Transforming the Journey:
Mentoring Lives Through Magic and Myth
Carney Strange, PhD
When Valerian called me to speak at this ABA gathering, my initial response was one of immediate hesitation and some concern. As some of you might recall I spoke at this gathering two years ago at St. Meinrad Archabbey. Any hesitance in repeating such a role was grounded in my belief that what I had to say then was pretty much all that I knew! So, you might understand that I was not all that anxious to get up here again and reveal just how little I have learned since the last ABA. Nevertheless, with what I can only describe as the sesquimillennial force of all things Benedictine, Valerian persisted. He prodded gently, he encouraged, and he even promised: "Carney, if you're only half as good as you were last time, you'll be great!" I admit that I felt honored by his compliment . . . well, sort of. I gave it some more thought and finally acquiesced to his generous invitation. So, here I am, standing before the rock face of humility and grace, text in hand, Power Point primed, committed to the task, even a bit anxious--but only half as good as I was the last time. So have I risen, or sunk, to this occasion?! You, of course, will be the judge of that.
For those of you who do not know me, I am a teacher by trade, learning my craft first in the sweatshops of middle school education. I graduated from St. Meinrad College in 1969, with a degree in French Literature, Philosophy, and Classical Languages, which left me no other choice than to teach junior high science in the Louisville parochial school system. Do you see the logic in that? Besides there are always lots of openings at that level, probably for very good reasons too. As it turned out, after two years in the seventh and eighth grade trenches, I decided I was a very bad junior high school teacher, and found in the midst of that experience a deeper motivation for learning how to do something else--anything else, please! With a few other stops along the way, I wandered eventually into graduate studies in higher education and student affairs administration at the University of Iowa, where I discovered a whole new venue for my interests and developing abilities--including opportunities to teach, to do research, and to write. I began that leg of my journey in 1974 and have not stopped since.
The most fulfilling aspect of all this though has turned out to be the opportunity to advise and mentor hundreds of graduate students in their search for administrative and faculty careers in post secondary education. Let me share a few more recent "family photos" of those memories. I cannot say that I have done that well, in all cases. In fact, I was reminded recently of just how far off the mark it is possible to be when I met up with a former graduate student who at one time I was not sure would amount to anything, judging from the quality of his work when I had him in class. I even recalled in a reference letter I wrote how I praised him up and down for his enthusiasm and commitment, but cautioned about his lack of follow through on important details. Well, that student is now the sixteenth president of a major state university, a campus of about 21,000 students and 3,500 faculty, staff, and administrative professionals. I suppose it is nice to know that others can succeed in spite of what we do to them, and it is particularly helpful for me to know that there is someone out there who can hire me when this gig is up!
Although my gig is not up, just yet, I sometimes tell my students, maybe more so now as I enter my twenty-fifth year in graduate education, that I am not going to learn how to do anything else. This is who I became. But then a recent encounter with a former teacher from an earlier stage of my life gave me cause to think again on that matter. His name is Fr. Theodore Heck, O.S.B., a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey. When he turned ninety-nine he decided he wanted to learn about all this internet-email stuff. Over the past three years repeatedly he has whirled his electric wheelchair up to a desktop computer and has begun his journey into a communication world he could never have imagined the day he rode up to the monastery in a horse cart, as a young man, in 1918. Now, in his one hundred and second year, he and I have exchanged a few digital notes, but what has impressed me most about all this has been his willingness, after a century of breathing and battering on this earth, to again venture out in search of something new. Suddenly the mystery of the half-century that separates us becomes a little clearer to me, and a little more possible. For Fr. Theodore conversatio clearly continues all the way to graduation day. I know that I have more to learn and to do, and the journey does go on for me as it does for each of you. In a way this encounter with Fr. Theodore has been another in a long line of relationships that have served to mentor me through my journey thus far of fifty-five years. My hope is that there will be more relationships yet to come, in the form of mentors both distant and close. We all have benefitted from such relationships. I believe it is important to understand them as best we can, so that we, in turn, can extend their benefits to those whom we serve.
My purpose this morning is to frame several questions in that regard; there are three I have in mind.
First, just what is this experience we call mentoring? Perhaps like you, I have experienced a number of mentor-like relationships in my life, some by chance and others more intentional. Some of these mentors knew intimately of my gratefulness, while others from afar were aware neither of my admiration for them nor their impact at the time. In any case, each of them has imprinted me along the way with a certain care and sensibility as to how the world works and how I might travel through it. As I reflect with you on such experiences, I ask: What marks the best of them? What can we learn from how they succeeded or even how they may have failed?
I will move then to my second question: What do effective mentors do? From the classic story of Mentor and Telemachus to contemporary tales of Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom, who spent their Tuesdays together engaging life's great questions, we have all heard of such individuals to have gained at least some idea about what it entails to serve as a mentor. Are there patterns common to all who take up this challenge of guiding others?
Then I will pose a third question: What might characterize an entire community that takes it upon itself to mentor the lives of its members? It is more usual to think of mentoring as something we do individually, but it is also helpful to consider it something we do as communities--yours in the monastic tradition of Benedict, mine in the policies and practices of American higher education. Perhaps our success as individual mentors depends very much on the environment within which we exercise these roles.
In addressing these three questions, I will draw generously from the work of some voices familiar to us in education: Sharon Daloz Parks,1 Laurent Daloz,2 and Lois Zachary.3 Each has written extensively on mentoring and has a current book available on the topic. I have learned much from these seasoned educators, so I will feature their ideas as touchstones for some of my own reflections.
When exploring the literature on mentoring, I have come to recognize something quite familiar, almost as if it were written long ago in the tacit memory of human experience. In that sense I doubt that you will learn very little that is new this morning. In fact, I make that same claim about most anything I teach, since good theories and concepts are often preempted by the experiences and forms we have embedded already deep within us. I believe the work of these authors on mentoring, though, can help us organize what we know already in a much better way. In doing so, our understanding becomes more explicit, we can access it more readily, and we can use it more intentionally to improve our mentoring of others.
To understand mentoring, one must first understand the journey, for it is in the midst of journeying that the mentor appears. Daloz suggests that mentoring is best conceived of as a learning journey in which the mentor and mentee are companions along the way. He says, "Although journeys differ for each of us . . . they do have direction, they have a common syntax, and we can mark our progress by the passing signposts. In their form itself lies their meaning."4 He continues:
The journey tale [as you know well] begins with an old world, generally simple and uncomplicated, more often than not home. . . . The middle portion, beginning with departure from home, is characterized by confusion, adventure, great highs and lows, struggle, [and] uncertainty. The ways of the old world no longer hold, and the hero's task is to find a way through this strange middle land, generally in search of something lying at its heart. . . . At the deepest point, the nadir of the descent, a transformation occurs, and the traveler moves out of the darkness toward a new world that often bears an ironic resemblance to the old. It is not the same, of course; it only looks that way.5
Finally, Daloz reflects:
For each of us, tangled inside of our own stories, the endings are hidden. Yet most of us spend the better part of our lives trying to assure ourselves that our tales are already told, even if not yet lived, and that they have a happy ending. The discovery that this might not be so can, in itself, lead to profound transformation. But the appearance of someone who has already taken the journey can bring a sigh of relief to the best of us. This is where mentors come in6.
Whether wanderer or pilgrim, the traveler encounters the mentor who in passage makes more probable what appears at first to be impossible.
"If mentors did not exist," Daloz claims, "we would have to invent them. Indeed we do so from childhood."7 But our invention could not be patented all that easily.
I would imagine if I took a poll here this morning as to what characterized mentors in your own lives, I bet I would hear stories about very ordinary people, and maybe even a few extraordinary ones, who seemed to approach such relationships in very distinctive ways. I probably would hear a story or two about a crusty old type who insisted that certain parameters never be compromised. (Maybe they are sitting right here in this room--probably in the back!). I bet I would also hear stories of some effusive types, who braced us into shape at one time or another through the weight and force of their own personal qualities. And again, I believe that some of you would also describe individuals who, seemingly disinterested, created exactly the kind of space you needed to do your own thing. My point is that there probably is not a single mentoring template that fits all, but rather a mix-and-match array of types that makes it possible for each one of us to connect at some time or another.
In the midst of this variety of experiences, though, there seems to be a fairly predictable sequence of events that occurs as mentoring relationships unfold. From Lois Zachary's work, "preparing, negotiating, enabling, and coming to closure are part of every mentoring relationship, formal and informal."8 These identify four phases that complete the usual cycle of a mentor-mentee relationship. Let us examine each for a moment.
Mentors explore personal motivation and their readiness to be a mentor. . . . Clarity about . . . expectation [s] and role [s] is essential for establishing a productive mentoring relationship. Preparing is also a discovery process, [where] the mentor evaluates the viability of the prospective . . . relationship . . . [through a] conversation with the mentee . . . . This initial conversation then sets the tone for the relationship.9
Part of preparing to be a mentor also entails taking inventory of one's own mentoring talents and skills, which might include, according to Zachary: the ability to broker, build, and maintain relationships; to coach, communicate, encourage, and facilitate; to set goals and to guide; to manage conflicts and to solve problems; to provide and receive feedback; and to reflect. That is the preparation phase.
In negotiation, the second or "business phase of the relationship," this is the time "when mentoring partners come to agreement on learning goals and define the content and process of the relationship." This phase "has more to do with creating a shared understanding about assumptions, expectations, goals, and needs than actually putting a formal agreement in writing. It involves talking about some of the soft issues in a relationship--topics like confidentiality, boundaries, and limits. . . ." The intention here is to lay "a solid foundation for building trust . . . [as] the details of when and how to meet, responsibilities, criteria for success, accountability, and bringing the relationship to closure are mutually articulated."10 That is the negotiation phase.
is the implementation phase of the learning relationship, when most of the contact between mentoring partners takes place. It is complex. Although it offers the greatest opportunity for nurturing learning and development, the mentoring partners are also most vulnerable to myriad obstacles that can contribute to a derailment of the relationship. Even when goals are clearly articulated, the process well defined, and the milestones identified, every relationship must find its own path. The enabling phase is a process of path building . . . [where] effective communication is key. The mentor's role . . . is to . . . [maintain] an open and affirming learning climate and [provide] thoughtful, timely, candid, and constructive feedback. Both the mentor and mentee monitor the learning progress and the learning process to ensure that the mentee's learning goals are being met.11
That's the enabling phase. Now we move on to closure. "At some point, the mentor always departs, generally before the journey is over. The trip belongs, after all, to the traveler, not the guide."12 Coming to closure, the last phase, is
an evolutionary process that [itself] has a beginning (establishing closure protocols when setting up a mentoring agreement), a middle (anticipating and addressing obstacles along the way), and an end (ensuring that there has been positive learning, no matter what the circumstances). All three components are necessary for satisfactory closure. A relationship may start out splendidly, with the mentoring partners respecting each other, sharing mutual interests, and developing good rapport. Suddenly the spark goes out. When this happens, mentors often find that working their way back through the phases enables them to evaluate and refashion a stalled relationship into a productive and mutually satisfying experience. Being aware of signals that indicate it is time for closure helps to ensure a timely and positive closure. Closure involves evaluating, acknowledging, and celebrating achievement of learning outcomes.13
All of this "requires a mentor's commitment . . . of time during the entire mentoring cycle . . . [and] familiarity with the predictable phases in the cycle is a critical part of the mentor's tool kit."14
I must admit that, as much as I appreciate Zachary's detailed guidebook approach, I find such sources, usually filled with various schemes and checklists, at times to be a bit too mechanical in understanding what I know to be a much more complex process and something more art than science, more dance than exercise. Actually, while some of my colleagues thrive on frequently consulting their "Century at a Glance" planning books, I am a guy who works with piles of stuff surrounding me in my office. Every day is a new day for me, discovering what is there, and looking for new connections and arrangements, if for no other reason than to keep the stacks from falling over. I sometimes think that carefully marked file drawers are just illusions of how things really do work. Frankly they terrify me, although there are days when I wish I subscribed to such practices, and so I resolve to do better. But then I get over that and return to my chaotic comfort with all the imaginative possibilities it offers.
At the heart of understanding the journey, and our response to it, is this act of human imagination. What is at stake in any journey is trust in the center from which one composes the meaning of it all through constructing an image of how it all works. Sharon Parks suggests that
the human imagination works for both good and ill. Thus, . . . if human beings are to awaken to the fulfillment of their own humanity, they must become aware of and responsible for the powers of imagination. The human being is most mature and true to his or her own nature when the powers of imagination are fully awake, alive to the presence of the Spirit--the deep motion of the universe--and to the power of those who participate in this motion of life to create (and to distort) self and world.15
What distinguishes a good mentor in that role is how she or he participates in this essential act of constructing or imagining the real. From the perspective of Daloz three strategies are most important in that regard: support, challenge, and vision. These are "principles offered to anyone concerned with guiding development"16 in others.
Support involves "those acts through which the mentor affirms the validity" of the mentee's experience--listening, providing structure, expressing positive expectations, serving as advocate, sharing ourselves, and making the relationship special. The bottom line to this strategy is the building of trust. "Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go of what we no longer need and to receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead. Courage and trust are sister and brother."17
The second strategy, challenge, includes "setting tasks, engaging in discussion, setting up dichotomies [or as Morrie Schwartz refers to them, the "tension of opposites"18] constructing hypotheses, and setting high standards."19 These activities serve to sustain momentum in the relationship.
Finally vision is offered through modeling, invoking traditions, offering a map, suggesting new language for naming what it is that we see, and holding up the mirror.
Thus far we have considered the nature of the journey, the sequence of events, and the skills and activities associated with mentoring. Now I want to turn for a moment to what I find to be the more interesting question in relation to our topic this morning. What characterizes a mentoring community? This is a particularly appropriate question to ask at a gathering of individuals who have committed themselves to become who they are in the presence of others. As I approach this material I have a feeling that I am moving into territory that is very familiar to all of you. In many ways, the Rule of Benedict that guides you, and the long history and culture that describe what you are called to do, have created already a compelling framework, if not a master template, for mentoring in our society.
Parks reminds us that "Mentoring communities play an essential role in the formation of meaning and purpose throughout adulthood." The mentoring community provides "a context in which a new, more adequate imagination of life and work can be composed, anchored in a sense of we."20 In her recent book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, she devotes attention to the kind of environment thought to promote and encourage the human meaning-making journey we recognize as the object of mentoring. In her analysis, these are mentoring communities that recognize, support, challenge, and inspire those within them. Her prescriptive criteria offer a helpful guide for evaluating what we do as mentors in settings where the pursuit of meaning making in its broadest dimension and significance might occur. I think about these hallmarks when I consider various policies and practices of graduate education. I invite you to think about them in the context of your own communities. Let me focus briefly on each one.
Network of Belonging
This first criterion, a network of belonging, is an essential quality of any environment hopeful of making a difference in peoples' lives. Creating a network of belonging is the starting point from which a deep sense of security emerges, roles for involvement are discovered, and initiation into community membership is made possible. These are all conditions common to powerful learning environments.21 According to Parks, "A mentoring community is a network of belonging that constitutes a spacious home for the potential and vulnerability of the imagination in practical, tangible terms." It serves both "to reassure and to encourage the development of inner-dependence."22 A sense of belonging is requisite to any kind of engagement that challenges and inspires community members; its absence jeopardizes the very activities that lead to the kind of risk-taking and exploration so essential to learning. The journey of all seekers must begin with a fundamental sense of belonging and feeling welcomed. I understand that this may be second nature to communities like yours, committed to hospitalitas, but nonetheless it bears saying that such a presumption is worth revisiting time and again as communities evolve.
Big Enough Questions
Regarding the second criterion, big enough questions, Parks suggests that mentoring environments have the "capacity to extend hospitality to big questions."23 Some questions emanate from personal motives and meanings. What does it mean to be a member of this community and this life? Is this a worthy calling? Can I commit my life to this? Toward what ends are we moving in this community? Other questions extend from the inevitable dilemmas and challenges of day-to-day member experiences. Can I live with the compromises I sometimes face in responding to others' needs? How do I resolve inconsistencies I witness among those whom I admire most in this community? What taints my own actions in that regard? "Big questions," says Parks, "stretch us. They reveal the gaps in our knowledge, in our social arrangements, in our ambitions and aspirations. Big questions are . . . ones that ultimately matter."24 Whether immediate or long-term, big questions must be attended to in the lives of community members.
Encounters with Otherness
Otherness comes in many forms--gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, disability, or community status and role; these are individual differences that can form a rich humus for the mentoring experience, 25 as long as "hospitality to otherness is prized and practiced."26 Encounters with differences are essential to the human vulnerability that promotes "consciousness of another, and thus [vulnerability] to re-imagining self, other, world, and 'God.'"27
In a world characterized by increasing diversity, the importance of encounters with otherness in mentoring communities is perhaps self-evident. Most obvious is the point that those who have little exposure to differences simply will not fare as well in a global, pluralistic society. Less obvious, however, is the point that a capacity for undertaking big questions in life depends on exposure to a diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences. Parks notes: "One of the most significant features of the human adventure is the capacity to take the perspective of another and to be compelled thereby to recompose one's own perspective, one's own faith."28 As shifts occur in the contexts and circumstances that diverse environments engender, members reexamine their own commitments and understandings to discover connections that are broader than those previously considered. The challenge and gift of a diverse mentoring environment is that ". . . an empathic bond is established that transcends us and them, creating a new we. This grounds commitment to the common good, rather than just to me and mine,"29 making possible what Diana Eck30 identifies as an encounter of relationship rather than one of agreement.
At first glance, it might strike some naive observers that monastic communities may be particularly challenged in this regard. After all, do they not all dress alike?! Another take on this, however, might be seen through the eyes of the author Kathleen Norris who once reflected on a question in a published interview as to whether all this attention to monastic life was simply a desire to escape the complexities of the world--including encounters with real world differences. Paraphrasing her words, I found her response very instructive: "When you know by the very sound of the footsteps who it is coming down the hall, you're not escaping anything." In many ways, your commitment of stability to a particular community leaves nothing to chance in the working through of differences, with mercy and forgiveness, like no other setting.
Let me move to the next criterion: habits of mind.
Habits of Mind
Mentoring environments also "invite genuine dialogue, strengthen critical thought, encourage connective-holistic awareness, and develop the contemplative mind."31 Thinking about my own context, if graduate education is about anything, it is most expressly about these habits of mind. Critique, connective thinking, and contemplation form the core of program courses and assignments. Dialogue between faculty and students, and among peers, is at the heart of the matter in setting in motion the processes of meaning making that underlie the journey. "When one speaks," Parks observes, "and then is heard--but not quite, and therefore tries to speak yet more clearly--and then listens to the other--and understands, but not quite, and listens again-- one becomes actively engaged in sorting out what is true and dependable within oneself and about one's world. How one makes meaning is composed and re-composed in this process."32
But skills of analysis and critique are only the beginnings. Equally important is "the capacity to discover fitting connections among things, to recognize how the vast tissue of life is dynamically and interdependently composed."33 It is out of these moments that "mentoring environments . . . welcome and encourage grappling with ways of seeing the whole of life.34 Then, as insights occur, mentoring environments initiate individuals "into the power of pause"35 or contemplatio, that is, the opportunity to be in the silent in the presence of what one has come to construct (if only temporarily) in regard to ultimate questions and purposes. This calls for regular times of quiet alertness to what transpires.
Such habits of mind help assure the kind of community environment that supports the deep inner core of the journey, that is, the Dream.
The Dream, we learn from Daniel Levinson's work,36 forms the foundation for building life's structures. A worthy Dream constitutes "a quality of vision . . . an imagined possibility that orients meaning, purpose, and aspiration."37 Parks speaks of this as "a relational sensibility in which I recognize that what I do with my time, talents, and treasure is most meaningfully conceived not as a matter of personal passion and preference but in relationship to the whole of life. . . . Vocation is the place where the heart's deep gladness meets the world's deep hunger."38 Mentoring communities give rise to opportunities to explore such questions. From the perspective of the individual mentor, "The first business of a guide is to listen to the dreams of the pilgrim."39 How do they tell their story? From the lessons of great teachers we learn of the power of stories. Insights "always shine brightest for those who have them [and] truth is a word we give to a pattern that makes sense to us . . . . A good story is a kind of hologram of the life of an individual, a culture, or a whole species."40 "In those moments when the world falls apart, when we lose a sense of meaning, stories can reconnect things for us, place our fears in context, [and] help us see new forms of meaning."41 We must offer our own stories in community; we must be willing to tell them; and we must listen with the ear of our own hearts to those of others, especially our elders.
Access to Images
Powerful mentoring environments are themselves communities of imagination. They offer "images of truth, transformation, positive images of self and of the other, and images of interrelatedness."42 These are images of truth that offer a complete picture, incorporating both the " realities of suffering [and] the awe of wonder";43 they are images of transformation that distill a " hope for renewing the world"; they are affirming images of self "that convey a faithful correspondence between [one's] own aspirations and positive reflection in the eyes of another whom [one] values and trusts";44 they include "images of the other as both similar and unique" and " images of interrelatedness and wholeness" about " institutions that work."45 The discourse of any mentoring community is rich with images of truth and goodness, as well as failure. It is out of these images that worthy dreams evolve and are embraced, dreams that frame the journey and light its path.
Finally, we consider the last criterion, maintaining communities of practice.
Communities of Practice
Mentoring environments engage in the " practices of hearth, table, and commons."46 This is hands-down my favorite role in mentoring students. Hearth includes spaces where individuals are "warmed in both body and soul, are made comfortable, and tend to linger." Whether in an office, a department lounge, or a favorite gathering site, indoors or out, such places "invite pause, reflection, and conversation."47
I know that I am singing alleluias to the choir here in this regard. You know well what Parks is talking about when she speaks of the practice of table: "It's the practice of the table [that] prepares us for civitas . . . we learn to share, to wait, to accommodate, to be grateful . . . we learn delayed gratification, belonging, commitment, and ritual."48 Above all though, the table like the hearth is a place of dialogue and conversation, where dreams are shared and images are explored among peers and mentors.
The practice of commons affords opportunities of "interrelatedness, belonging, and learning how to stand--and stand with--each other over time."49 Such places "confirm a common, connected life, and in common with various forms of story and ritual, it can become the center of shared faith and grounded hope."50 In essence Parks is describing what Oldenberg51 identified as third places, where individuals can relax for extended periods of time, free from the stress of daily pressures and open to dialogue and deep conversation around life's questions. I have fond memories from my own graduate education of places like these, where faculty and students gathered informally and often to critique ideas, to hear good stories, to enjoy fun moments, to solve world problems, have a beer. . . or two. . . or three, and renew a sense of purpose and commitment to it all.
In summary then, powerful mentoring environments and powerful mentors, whether in the workplace, the family, a religious community, a college, or a graduate program, offer mentees " a network of belonging, big enough questions, encounters with otherness, important habits of mind, worthy dreams, [and] access to key images, concepts (content), and practices. . . ."52 These are the defining tasks and qualities anyone must aspire to who wishes to serve others well in a mentoring capacity.
Before risking my descent any further, to maybe a level of only one-third as good as I was the last time, let me bring closure to this presentation. I want to do so by returning to a notion featured in the title of my remarks. What does all this have to do with magic you might ask?
First of all, mentors are "creations of our imagination," Daloz says, "designed to fill a psychic space somewhere between lover and parent. Not surprisingly, they are suffused with magic and play a key part in our transformation, reminding us that we can indeed survive the terror of the coming journey and undergo the transformation by moving through, not around, our fear. Mentors give us the magic that allows us to enter the darkness."53
How we do that is also a function of our magic.
Daloz says, "Magic is a word given to what we cannot see--and we can rarely see across the gulf." 54 In my faculty mentoring role I have waved many a wand over stacks of notes that began as clutters of thought and fragments of information, that eventually transformed into wonderful papers or theses, not so much from any sleight of hand, rather mostly through the efforts of students who, at one time, despaired of ever seeing an end to any of it, but who then came to believe in themselves. In effect, it was their magic that made the difference. I only stood by with the wand, just in case.
Magic, . . . all true wizards know, is available to anyone willing to stand in the right place. Most magicians are simply people who have refined, more than the rest of us have, the art of understanding how the world works. They know where lie the fault lines, clefts, and barely visible seams in what we call "real." In working their magic, they simply ruffle the line between imagination and reality, for they know that the greatest illusion is to believe we have no illusions.55
The magic of all this is that mentoring is within reach of all of us, whether as mentor or mentee. We have it within our power to create the believable in others if we take the time to listen.
I wish you the best in your wizardry. Thank you very much.