We spoke to UNSW educators who are currently involved in the Academic Mentoring Program as a mentor and mentee. Here are some of their interesting insights.
Background of the Academic Mentoring relationship
A/Prof. Simon McIntyre (Art and Design) and Dr. Yenni Tim (Business) began their mentorship in May 2019. Originally, they proposed a year-long arrangement, but have since decided to continue due to how well it has been going.
The main focus of their mentorship has been around how to build a strong career in learning and teaching in the current university system, and to take advantage of your achievements to build strength, reputation and potential moving forward.
Within just over a year, Yenni has made significant achievements with the support of Simon during this mentorship, including receiving:
- The national award for ICT Educator of the Year from the Australian Computer Society (ACS), 2019
- The John Prescott Award for Outstanding Teaching Innovation from UNSW Business School, 2019
- Her tenure (converted to a continuous contract), May 2020
- A promotion to Senior Lecturer, July 2020.
What inspired you to be involved in the Academic Mentoring program?
Simon (mentor) - I have been mentoring a lot of people unofficially; colleagues at work and people through other networks I’ve been involved in, so I thought it was really important to contribute back to the university and help others find their path the way that I had help when I was finding my path, so for me it was a matter of giving back in a rapidly changing academic environment.
Yenni (mentee) – Personally, I have benefited from a lot of great mentors in my life. When I was in university, one of my mentors inspired me to become a lecturer. I just started my career, so I am looking for guidance in how I can advance to the next stage, especially when I am trying to develop my own identity in education; this was my intention when I first signed up for the Academic Mentoring program.
What have you learnt from each other that has helped you develop in learning and teaching contexts?
Simon (mentor) – One of the things I have learnt from Yenni in particular, is that good ideas transcend disciplinary boundaries. I think it’s interesting that some people think they need a mentor who is in the same area as them. Yenni and I are polar opposites – I’m from a Design background, and Yenni is from Business. What we connected on is good teaching practice, strategic thinking in terms of how to progress your career and connecting the strengths of research that you’re in to the teaching practice, all which transcend disciplinary boundaries. For me that is something we can really learn from each other in a way that cuts right to the principles of good teaching, and in personal development we don’t need boundaries, so that’s been a big plus for me.
Yenni (mentee) – I’ve learned a lot from Simon as an early career academic about how I see teaching, and approach my teaching career. I am a Research and Teaching academic, so initially I was unsure of how to approach these two big components as part of my career. What I have learnt from Simon is that you can really take a leveraged approach and find synergies between the two components; for example, bringing value from research into teaching, and vice versa, which also includes engagement and leadership. What I have also learnt from Simon, is how to be a great mentor, which was one of my objectives when joining the program. I started mentoring my students and juniors as well in my career so I really wanted to learn how to be a better mentor. Simon is honest, constructive and perceptive, so I’ve observed all these qualities from him as a mentor and that helps me a lot with being a mentor myself.
What are your insights on building this mentorship with different disciplinary backgrounds of teaching?
Simon (mentor) – I would say that finding a mentor or mentee who is from a completely different discipline from you is a massive advantage, because often if you are working with people in the same area, you start to see things the same way, so it’s always really valuable to have that fresh viewpoint and to be able to think of things from a different angle. I think it is a real strength, and more people should be a little bit braver in choosing somebody who might not look like they are necessarily suitable on paper. To follow that up, you really need to sit down and have this conversation when you start to determine that personal compatibility and that you can align your short and long term goals so you can keep the mentorship on track.
Yenni (mentee) – In addition to echoing Simon’s views, I think setting goals is important from a mentee perspective. It helps my mentor and I to identify what I want to achieve, what more can be done, and how to improve along the way. It helps me to think about my own career goals, not just in the mentorship but in general which means I can prioritise things from my end.
How did you continue to make your relationship work in light of the recent change to learning and teaching environments due to the pandemic?
Simon (mentor) – It has not changed our relationship much, we meet digitally now instead of in person. Using digital tools to connect has been useful. To be able to digitally share drafts of award/promotion applications and work on it has helped a lot, and I think we will carry that forward after we come out of this pandemic. The mentorship wasn’t focused on any particular teaching practice that needed us to be in one spot, it was really about the bigger, longitudinal ideas of building an effective learning and teaching practice across Yenni’s entire career so its been a relatively smooth transition.
Yenni (mentee) – Nothing much has changed besides the way that we communicate. Usually we hold fortnightly meetings, but now we just discuss on Teams. Using online channels has been effective - we did a mock interview just last week on Teams.
What do you most appreciate about your mentor/mentee during this experience?
Simon (mentor) - The thing I most appreciate about Yenni as a mentee is that she really does listen to what you are saying. Sometimes it can be particularly hard if you’re challenging what’s been put forward, and in our case, it was about who Yenni was as a professional, and how that was being communicated. I was very direct, but she always took it constructively and acted on the advice, not blindly, but after being really well considered; always coming back with progress, always listening and taking things on board.
I think where we have worked really well together is Yenni mentioned I’ve been quite honest, sometimes brutally honest. The great thing is that because Yenni is able to take that feedback on board and really turn it around and action it, it has worked really well. I don’t know if my approach would work with everybody, so it is about sitting down and discussing not just about the goal of this relationship, but how you are going to talk to each other, what are the parameters of that communication and when is too much, too much?
I know that the program advises that you have an ‘out’ strategy (pg.14) where you can walk away with no harm done. Luckily, we haven’t needed that; it’s working really well. But if you didn’t understand the way that I talk with my directness, and if you didn’t respond the same way, it would be a very different scenario, so take the time to work that out. (View mentoring agreement resource)
Yenni (mentee) – Totally agree, in terms of being able to take honest feedback, I think Simon does it really well because he doesn’t just tell me what’s wrong, he also follows up with guidance on how to make it better. When you have that second part, straight to the point feedback does not matter as it is followed up with how to improve.
Simon also always listens to what I have to say. I think that is really important because even though it is a mentor/mentee relationship, it goes both ways, so mentees contribute their ideas and insights and want a safe environment where they can be themselves. Simon always listens to what I have to say, and in the initial stages when I was really unclear about what I wanted to do and my ideas, I would just explain my thoughts very messily, and Simon would immediately catch what I’m trying to say and try to help me organise my thoughts.
What advice would you give to someone interested in participating in the program?
Simon from a Mentor perspective - If you are going to be a mentor in this program, I would advise you to take it seriously. It is a time commitment and you do give a lot of your time, knowledge, and experience to the other person. For it to be worthwhile for both people, you need to really want to do it for the right reasons. Think about what you are doing it for, as a mentor, and make sure you do it the best that you can do it, because you owe that to the mentee you are working with.
Yenni from a Mentee perspective - Before joining, think about what you want to achieve through joining this program and think clearly about it. Because someone else is investing their time to guide you in the process, you need to be responsible and make sure you actually put in the time to action the feedback, be proactive and try to nurture that relationship. Be clear about your own expectations and what you want out of it.
It is a really good initiative and I would definitely encourage people, especially early career academics to join the program. This is a place where you can develop in a lot of the areas you didn’t even know that you were planning to develop in before entering the program. I realised and identified these areas, and developed in these areas through the program.