I want a mentor.
August 9, 2005 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Turning teachers/bosses into mentors: how do you do it?

I've always wanted a mentor for my artistic endeavors, but I have hangups about it! How do you get past the feeling of wanting to defer to those that "outrank" you? How do you get comfortable going from, say, a classroom situation where you're a teacher's assistant, to calling that teacher at home?

It seems I'm regularly in situations where an older/more established artist is kind to me at work/school, and offers to stay in touch with me, either by saying something like, "Let's have lunch sometime," or "Give me a call, and I'll give you directions to __________ place I told you about." I get squicked out by this situation and feel that it's weird to "get personal" with this person that I only know professionally, or else I feel like it's too imbalanced -- every time I call, I'm asking for something. Yet I know that people get past this stuff all the time and end up with mentors. Please advise.
posted by xo to Society & Culture (10 answers total)
Teachers are just aching for someone interested in what they do. You're not asking for stuff only - you're providing them with someone who has a fresh interest, against whom they can bounce ideas off of, and if nothing else, someone who will look at them with a twinkle of admiration.

Think of yourself as a teacher - day in, day out, you try to bang a little interest and knowledge into kids' heads. You get discouraged by kids who don't come to class, or are only taking your courses to get by. Then one actually wants to talk with you and have an exciting, stimulating conversation about something that *you* do. Hey, this is what you got into teaching for! Now you find that you have renewed vigor for your work, and someone who themselves (the student, that is,) has some fresh ideas and has been untainted through years and years of thinking the same thoughts in the same framework.

So you are doing your profs a service, just as they are, by showing your interest and getting to know them on an individual level. It's only natural to talk with them at first about professional things only, but that can transition easily into "how did you get interested in this line of work/art?" which will often reveal some personal thing about your professor. You can dig from there or bond on that level.

At any rate, please don't be intimidated by your professors. While they might want some level of respect for all the work they have put in, getting to know them individually and personally is no sign of disrespect - if anything, it's quite the opposite.
posted by lorrer at 8:43 PM on August 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

err, "just as they are doing you a service" - by which I mean, while you are learning from them and feel you are taking from them in some way, you are actually giving them something valuable all the while.
posted by lorrer at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2005

What lorrer said. If you are serious about your work and it's in the professor's wheelhouse, it's not a favor, but an obligation for us to mentor you. We have to be selective about that relationship in the student's and our own best interests. But trust me, it feeds the prof's head if you've got a spark. Some profs are aloof, recalcitrant, or narcissistic. Others, like me, are chaotic and overbooked and may appear disinterested because we're distracted. But I always make time for the three or four undergrads I consider as "mentees" at any given time.
posted by realcountrymusic at 9:09 PM on August 9, 2005

But I would add that the "calling at home" part is perhaps overzealous. It might be different in the arts, but the mentor relationship is not significantly transgressive of the personal/ professional boundary if it's done right, except when it is very well established (and even then, within limits). I assume you are at some sort of institution, and there are going to be institutional structures in place to faciltate working intensively and closely with a teacher. You also seem to be referring to outside artists or visiting teachers who appear to reach out to you outside the institutional context. That may be normal in the arts, but it is a different and more ambiguous situation by nature than a more formal mentorship within a school setting. My undergrad mentees have my cell number, but they don't call me at home.
posted by realcountrymusic at 9:13 PM on August 9, 2005

Ben Franklin wrote that the best way to gain the patronage of a powerful person is to ask a favor of them. It makes them feel that they have an investment in you.
posted by LarryC at 9:39 PM on August 9, 2005

If it matters, I am a grad student; the teachers are usually working artists (some with MFAs, some just with success in the field). In work situations I have been an apprentice or assistant to a craftsperson. Usually the age differential is 15 to 20 years.
posted by xo at 10:20 PM on August 9, 2005

The fish on your Web site asked me if I liked your photos : yes, I do! I liked the abstract qualities brought on by the imprecision and indefinite areas. Lurid colors are a favorite of mine, as well.

I am a third-year graduate student getting an MFA in Painting (with some other media work as well). I have had the good fortune to have a mentor throughout the experience. My tips would be (just from my experience) :

Do not defer to the person you would like to be your mentor. Do be very respectful, perhaps even sensitive, to their time, but don't see them as someone who will carry you, or prop you up emotionally, or have all the answers to your projects. You haven't given me the impression that you do that, but I've seen graduate students who expect the relationships will be just like undergrad (i.e. the professor is a surrogate parent), only now the grad student gets a professor one-on-one.

Ask for specific input. I have mentioned recently to my mentor : "Help me brainstorm about my Fulbright application, please." or "Help me brainstorm about how to get ready for CAA."

Express your opinions just as you would with a friend you are getting to know. You know how there is a stage in any lasting friendship where you say something and realize your friend now thinks you are a barbarian, idiot, philistine, etc.? I think you need to pass that phase with someone who would be your mentor. I've said a few things, at least, that made my mentor question my sanity or my judgment, and he has said things that likewise I have questioned. It helps to establish that we can disagree and still work together.

Something related to most all of the above, and this is the hardest part : in graduate school, a faculty is not so much teaching you as providing a professional model. The major difference is that a faculty member is not there to praise your work (nor does it matter if they dislike a particular work you've made). For most of your educational life, the teacher praises or pans you to drive you to learn more (i.e. "you get a gold star!" or "A+!"). I don't think that should be a part of graduate school. I've seen several grads wither without this kind of relationship. What you should be learning in grad school, in my opinion, is how to adapt professional behaviors to a strong work ethic and confidence in your work. Grad school is the time to find your voice, as they say in writing programs. Once you find it, shout it out, no matter what other people think. My very first semester of grad school was in some ways the best, because I had a chip on my shoulder. So my attitude was "Everyone is going to hate my work, so I'm just going to do what I want." I think that confidence, or diffidence, helped relax others in my presence, and allowed me to form more equal relationships early on.

Ask yourself "What can my mentor gain from me?" That may help you approach the relationship on more equal and relaxed terms.

Hope all my rambling helps! Good luck!
posted by Slothrop at 7:34 AM on August 10, 2005

I have had success finding mentors where I work. Asking for advice is flattering and people are eager to share their experience. Just look at all of the advice you are getting right here at MeFi. There five guidelines that I try to follow:
1. If you have a problem, don't ask for them to solve it.
2. Respect the opinion of your advisor.
3. Remember that advice is an opinion so weigh it against your own experience.
4. If you have specific questions, give your advisor a preview before you schedule a conversation. Specific questions are best, I think.
5. Don't take more of their time than you ask for.
posted by KrustyKlingon at 8:11 AM on August 10, 2005

I walked up to the person I wanted to be my mentor, and asked.
He was flattered but refused.
I insisted, I cajoled, I coaxed, I begged.
He sighed.
I promised him pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.
He laughed and told me to join him the next day for his daily 6 am jog. 0_0

Moral of the story: know what you're getting into. ..
posted by ruelle at 11:27 AM on August 10, 2005

As romantic as the idea of a sole mentor is, in my experience we are inspired, guided and championed by a number of different people. Sometimes those people will be older, with more experience and public recognition; sometimes they'll be someone you recognise as a mentor only in retrospect. I've learn a lot, for example, from people with a similar level of ability as myself who were slightly better at one particular skill I aspired to.

Making friends of your artistic peers, accepting invitations, and creating projects that allow you to collaborate with other artists are all great ways to learn from others. If you do these things as well as letting the older, more established artists take you to lunch (as they already want to do!), then you're home and hose.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:37 PM on August 10, 2005

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