Virtual Mentorship

Text and slides from my presentation at Computers and Writing 2010 at Purdue University.

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(Various introductory comments)
“Mentoring” has always had a somewhat odd connotation for me– not negative exactly, but somehow vaguely embarrassing, unnecessarily parental or supervisory.

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I don’t think it’s the same as “advising,” and yet it is often equated as such by that relationship’s participants. I for one saw my MFA advisor, Lee Smith, as at least a role model (what creative writing student doesn’t aspire to be a well known novelist?) if not a mentor, and my PhD advisor, Alice Caldernello, definitely offered mentor-like professional and life advice that went well-beyond revision suggestions to my dissertation.  *Yet both of these advisors/mentors were also my teachers, institutionally and financially charged to see that I finished my work and my degree.  Somehow, mentoring as part of one’s job doesn’t seem quite right.

When I began my first tenure-track position at Southern Oregon University, I was  officially assigned a mentor, a senior professor I only vaguely remember– I believe his name was * “Chuck.”  He retired at the end of the 1996-1997 school year, the year I started to SOU, and what I recall about our relationship now is all he wanted to talk about was the status of his TIAA-CREF account, which at that time was going through the stratosphere.  Needless to say, this was a less than productive mentor/mentee relationship.
In fact, when I think about my time at Southern Oregon, it occurs to me my real mentors were of my own choosing, a curmudgeonly old-timer named Ed Versluis and my fellow comp/rhet colleague, Bill Gholson, faculty colleagues I would routinely meet for coffee in the mornings and beer in the evenings, all the time gleaning advice and building rapport.

So, when my department head told me that I was going to officially be Derek’s mentor in his first year at EMU, I immediately felt old and potentially useless.

In any event, I like to think that our relationship is more than official and that I have been a bit more helpful than Chuck, but I will not dwell on that now.  And I’m also not going to talk much about my mentor/mentee relationship with Derek, other than to note that he is as much an absent and accidental mentor to me via his blogging and his work at EMU than I am officially a mentor to him.  And we do have good lunches.

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*Let me first circle back to how I started this presentation in thinking about the term “mentor.”  *First, when I think of successful mentors in my own life, I make a distinction between a mentor, an advisor, and a teacher.  Arguably, I’m committing the “distinction without a difference” fallacy, but I’m going to stick with this for the time-being.  *Second, I think mentor relationships have to be discovered and not assigned– that is, like my relationships in Oregon with Ed and Bill as opposed to the assigned Chuck.  *When it comes to thinking of the community of academic bloggers as a mentoring relationship, this seems particularly natural to me.  We don’t follow various blogs because we are assigned to do so; we follow various blogs, academic and otherwise, because of our own self-interests.

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Third, I think that most blogging mentoring relationships are unintentional and unknown.  In my own academic and blogging life, John Lovas immediately comes to mind as a mentor along these lines.  John died in 2005; here’s part of what I wrote then on the memorial web site at DeAnza College:
“I feel like I knew John quite well as a colleague, and yet I met him in person only once at the Computers and Writing conference in Hawaii last year, and I probably only exchanged a dozen words with him then.

This is how fellow bloggers are: we talk to each other through our typing.
“John’s posts at “A Writing Teacher’s Blog” were a regular way for me to start my day. I found his writing engaging, inspiring, inviting, and, well, useful. John was a great source of advice and wisdom about the practicalities of teaching writing and it was so obvious that he loved what he did.”

That’s how bloggers are, we talk with each other through our typing– and this is a different relationship than the one that comes from reading.  Plato or Walter Ong are not my mentors, but they are (or were) scholars whose thinking and writing I admire.  The bloggers I follow and care about occupy a more ongoing presence  and influence, even when that relationship is not acknowledged, I suppose because of the ongoing discussion.  John posted almost daily, so, unlike Plato, the conversation was present; also, I too was and am a blogger, so I felt a relationship with John that was more “mentor-like” because he was more like me.

So this interaction is more real than I would have with the scholars who quote-unquote “speak” to me through their writings, even though interaction among a community of bloggers is also largely textual and often anonymous.  I use the word community with some caution here, because I think that this is one of the more slippery and difficult concepts to define among bloggers, academic and otherwise. 

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In 2008 and 2009, I conducted a quasi-random survey of bloggers concerning a variety of issues on blogging.  I contacted around 270 bloggers; just over 100 participated in the anonymous survey.  There are obviously limitations with this data and for now, I will mention two things.  First, my study is more about how blogs represent (or not) a “writerly space” for bloggers, meaning in part how blog writers equate their practices as being a “writer,” either in the sense that publishing on a blog means they are “published,” or how blogging leads to other publishing.  Or something like that– it is very much a work in progress.  But the project isn’t about blogging as community per se, and it isn’t about blogs as a mentoring space at all.  Second,for the most part, I steered away from academic bloggers– or at least that was my goal.

Having said that, I do think there are a couple of interesting results about community and collaboration that are applicable to this discussion of mentoring here.

One of the few open-ended questions I asked in the survey was “How would you complete the sentence ‘My primary/main blog was about…’?”  Contrary to the assumption that blogs are largely about the blogger– that is, they are journal or diary-like– * most of the answers to this question suggested a particular topic of interest– art, literature, food, the shipping industry, music, marketing, personal finance, etc.  In response to the question “How would you describe the main audience of your blog ? (check all that apply)” a very clear majority– 79.3%– responded “People with any interest in the main subject of my blog.”  The next highest responses were pretty much tied:  “friends” at 43.7% and “people looking for reliable information about the main subject of my blog” at 42.5%.  Only 9.2% said that they didn’t know how they would describe the audience of their blogs.

Now, to me, these results say that a lot of bloggers see themselves as being rather mentor-like.  They blog about a topic, one that is probably tied to their “selves,” but also one which is not exclusively about themselves.  I also think these bloggers believe people are reading their blogs as a result of that topic and their insight on that topic, often because they think that their audience believes them to be a reliable source.  Even the high percentage of “friends” acknowledged by bloggers seems connected to the equally high percentage of readers looking for “reliable information,” because in the end, isn’t a big part of finding a mentor about finding someone you trust (e.g.,  a “friend”) who can tell you reliable things on a particular topic of mutual interests?

Still, there are other parts of my survey that suggests that the interaction between bloggers within a particular “community” is at best indirect, which to me indicates an interaction that is analogous to “parallel play.”

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I am no expert on early childhood development, but anyone who has had small children in their lives knows what I’m talking about:  toddlers typically play next to each other rather than with each other, and that play is often related only by proximity and similar toys.  Two or three kids both digging in the same sandbox, for example, or, in the case of what I’m talking about here, two or three bloggers writing about the same topic:  in both cases, the kids or bloggers don’t interact, but their proximity is in itself a sort of acknowledgment of each other.

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“Parallel play” is what a lot of the interaction in blogs looks like to me, and I think some of my survey data aligns with this.  * Forty-two percent of all respondents to my survey said they received fewer than five comments a week on their blogs, which doesn’t exactly suggest a lot of interaction of a vibrant community of participants treating the blog space as place for conversation and exchange.

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The responses to questions that are more directly about community are also relevant here:  * In response to the statement “I view my blog as a community for my readers,” participants sided on the positive, as you can see here, though the difference between “strongly agree” and “neither agree nor disagree” is small.

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In contrast, responses to the statement * “I see my blog fitting into a larger community of bloggers with similar interests” are much more clearly toward the “strongly agree” or “agree” spectrum of things.  I interpret this as meaning that most bloggers don’t see their blog as a “community space” in and of itself, but they do see their blog as fitting into a larger community of bloggers, ones that are writing beside each other on presumably similar topics and concerns.  Again, parallel play.

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I think it’s worth noting here that parallel play is a healthy thing, a normal and natural stage of children’s development.  But it’s also something that children grow out of, and I wonder if this kind of parallel play is something that a lot of academic bloggers– at least the ones I have followed over the years– have also grown out of.      This isn’t exactly a happy conclusion for a talk on the value of blogging as a form of mentoring– or at least being analogous to mentoring– but it’s something that obviously needs to be mentioned.  *Kairos started the John Lovas Memorial Weblog prize in 2004 to honor the “best academic weblog,” and of the six blogs that have recognized, * only the most recent three are still regularly updated:  Edbauer publicly gave up blogging a few years ago, and Brooke and Ratliff’s updates have been rare.

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Mind you, I don’t blame any of these people, and *I don’t want to go down the whole “blogs are dead” discussion, *though I will point you to Alan Levin’s blog CogDogBlog, where he talks in some detail about the “blogs are not dead yet” issue and a presentation he gave recently.  It is interesting how all the “blogs are dead” discussions seem to take place on blogs.
It’s disappointing– and I guess a little depressing– to me that a lot of the academic bloggers I used to read don’t blog at all or as much anymore, but in the context of mentoring, I suppose this makes some sense.  * Neither blogs nor mentors are forever.  At some point, just as bloggers run out of things to say, mentors run out of mentor-like advice, and it also seems to me that the need for mentoring wanes and changes.  Not unlike blogs.

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