Na'ilah Suad Nasir collaborating at the National Academy of Education

What We Learned About Mentoring at Spencer


Mentoring is both about creating experiences for students within a program and about broadening access to those experiences by creating university-wide programs and structures.

We all have stories of mentors who changed the trajectories of our careers, who opened new avenues not only in our work but in our lives. One of mine was my doctoral dissertation advisor Geoff Saxe, who gave feedback with incredible rigor and kindness and scaffolded me into the ways and norms of the academy, even when I was astoundingly naïve about such matters. Once, when we were working on a joint research article for publication about learning and development, I went to him and suggested that we take out all of the specialized language (such a microgenetic and ontogenetic) so that the writing would be more accessible. Geoff  patiently explained that the conceptual contribution and the precision of the language was a large part of the point of the paper. He also edited my writing deeply over multiple drafts. Geoff strongly believed that you don’t tell someone what is wrong with their writing; instead you show them how to fix it. Being a good mentor is hard work, and it takes time, but it is only through mentorship—both individually and collectively as a field—that we will continue to support robust cohorts of scholars who will take education research to the next level.

Last year, The Spencer Foundation opened an award for outstanding mentors in the field of education research. We specified that we were looking to honor scholars who had “enriched the lives, research, and careers of their students and colleagues and enhanced the field of education research.” As we announce another call for nominations, I wanted to reflect a bit on what we learned about the state of mentoring in the field from the overwhelming response to our inaugural award.

We received an impressive 91 responses to our first call for nominations, and we were blown away both by their quality and by the stories they told of kindnesses, sacrifices, and sheer dedication. We heard stories of faculty who checked on students personally during challenging times, who went above and beyond to provide opportunities for collaborative research and writing, who modeled life-work balance, and who edited manuscripts and encouraged students to do work that was more ambitious, more rigorous, and more true to the project that was in their hearts. And we heard these stories from all across the nation: across institutions, from small, private universities, to large publics; and across fields and sub-fields, from historians, to economists, to psychologists, to philosophers to teacher-educators. We felt quite certain, after reading these amazing letters and profiles, that the field of education research has a bright future!

And we learned some things.

We learned that mentoring takes many forms. For some it is about being held to a standard higher than you may have held for yourself; for others it is about the care and nurturing with which the mentoring relationship is enacted; for others it is overt attention to the disruption of barriers and stereotypes; for still others it is about modeling new ways of being and doing in the academy, ways that provide an experience of research training that does not separate being a researcher from being a good person.

We also learned that mentoring is both about creating experiences for students within a program or research group, and about broadening access to those experiences by creating university-wide programs and structures. We learned that the most sophisticated mentors in our field build such capacity through multiple, overlapping mentoring networks, including undergraduate students, graduate students, and junior faculty. They support others not by replicating their own approach to research or topical focus, but by providing support, feedback, training, and access to resources and networks so that others can find and develop their own approach and focus.

The winners of last year’s mentor awards--Margarita Azmitia from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Brian Powell from Indiana University, and Alfredo Artiles from Arizona State University—have opted to use their award money to deepen and further institutionalize their mentoring activities. Their plans include support for graduate students and other early-career scholars to travel to conferences to present their work; to continue their scholarship during the summer months, when other funding is not available to them; and to to hone their teaching skills at summer workshops. All of the plans include more opportunities for collaboration, both between mentors and mentees and across disciplines and methodologies. Artiles, for example, plans to use the money to sustain an academic community advancing a new program of scholarship on disability and equity that would cut across disciplines and include scholars at various stages in their careers.

We look forward to continuing this attention to mentoring, and are excited to announce another call for nominations—open now! We have decided that moving forward, we will award more of these annually, at a slightly lower amount ($10,000 each) so that we can honor more of the amazing work we are seeing in the field. Nominations are due January 6, 2020, and the award will be publicly announced at our annual American Education Research Association (AERA) reception in San Francisco, California.

Click here to nominate a deserving mentor.

Meanwhile, take a moment with us to #thankamentor and celebrate the wonderful mentoring happening throughout our field!


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