D-Lib Magazine
September 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

From the Editor

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Mentoring in a Distributed World

A Guest Editorial by Louis J. Gross


Dr. Gross is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics, and Director of The Institute for Environmental Modeling at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His educational efforts have focused on developing the quantitative training of life science students, and he appreciates the support of the National Science Foundation, through Grants USE-9150354 and DUE-9752339. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his and do not necessarily reflect those of The University of Tennessee - Knoxville, the NSF, or the Government.

Encouraging students -- particularly women and minorities -- to pursue advanced studies in science and technology still challenges higher education, despite years of good intentions. Consistently, many of us in senior academic positions have observed that the likelihood a student will succeed in advanced coursework is enhanced by the availability of an appropriate mentor. While there are many descriptions of what constitutes successful mentoring, key ingredients are clearly kindness, an ability to listen, and willingness to devote attention to the problems the student faces. While all these ingredients may be found in individuals at virtually all undergraduate institutions, an additional ingredient may not -- sufficient expertise in the particular area of research interest to the student so as to be able to provide authoritative advice. It is the latter that opens up the possibility of effective distributed mentoring using electronic media.

Over the last several years, I have regularly been in contact by email with undergraduate students from institutions around the world who requested my advice regarding their interest in my research fields. Often this involved discussion of their prior course work, their long- and short-term goals, what appropriate courses might be for them, and where they might find challenging and satisfying graduate programs. While some of these exchanges lasted only briefly, others were extant over more than a year and involved regular discussions of plans for the student, scientific controversies, and any other item the student raised. Typically, these interactions were supplementary to those the students had with advisors at their home institutions, with occasional conflicts in suggestions from myself and their home advisors. Mostly, this electronic conversation provided the students with some external feedback on their ideas from someone who was not in a position to "judge" them based upon their coursework. A benefit to me, aside from the satisfaction of helping students really interested in my research areas, has been the possibility of attracting dedicated graduate students knowledgable about the kinds of material I thought appropriate.

Several of the students with whom I have been involved in long-distance mentoring are in groups that are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering. In such cases, it may be particularly important for a student to have contact with someone in a mentoring capacity whose biases are not based upon their appearance, but based upon what they write. Of course, names also can provide information that could bias responses, for example from gender-specific names. Although I have no scientific evidence to present, I do believe from my own extensive email correspondence with individuals, it is indeed possible to glean personality details from written responses. Certainly, if the long-distance mentor is not helpful, students seeking advice can much more readily cut off email contact than they can avoid or change advisors at their home institution.

A definite advantage of the extensive growth of the WWW is the ease with which students can find mentors, regardless of location and formal affiliation. Students with interdisciplinary interests can seek out potential mentors in quite different departments than the one in which they are pursuing a degree. This allows students to electronically break through the disciplinary boundaries that often divide colleges and universities. I have found it particularly beneficial to post potentially useful information to undergraduates interested in my research field and to refer students who contact me to this material as a first step. The posted pages include not just details of my research but lists of appropriate texts accessible to undergraduates. I can quickly tell how interested students are since they will often ask me whether I have read a particular book, why a book isn't on my list, and what I would recommend as a next step.

While there are more formal distributed mentoring projects (see, for example, The Computing Research Association Distributed Mentor Project which focuses on linking up mentors at a variety of institutions for summer research with undergraduates), I am not aware of sites designed specifically to provide resources to help undergraduates locate distributed mentors in research areas of particular interest to them. While search engines make this feasible for students to pursue on their own, it would seem very reasonable for professional societies to implement this. A good starting point for information on mentoring programs is http://www.cs.yale.edu/HTML/YALE/CS/HyPlans/tap/mentoring.html.

Copyright (c) 1998 Louis J. Gross

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