Winter 2020

In the Middle

Mentoring Midcareer Colleagues

Mentoring midcareer colleagues is like mentoring graduate students and junior colleagues—except when it’s not. Midcareer mentoring is usually the result of individual efforts. Not all midcareer faculty members receive mentoring, and it is often not provided to those who need it most. Unlike mentors at earlier stages of the profession, midcareer mentors are rarely formally assigned. Instead, they may derive from earlier collegial relationships or they may be a logical result of shared academic interests or career paths. What served as good mentoring at earlier stages of an individual’s career may be inappropriate or inadequate for midcareer colleagues. A 2014 survey of workplace culture by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) reported low numbers for effectiveness of posttenure mentoring  as compared with pretenure mentoring (out of a five-point scale, 2.49 versus 3.25); sadly, the numbers were lower for women than for men (2.28 versus 2.60). The same survey found similarly low numbers for support for becoming a good mentor (2.39) (Benson and Mathews 3).  

The mentoring framework that supported faculty members as graduate students and in their pretenure years disappears after tenure, at the same time that career trajectory becomes less defined. The next official stage after tenure is promotion to full professor, but unlike earlier hurdles, this promotion rarely has the same urgency, set expectations, or timetable. In another 2014 survey, of associate professors, COACHE found that half felt a “culture of promotion” was lacking in their department, two out of three reported they had never “received formal feedback on their progress toward promotion,” and many reported they had “no plans to submit their dossier for promotion” (Mathews 4). Mentoring toward promotion should certainly be an institutional responsibility, not something that is left to chance, applied unevenly, or given only to those who know how to arrange it. However, in a stage that may last five to thirty years, promotion cannot be the only frame of reference for mentoring.  

The mentoring needs of midcareer faculty members may include a range of intellectual, institutional, and personal issues. Mentors help colleagues decipher the mores and hidden structures of institutions, understand what is at stake at the various checkpoints of professional life, and navigate the complicated balance (or imbalance) between life and work. Midcareer colleagues may need to consult on new syllabi and curricular projects or on new methods of teaching and assessment. In particular, they may value advice on their heightened responsibility with respect to graduate education and advising. They may present manuscripts to read, ask for advice about sending out book proposals, or request supporting letters for grant applications. They may seek advice on how to navigate the considerable demands they face regarding service and administrative work. They may wish to consult on job opportunities, grants, or administrative assignments. Such decisions require tact and privacy since their outcome may take colleagues away from teaching responsibilities, the department, or even the institution. 

Above all, midcareer faculty members need allies, sounding boards, intellectual companions, colleagues, and friends.

Above all, midcareer faculty members need allies, sounding boards, intellectual companions, colleagues, and friends. But for those who have gone through the tenure process and come out on the other side, it’s often difficult to ask for or accept mentoring. At this stage in their careers, many have already experienced a great deal of mentoring—in graduate school, throughout the job search, and in the process of getting tenure—from colleagues assigned to oversee one’s progress, push one toward deadlines and hurdles, and monitor one’s teaching. However helpful or generous it may often be, mentoring is also a form of surveillance, and getting tenure may promise some freedom from such constant oversight. In “Against Mentoring,” Elizabeth Losh raises concerns about the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship, suggesting the problems with patronizing relationships or those that seek to exploit unequal power dynamics. Losh stresses instead the importance of “hospitality, generosity, reciprocity, foresight, and responsibility” (686). As is the case with graduate students and junior colleagues, the best mentors seem to listen more than they speak; they wait to be asked more than they jump in to advise. 

In It for the Long Haul

The lives of graduate students, non-tenure-track faculty members, and pretenure faculty members are precarious, often marked by a sense of impermanence, particularly with respect to location; in contrast, newly tenured faculty members suddenly (and strangely) feel as if they are planted in one place. They are in it for the long haul. The challenge of such unfamiliar permanence is two-fold: not only do recently tenured faculty members have to figure out how to survive and thrive within one institution, with many of the same colleagues, and within a received curricular and governmental structure, they also have to determine how to make the changes that will ensure the continued relevance and vitality of their work—whether this means working to introduce changes within their institution or taking on a new position at a different institution. 

One of the key functions of mentors is to help new colleagues navigate the institution and its structures of governance (both those that are acknowledged in official documents and those perpetuated through custom or departmental culture). Each institution has histories that shape its ways of valuing faculty members and its ways of communicating. It is important to help new colleagues understand some of that history without burdening them with old battles and tensions. In my first job, a generous senior colleague warned me about the perils of promotion and tenure in my department, advising me to keep a paper record. But the same colleague resisted telling me all the war stories, which ultimately allowed me to find my own way among colleagues and divisions. 

Mentors can give newly tenured colleagues access to some of the archives of their institution: proposals for new curricular ventures; lists of hired, fired, or retired faculty members; memos about teaching loads and service obligations. They can show them samples (or redacted samples for confidential material) of the kinds of documents faculty members produce and reproduce. It can be helpful for newly tenured faculty members to realize that the current shape of the department or institution has changed, and often for the better (e.g., with new programs, inspirational hires, or renewed support for research). Knowing whose efforts shaped the current array of certificates, majors, or centers can encourage faculty members trying to initiate new programs. 

It can also be important for younger colleagues to realize that senior colleagues did not necessarily have the kinds of institutional support now common, such as two-course teaching loads, parental or family leave, third-year research leaves, or research budgets. Such historical context can lessen some of the endless discontent felt by faculty members—the sense that the institution should always do more—or it can sharpen the sense of what changes ought still to be made. A deeper sense of a department’s past can help junior colleagues be more generous when it comes to assessing senior colleagues’ level of productivity, it can help junior and senior colleagues find common cause, and it can help younger colleagues connect with colleagues who have managed to carry out their work over the course of many years and in the face of many changes. 

Mentors can also help their colleagues explore the wider possibilities of the institution: they might introduce them to colleagues outside their program or department, suggest possible connections and shared interests, point them to administrative services geared toward faculty development and learning, or encourage them to make use of existing support systems such as reading groups, writing collaboratives, and faculty seminars. Mentors can help new colleagues see the rich array of connections—those that go beyond the superficial names of programs, disciplinary categories, or rank. Many colleges and universities now offer interdisciplinary programs in fields such as women’s and gender studies, cultural studies, area studies, and digital humanities. Especially at a small school, it is important that new colleagues not assume that their only allies will be their peers in rank, age, gender, race, or discipline. Mentors can point out individuals with shared interests that are less readily apparent, less formal: the medievalist who also reads Trollope novels, the scientist who composes inventive writing assignments, the avid union representative, or the experienced member of the senate. At a larger university, faculty members can seek out interesting colleagues from other schools or programs, or from professional schools and centers, for collaboration on grants or curricular projects, for intellectual exchange that goes beyond the confines of the department. 

The Collected Letters and Memos

One reality of midcareer professionals is the overwhelming urgency of service commitments—departmental and university committees, graduate student projects and undergraduate requests for independent studies or thesis committees, curricular development, assessment (and the list goes on). It is not much of a joke to murmur about publishing the “collected letters of recommendation” as the requests pour in for letters needed in October and January for present and former students, non-tenure-track and junior colleagues going through reviews and tenure, senior colleagues needing letters for grants, and staff members needing to be reviewed. Tenured faculty members are also asked to review colleagues from other institutions for tenure and promotion—to read long dossiers and write complex assessments of others’ careers. It may be useful to talk through this process or to share sample tenure reviews or graduate recommendations. 

Mentors can help new colleagues see the rich array of connections—those that go beyond the superficial names of programs, disciplinary categories, or rank.

In addition to letters of review, tenured faculty members devote much of their time to writing administrative documents—those semianonymous compositions that propose new majors and certificates, justify budget requests, describe departments and programs and curricula and colleagues—sometimes for use in the department, sometimes sent out to the public or used by administrative units. These documents often have to be produced quickly, under pressure. They may seem urgent and important but just as often disappear into an inbox or the void. It is usually not clear ahead of time whether what you’re writing is boilerplate or the key argument in a funding struggle, and that uncertainty is part of what keeps the pressure on such writing. These documents are often temporally, authorially, and discursively complex: they incorporate past decisions and drafts into a current version, speak for and through multiple stakeholders, and involve not only practical details, budgetary projections, timelines, and sample course descriptions but also statements of educational philosophy, defenses of the humanities, and claims about the importance of writing or reading.

Once the documents are sent out, they may be read, edited, rewritten, quoted, redacted, or repurposed. Faculty members often have the eerie experience of reading pieces of these documents years later as silent quotations in a departmental brochure or on a Web site, as part of a statement about plagiarism or a claim about the importance of the humanities. In rare, fortuitous cases, a faculty member’s prose may circulate as part of the institution’s narrative—in mission statements, speeches, exchanges with alumni. Such writing can thus be highly influential and long-lasting, but it has little of the usual pleasures of authorship or publication. Volunteering—or, more often, being volunteered—to write administrative documents can be a way to ensure one’s voice is heard, but such responsibilities are often stressful and time-intensive. Administrative documents take considerable time and care; they require kinds of public (and often collaborative) writing that are different from what most scholars have experienced. The better you are at such writing, the more of it you will be asked to do, but with experience you learn to do it faster, more effectively, and with less angst. It’s now more or less commonplace to have leadership institutes or initiatives, but most senior faculty members, indeed most administrators, learned to lead by doing it, by reflecting on their successes and failures, by observing someone they admired, or by learning from the shortcomings of someone they did not. Mentors can help midcareer faculty members learn how to be good at service work. Mentors can help midcareer faculty members make such work more visible. They can help them understand that this type of work is the result of not only labor but also expertise. They can help ensure that service work leads to leadership roles and positions. 

Mentors help midcareer faculty members make important choices about how to manage these service obligations. Faculty members need to know when to accept new service roles, when to say no, or when to defer for another year. They need to know which roles will teach them something valuable or bring them into significant conversations and which are less visible but still important. After the pressured focus of the tenure process, it may be challenging to reframe the sense of obligation—the need to be part of a community, to share administrative and supervisory responsibilities, to be active in decision-making, consultation, and maintenance. 

Most academic institutions have moved toward some form of protection  from service obligations for untenured faculty members, and tenure processes focus far more energetically on research than on teaching. Pretenure faculty members do of course take on service work, and some—because of their particular expertise or status—may take on quite stressful and demanding roles. Midcareer faculty members who find themselves overcommitted to service and advising roles may well be the same faculty members who had undue pretenure service burdens. Faculty members of color and women faculty members, for example, are often called on to diversify personnel or curriculum committees or are in high demand to advise graduate students. Faculty members, especially those in small programs or in fields like composition, often face considerable responsibilities with respect to teacher training, supervision of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members, and oversight of required courses with large enrollments. Faculty members with special expertise—in digital technology or in archival or community work, for example—may well be asked to do more than they are capable of taking on. It is a challenge to mentor such faculty members about service, since they no doubt feel the urgency of the call. Still, it is important to remind them to preserve some of their time and goodwill for other initiatives. 

Of course, part of the pleasure of being a faculty member, whether tenured or not, is being part of important decisions, being someone whose opinion matters, who gets to know colleagues by working with them on important issues or projects. Some service is self-serving, done to procure resources for teaching or research: faculty members write proposals for digital labs and classrooms, design systems for using films and video equipment, and work with libraries on archival collections. Service is another aspect of professional and community life that faculty members need to practice to learn how to do it well. It is important not to overwhelm recently tenured faculty members with administrative and service assignments, but longtime tenured faculty members may be eager to have such colleagues take over (or at least share) some of their labors. In such situations mentoring is needed for both newly tenured colleagues and those who have been midcareer for what feels like a long time. 

Remaking Yourself

One of the facts of life for graduate students and pretenure faculty members is the pressure of time: time to degree, time between major milestones, time squeezed in between the competing calls of teaching and research (not to mention life), what seems like a long time and then suddenly a much-too-short time of working toward tenure. One challenge faced by a newly tenured professor is that time and time pressure change. There are no longer the same external and goal-driven calendars, the urgent sense of pushing through to the next milestone. Time seems freer, more expansive, more forgiving. The newly tenured faculty member comes up for air, looks around, and tries to remember the ideas that were deferred or postponed in the push for promotion. It may take some time for a second project to emerge, and faculty members also need to learn how to take time: to read widely and deeply, to uncover more elusive texts or problems. It is necessarily a moment for regrouping. Faculty members may share incipient plans with a small writing group or try out new ideas as a graduate seminar. Senior colleagues can be helpful mentors at this stage by letting go, by not assuming they know the right path for their junior colleagues. Instead they can check in to hear about new ideas, offer to read the beginnings of a proposal, encourage experimentation or refashioning. They can help their junior colleagues map out a plan—a project, a reasonable timeline for completion, the support needed—and remind them that they can do this. 

It is important for midcareer faculty members to be open to change—to shifts in professional interests and projects, to changes in teaching, to different affiliations. It can be helpful to seek out colleagues in other departments or other parts of the university, to spend time away from one’s department. Many colleges and universities offer seminars to help foster such change: seminars on teaching writing or speaking, on diversity, on digital humanities. These types of seminars can help encourage innovative forms of both scholarship and teaching and can also widen one’s circle of colleagues. Interdisciplinary programs can broaden the scope of intellectual and collegial life, prompting shared intellectual projects or affiliations with newly developed curricular arrangements. Faculty members can collaborate on projects with librarians or digital experts; they can work with curricular specialists or technology experts. The middle of one’s career can be a time to experiment—to redesign courses, develop new expertise, or engage with new subject areas. It can be a time to repurpose older interests to suit new curricular programs. 

Another way of remaking oneself can be to move into administration, whether within or outside one’s department. Administrative roles allow faculty members to see their schools from different angles, to collaborate with colleagues to effect change or innovation. Administrative roles may require interaction with the public—work with local schools, the corporate world, or state legislatures, for example. Faculty members often groan about administrative assignments and complain about “the higher ups,” but administrative work can be a fulfilling and welcome change. Such work may allow faculty members to circulate in different ways within their institutions, work with colleagues from other administrative units, or get to know nonteaching professionals (e.g., people in human resources or those who work in a medical institute). Administrative work can be highly instructive, offering insights that may prove beneficial if or when one chooses to return to a teaching role. 

Pretenure faculty members are often warned not to stray too far from their departments, from the academic framework that will structure their progress toward tenure. This traditional concept of a siloed academy is in many places giving way to teaching and scholarship that cross disciplinary and academic boundaries. Midcareer faculty members can afford to turn more insistently toward the broader public, to make the investments of time and translation that are necessary to articulate their interests to those outside the academy. Public work may be an extended form of teaching, as is the case in projects that connect students with prisoners or collaborate with high school programs for accelerated learning. Such work can also be an extended form of service—for example, community literacy programs or activist theater groups. The move toward public work may be understood as a way not only of bringing certain types of expertise to communities outside the university but also of learning new things, of testing ideas in a more compelling context. In other words, work that enables an articulation of disciplines to (and with) audiences not already trained in their value and traditions can be a valuable way of bringing new ideas and pedagogical practices into the academy. 

The Shape of the Career

I often have graduate students read an interview with the noted French historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who lost her United States passport in the 1950s because her husband was under investigation by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). Not able to travel to French archives (and also caring for three children), Davis turned to working on rare books in the New York Public Library. She continued doing her work, but in a different vein, with different kinds of materials; she made the combination of archives and rare books a signature feature of her work. Davis’s is an extreme story about the pressure to reshape one’s career and about the success of such a reshaping. Not everyone’s chosen path is stymied by the forces of political intrigue and history; not everyone can forge a second career into an award-winning, protocol-bending intellectual arc. But Davis’s story reminds us that many careers—even ones that seem highly successful, highly focused and motivated—have been altered, paused, even frustrated by circumstances. And many careers have changed, adapted to circumstances, and found new directions. Her story suggests the value of being open to different paths, different ways of working, and different ways of rescaling or relocating projects to suit the exigencies of life and institutional culture. 

This is a valuable lesson for faculty members in the middle of their career, when they may face shifts in their disciplinary fields. Graduate students or the publishing market may be more inclined to other fields; undergraduates may no longer be attracted to certain kinds of fields of study and ways of learning. Sometimes faculty members need to change course because they have family obligations that make it difficult for them to travel to archives or spend months away from home doing research. Sometimes they need to find ways to support new teaching assignments, to align their teaching and scholarship more closely so they can be productive in both arenas instead of giving up one to satisfy the demands of the other. These kinds of external shifts and pressures call for imaginative solutions, for an ability to repurpose interests to new materials or methodologies or to come up with new scholarly projects based more closely on teaching or community experiences. Such faculty members may need additional mentoring to help them navigate such changes, as they engage with unfamiliar scholarship and pursue projects outside their area of expertise or experiment with different forms of publication. 

Of course, faculty members may also decide to shift direction because they feel as though they have exhausted a set of interests or research agendas. They may want to teach in different areas or using different materials and methods; they may want to develop new ways of engaging the public. The pressure to change comes not from external forces alone, but from the need to reinvent themselves, to keep things interesting over a long career, to address a perceived need for social or political change. They may see such a need in the public, in their field, or in their department and may decide that they are capable of finding ways to address it, as when scholars trained in historical studies taught themselves to become feminist critics or scholars of diasporic literatures. They may decide that what’s needed now is more courses focused on writing, literacy, or digital humanities; courses that center on popular or contemporary texts; or courses that privilege activism or community engagement. These are generally happy circumstances, changes that inspire or energize midcareer faculty members, but even so they can be challenging. Such transitions may call for the support of like-minded senior colleagues, for shared study or working groups, or for collective curricular projects that also lead to new forms of publication. Emerging fields need the support (and mentorship) of affiliated colleagues, people who see the value in the changes in direction and can help articulate the spaces between older and newer formations. These mentors need not be in newer fields, but they can help by being engaged and intellectually curious. They may mentor by helping publicize newer work or by educating more traditional colleagues on the value of the new, on its continuities as well as its breaks with the past. 

Life beyond the Academy

And last but certainly not least is the question of what to do about the ongoing calls of life outside the academy. Midcareer faculty members may have dependent children as well as aging parents. They may need to navigate issues concerning their partner’s employment, relocation, school options for their children, health, and finances. Many midcareer faculty members have postponed important life events while pursuing their doctorates or striving for tenure, and others have grown used to bracketing off the spaces between work and life in ways hard to sustain for the long haul. Mentoring at this stage, then, requires thinking about how to balance work and life. The mentors themselves may not have had the kinds of support now available (e.g., parental or family leave, spousal hires, health coaches), but it remains important not to dismiss the ongoing concerns of more junior colleagues. 

I remember a recently tenured colleague making an appointment to see me in my office (this in itself was curious). She started talking nervously about plans and the future, then blurted out that she was pregnant and wanted to know how to ask for maternity leave. As her mentor and friend, I expressed my unconditional joy for her and offered to help her find the information she needed on the university’s human resources Web site. Just as important, I also talked with her about how to let her other colleagues know, what she might need to ask for, and how she might handle the timing and balance of having children and a tenured job. An independent, highly confident feminist, she was nonetheless concerned that other colleagues and I would feel she’d let us down. And indeed, she got some pushback from other colleagues about the possible effects of her leave on her graduate students and on the program as a whole. However progressive institutions have become, faculty members continue to feel the strain of taking time away from their work to concentrate on their lives outside work.  

Midcareer faculty members have many life needs that may conflict with their work. Their own health may need attention and care. They may have to deal with loss—with the death or retirement of long-term colleagues or with the departure of graduate students, for example. If they haven’t already, they need to work on developing ways of relaxing, exercising, and using other parts of their minds. They need to indulge in extracurricular passions (e.g., singing, hiking, gardening, taking care of the environment, working on social justice). Hopefully they can align some of their work responsibilities with such passions: they might, for example, develop ways of teaching in the community. 

When it comes to both life and work, colleagues of all ages and ranks need to look after one another’s well-being. At times junior faculty members may need to mentor their more senior colleagues, whether this means helping them learn new methodologies, discover new authors and kinds of writing as well as new ways of reading them, or collaborate on projects or institutional goals. This essay has advocated for certain types of formalized mentoring that may support the path toward promotion. It has encouraged steady and generous mentoring relationships throughout the periods of change and stasis that characterize midcareer professional life. In the end, the mentoring relationship is more complex, and certainly less vertical, than the term mentoring suggests. Mentoring is necessarily a reciprocal act: it means paying attention to each other, checking in on each other to see about progress or signs of distress. The academy can do much to make such relationships more likely, more evenly distributed, more valued. Mentors and those they mentor need to work on making such relationships and interactions productive and sustainable. 

Works Cited

Benson, R. T., and K. R. Mathews, editors. COACHE Summary Tables: Selected Dimensions in Faculty Workplace Climate by Discipline, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender. Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2014, coache.gse.harvard.edu/research/statistical-reports

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Interview.” Visions of History, edited by Henry Abelove et al., Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 97–122.

Losh, Elizabeth. “Against Mentoring.” American Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 685–91.

Mathews, K. R. Perspectives on Midcareer Faculty and Advice for Supporting Them. Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2014, coache.gse.harvard.edu/publications/perspectives-midcareer-faculty-and-advice-supporting-them.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Jean Ferguson Carr is associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she has served as director of composition and of women’s studies and where, in 2010, she won the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring. She is coeditor of the Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture and coauthor of Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States (Southern Illinois UP, 2005), which won the MLA’s Mina Shaugnessy Award. She was textual editor of two volumes of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard UP).

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