; being smart is not everything,” Miles said. “I had a student from China who I hired to be a research assistant. He sat in my office and we could not communicate at all. He just nodded; he had no idea what I was talking about. But this particular student happened to be a good communicator. By the time he left, he was writing journal articles that I rarely needed to edit. He was the kind of person who could learn.”
Students’ perception of advising can be affected by the culture within departments, the panelists said. A collaborative environment can make it easier for students to switch advisors and learn from all faculty members.
“The worst thing is when graduate students become pawns to the petty disagreements within a department,” Nieman said.
“I think it’s important to pay attention to the atmosphere of a department,” Miles said. “We’re training students how to work. If our example is (not getting along), what are we doing?”