TEACHING AT PITT: Classroom instruction as mentoring


As a teaching consultant and an instructor in religious studies, history and literature, I help students meet discipline- and course-specific learning objectives, but mentoring — in a broader sense — also matters in the classroom.

We may think of mentoring as taking place over the long term, one-on-one or in a small cohort, in office hours, perhaps the lab, or through individualized, written feedback on multiple drafts, or as students and junior colleagues return over the years to seek counsel, letters of recommendation, and share their professional growth. We might limit our view of mentoring in the classroom to our facilitation of students’ development of course learning objectives.

 Yet, when I think of discussions I have with my students — especially those that arise unexpectedly and inadvertently — and upon the mentoring I received in classroom contexts during my own education, many of the most impactful growth experiences don’t fit neatly within course-specific learning objectives.

Mentoring in a broader sense happens in the classroom too, as opportunities arise to interweave professional guidance with learning objectives. Doing so in a more intentional and strategic way can benefit our students and equip them for professional success. What follows is a summary of the most common forms of professional guidance I share in my classrooms, many of which I’ve plagiarized from my own mentors or, at in at least one case, from my wife’s advice.

Other items I’ve developed through reflection on personal mistakes or observation of common student struggles. While it may be enough to offer professional advice as a one-off — beginning or end of term, for example — my instructional design hat suggest that integrating into the curriculum, reiterating, demonstrating, and providing opportunities for application of such suggestions are all likely more effective:

Everyone is self-educated: When I began college, a professor told the class one day: “You are all your own educators. Your professors are merely facilitators in the process of your own self-education.” I’ve tried to pass this idea along to my own students: as a kind of gatekeeper, every person makes determinations about what information to take in and how to process it, about the effort to be given and opportunities to seek out. Within the context of a host of other factors affecting educational outcomes, the degree to which we take an active role in our own education influences the outcome.

It’s OK to be selfish in your self-education: I suggest that my students approach educational opportunities with self-interest, which isn’t necessarily inconsistent with making meaningful contributions to a discipline, a field, fellow human beings, broader society, etc. The measure of my students’ success is not that they “took” a particular class, but rather that they acquired specific skills, valuable in their navigation of and interaction with their world, including the interests of prospective employers, who will fundamentally ask not what educational opportunities they’ve had, but rather what they’ve done with them; their future employers are less interested in why they want the job, and more in what they will do with that job.

Educational experiences bear unexpected fruit. We never know how our varied educational and professional experiences will intersect in ways influencing the future, and we should therefore take all that we possibly can from those experiences, even when we cannot immediately discern direct application to our goals; my own educational experience, which I share with my students, bears this out.

Professional communication is a valuable skill, which may itself require instruction. Over the years, I’ve received numerous variations on the following email: “Hey prof, I wasn’t in class last night. Did I miss anything important?” My initial (internal) reaction is invariably snarky and sarcastic: “No, don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything important. In fact, I don’t even know why we had class at all.” But, in spite of myself, I try to recall that the devaluation of my class was likely unintended, and that communication we label “unprofessional” generally stems from a lack of familiarity with or awareness of the “professional” modes of communication upon which we place so much importance in academia. I now include language in my syllabus and briefly mention on the first day of class that, while I’m not annoyed by “hey prof” emails (in other words, I lie), their other professors might be, and that it will be to their advantage to use the following template: “Hello Prof. [], My name is [], and I am a student in [] section of your class []. I have a question []. Are you available to meet in your office hours or at one of the following times []? Thank you. Sincerely, [].” It is remarkable how effective this very small bit of professional advice is.

Getting back on course requires planning and taking a first step. When I meet with students who have fallen behind, they commonly relate a kind of paralysis: they have avoided taking even one step because of the overwhelming shadow of mountains of incomplete work — how can they rectify this “failure” and keep up with still accumulating responsibilities? After assuring them of my own investment in their success, I recommend adjusting their interpretive framework: they cannot “undo” what they have not done. However, they can identify specific goals, mapped onto a reasonable schedule, with precise time blocks allotted to concrete, incremental tasks, and then measure their success not with reference to past failures, but rather by whether they will have done their best work to implement and complete this forward-looking plan. 

Civil discourse is possible. My classes often deal with difficult and controversial subjects surrounding race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. I ask my students to adopt a practice of discourse in which they give the benefit of the doubt to people who have said something that offends them: that regardless of whether or not a remark or view is in fact offensive, their intention was likely not to offend. More probably, they have expressed a viewpoint which makes sense to them within a markedly different worldview or interpretive framework. I suggest trying to understand that framework and to engage it empathetically (not the same things as excusing a remark one finds offensive) to understand how to effectively engage with their interlocutors, including those with whom they disagree.

I would wager that you have likely developed a wealth of professional knowledge specific to your own educational and professional career, which your students would find useful, alongside course- and discipline-specific materials. Perhaps you’re already in the habit of sharing this knowledge, or maybe you’d like to do so more. If so, you’re strategically placed as an educator to bring such mentoring into the classroom, and thus equip students for future success.

Joel Brady is program coordinator and consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning and a part-time instructor in Religious Studies and Slavic Languages & Literatures.