Notes from The Field, a series by the Culture & Agriculture section of AAA.
As the Culture & Agriculture (C&A) section continues to evolve dynamically as an organization within the AAA, we are incredibly privileged as applied anthropologists, educators, and agents of change to be able to help steward future generations as they grow as scholar-practitioners. Indeed, this may be the most critical thing we can do to produce and reproduce the organization with highly talented, innovative, and vibrant new members.
Our work in classrooms (and beyond) may arguably be our greatest contribution to the field and society in general.
Kathryn Kozaitis (2013, 2000) argues that a critical dimension of an applied anthropology occurs within our roles in the teaching-learning process. She identifies two important dimensions of praxis that occur. First, she notes that the act of teaching and learning in the classroom leads to new form of knowledge as students creatively combine and recombine classroom-based knowledge with their own knowledge and experience. In terms of sheer scale and ability to help students shape and animate their intellectual firepower, our work in classrooms (and beyond) may arguably be our greatest contribution to the field and society in general (Kozaitis 2000). Second, she argues that, all neoliberal effects and implications aside, that deep community engagement forms another dimension of praxis through research, instruction, and service as we partner to promote social justice-oriented initiatives (Kozaitis 2013). Both these dimensions of praxis frame the teaching-learning dynamic as a form of social activism (Koziatis 2000).
Further consideration of an anthropological praxis in higher education can be extended to the interwoven roles of mentor-mentee, and the relationship that emerges therein. I work at an institution that centers its pedagogy around mindful, intentional, and reflexive engaged learning. Students undertake a major student-initiated, faculty coached project as well as a final capstone with other kinds of applied experience mixed in (e.g., internships, practicums, undergraduate research, study abroad, etc). As such, faculty really do become more like coaches than instructors, a wonderful disruption of the standard classroom power dynamic. And the role of mentors and mentees becomes foregrounded because it becomes a highly intentional part of the educational mix.
As C&A evolves its mentor network, it might well look the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA), which has a well-established mentoring program. Expectations for mentors are basic and relatively straightforward: be present and available; seek to determine a good match of interests; work to establish deeper conversations; reflect on the mentor experience (NAPA actually has a formal mentoring agreement, a mentor match form, and an evaluative form). At its core, we are helping emergent scholars connect with our experience, other resources, networks, and opportunities. I do not worry all that much about having some idealized fit with a mentee. Often at the undergraduate level, it is making them aware of resources (such as Annual Reviews and JSTOR), and helping them tap into my broader network of scholars with specific knowledge and experience.
Most mentees that I’ve run into don’t really know how to be good ones, and this has little to do with overall intellectual skill.
NAPA suggests that mentees take the relationship seriously; be receptive to information given; be sensitive to the mentor’s availability and time; set realistic expectations; and follow through with the relationship. It sounds really good in the abstract. However, most mentees that I’ve run into don’t really know how to be good ones, and this has little to do with overall intellectual skill. Rather, they simply have had no model for the relationship. Thus, it’s best to operate in explicit code rather than assume mentees will understand how things work. To take but one small example, I have been working with a very bright, over-programmed high school student who is passionate about humanitarian aid and the current refugee disaster. We chatted for well over an hour on the phone; I followed up with materials for her to look at; I connected with colleagues who work in this area. After spending considerable time rustling up materials that were sent via email, there was radio silence. No acknowledgement of materials received, let alone a thanks. A couple of weeks past and in sailed an email. Had I contacted my colleagues? Um… yes. I forwarded a phone number of a colleague who could likely set up a field experience and I forwarded materials from another colleague. More radio silence. You get the idea.
So as we move forward, I would argue that setting up a mentor program is a truly wonderful thing for C&A. It is a way to cultivate lifelong, committed members. It is also a way to engage our membership in deeply meaningful experiences that acknowledge and celebrate our expertise. My biggest caveat is that we help mentees be good ones who do not unintentionally undermine an otherwise good and productive relationship.
The mentor’s role is to help coach students in a structured, intentional, and reflexive learning process that also results in the production of unique knowledge that contributes to the field.
Let me provide an example of how a close mentoring experience in an ethnographic field school setting as we help craft emergent ethnographers. In fact, this type of training is a classic example of what we today call project-based, engaged learning, which would easily be classified as fitting squarely with a number of AAC&U high-impact pedagogies. Consider, for example, a highly successful NSF-funded ethnographic field school in the Maya Western Highlands of Guatemala from 1995–2006 (cf. Hawkins 2014). Hawkins (2014) underscores the power of applying ideas and methods learned initially in classroom in real-world ethnographic settings for a sustained, twelve-week summer field season by drawing on cutting-edge teaching-learning theory. The mentor’s role is to help coach students in a structured, intentional, and reflexive learning process that also results in the production of unique knowledge that contributes to the field. Students craft their own field project around a common theme; present their work at a six-week midpoint that forces them to formally analyze data and commit to incipient interpretation; and produce a final paper. It is simply a qualitatively different experience than in the classroom. Students not only have to craft and carry out an empirical project based on participant observation, they have to additionally navigate settling into their new home, getting along with their host family and neighbors, brokering relationships in the community, finding great key informants, and getting fed.
The very best final student papers were turned into professionally published chapters in high-quality edited volumes (Hawkins and Adams 2005; Adams and Hawkins 2007; Hawkins, McDonald, and Adams 2013). Having been involved in one of those volumes, I can attest to the additional work and mentoring in shaping an undergraduate student paper into a chapter that passes rigorous peer-review muster.
Taken as a whole, this is a radically different, more sustained, and holistic mentor-mentee experience that could ever occur in a classroom setting. Not surprisingly, a number of the students who went through this process have gone on to graduate school in anthropology and allied fields undoubtedly aided by this intense educational experience.
James H. McDonald ([email protected]) is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of Montevallo.
Cite as: McDonald, James H. 2017. “On the Mentor-Mentee Relationship as Critical Anthropological Praxis.” Anthropology News website, October 23, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.646