You know they are just going to use it to cheat.

This was the response I received when I first asked to pilot a new program within Office365, Microsoft Teams, at my university. I was taken aback by the comment and did not quite know how to respond. I was just an adjunct instructor at the time and did not want to make waves, so I decided it was better to end my inquiries. That initial comment, though, still haunts me to this day.

The reason for its lingering effect, you may wonder. Within that one, off handed phrase—like the Greeks encased within the wooden horse waiting to slay the Trojans in their sleep—lay a host of troubling assumptions about students. To our detriment as teachers, we often begin from the assumption that our students are misguided, misinformed, and mischievous, shaming them for their lack of understanding and professionalism. And, unfortunately, I find the tangential supposition often at play in higher education: that our job is to correct students, providing them an example of right thinking that they can replicate.  Like one of my mentors who would always leave the breakroom to teach by saying, “I’m off to correct student misconceptions,” many teachers, myself at one time included, ground our student interactions in correction, guiding them away from their wrongheadedness toward a more enlightened perspective: our own.  

In this article, I will discuss how I personally combated this academic shame by adopting a pedagogy of mentorship, an educational philosophy I developed based on my time in the corporate world. This pedagogy of mentorship runs tangential to the important work done on pedagogies of care and empathy, resonating with the concepts of wholistic educational interactions advocated by Maha Bali, as well as Jesse Stommel’s call to reject the unyielding, uniform, mechanical nature of traditional pedagogies. This mentorship centered pedagogy, developed upon the principles of corporate mentorship, sees the purpose of the mentor/protégé relationship not as corrective or replicative, with the student becoming like the teacher, but rather missional, with the mentor helping the protégé discover and reach their professional goals.

To quickly allay any fears that the word “corporate” may have produced, I would like to clarify that I am not advocating for the “student as customer” mentality by suggesting that we incorporate corporate practices in higher education. Instead, I am proposing an equitable shift in the relationship of teacher and student that uses language and principles adapted from business practices. Such an adaptation, while empowering students, does not pose a threat to academic or programmatic integrity.

Academic Shame

While I am sure almost no instructor would likely admit to purposefully teaching from such a framework, both anecdotal evidence and quantitative studies suggest that students perceive a framework of shame based correction as the foundation of educational interactions, particularly when it comes to writing instruction. In their article “Student Shaming and the Need for Academic Empathy,” Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield demonstrate the adversarial nature of the teacher student relationship in the writing classroom, quoting study participants who felt as “if my teachers set me up to fail and [they] take pleasure in that failure,” with the authors calling for a “direct reframing” of our inner narratives about students. Unfortunately, the shaming of students often moves beyond the classroom, with faculty engaging, in the words of Sharon Lauricella, in the “dark undertaking” of shaming students publicly through social media. To my own humiliation, I must admit that I have personally participated in several of the toxic shame cycles Bayers, Camfield, and Lauricella describe, such as chuckling at student writing errors mentioned to me in the copy room, remaining on a text message thread where instructors were complaining about student papers, or laughing at lists like “30 Times College Students were so Dumb, They Surprised Their Professors.”

While some—such as Richard Reeves, as well as Julian Friedland and Benjamin M. Cole—have argued that shame plays an important sociological role in mitigating risky behavior, its use in the educational milieux has engendered detrimental effects on students. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It is no wonder that June Tangney and Ronda Dearing’s longitudinal study of the effects of shame on school age children (ongoing but discussed in their book Shame and Guilt) demonstrates a connection between educational shame and a host of, what they refer to as, “bottom line” behaviors in young adults, such as drug and alcohol use, risky sexual behavior, and suicide attempts (134-5). Outside these empirical studies, the effect of such shame based interactions can be seen on social media as students turn to the public to find compassion, such as the thread “‘The Cruelty Is Just So Shocking’: People Are Sharing 30 Times They Had To Deal With Mean Professors.”

The solution for such a wide-spread and injurious problem? Despite the ubiquity with which I see the aphorism “fight fire with fire” used in our world, shaming shamers, in my own experience, does not produce true transformation and change. Like Brown, I believe the use of shame as a corrective tool “is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.” Bayers and Camfiel are indeed correct that we as teachers need to undertake a “direct reframing,” yet I suggest we extend their idea of reframing our narratives about students to a larger paradigm shift in our understanding of the student teacher relationship.

The Barista, The Bank Teller, and The Teacher: A Pedagogy of Mentorship

Before my professional employment in higher education, I worked in a management role for both Starbucks Coffee Company and Bank of America. Despite the arguments of those like Cecilia Chan and a host of anonymous posters on online blogs,  working for a large, multinational corporation is certainly not a prerequisite for being an outstanding faculty member in higher education, yet I have always felt that my time in the business world has been invaluable for diversifying my understanding of how my field—technical communication, programmatic administration, and literature—fits into a larger context. It was amidst the smell of freshly brewed espresso and the hum of electronic currency counters that I learned how the skills I gained through my coursework can create stronger businesses and communities, producing commercial growth through equitable, professional relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.

Corporate mentorship, as defined by Ellen Ensher, is a two-way relationship in which the mentor acts as one in a network of professional relationships that helps the protégé make progress toward their professional goals while the protégé offers a fresh perspective to the mentor by virtue of their lack of experience. This outcome focused relationship centers on the goals of the protégé rather than those of the mentor. Far from becoming a copy of their mentor, the protégé is instead empowered and equipped to reach their own professional aspirations. This dynamic represents an inversion of the typical relationship of teacher and student, placing primary importance on the learner’s objectives rather than the teacher’s. While researchers in higher education administration and theory have discussed at length the values and liabilities of outcome-based assessments of programmatic efficacy, virtually all researchers begin with the assumption that those outcomes and objectives should be drafted by the educator, not the student. By its essential nature, the kind of corporate mentorship described by Ensher calls the efficacy of this assumption into question.

During my time in the business world, I found this protégé outcome focus best foregrounded by the questions my mentors asked me. Despite the broad difference between retail food service and finance, my mentors at both Starbucks and Bank of America would ask me questions in which the pronouns revealed the trajectory of our mentoring relationship:

  • What are your goals?
  • How do you see your passion for writing helping you reach your goals?
  • What support do you need to bring together your background and the current business focus?

The destination of our mentoring relationship was not what my mentor thought I should become but rather who I wanted to become. And, as noted by Susan Murphy and Ellen Ensher, the contrasting nature of my  and my mentor’s skills and experience, versus homogeneity, made for a stronger relationship, with our dissimilarity forging new perspectives (20).

A successful mentoring relationship in which the mentor empowers and equips the protégé to reach their own professional ambitions follows a two-step structure.

  1. Relationship Building: To set the trajectory of this two-way relationship, effort must be made for the participants to learn about each other’s interests, skills, and goals. By building a professional rapport through active listening, mentors can ensure that they are not pressuring their protégé to pursue their objectives rather than their own.
  2. Skill Development: After discovering their protégé’s professional goals and objectives, mentors begin to share their experience and build their protégé’s skills through three support modalities:
  • Task Support offers the protégé applied skills, critical feedback, and                                            professional introductions, all of which are framed as stepping stones towards the protégé’s professional goals.
  • Emotional Support builds confidence in the protégé as the mentor speaks words of hope and possibility that encourage the protégé to continue pursuing their professional aims.
  • Role Model Support provides practical examples of placing skills into action, with the mentor modeling what they believe to be the most important professional attributes needed for the protégé to reach their professional objectives.

Through this kind of mentorship, I personally found my place as an English major in the business world. There were days when I felt ill prepared to take on a million-dollar store budget, manage and train a team of over thirty employees, or correspond with federal agencies about banking compliance. As I sat at my desk in the back of my local Starbucks or at a table in a bank vault, I would often feel the weight of shame sit in the pit of my stomach. Yet when it came time to meet with my mentors, their commitment to task, emotional, and role model support dispelled that shame, contrasting with the compounding shame experienced by so many students’ interactions with their instructors.

It was with this kind of professional mentoring relationship in mind that I set out to address the shame so often felt by our students. Through careful adaptation of my experience with corporate mentorship practices, I have begun to implement a pedagogy of mentorship in my classroom, reorienting the purpose of the course by taking my course outcomes and subordinating them to the objectives of my student protégés. In doing so, I empower students by seeing them as driven professionals rather than, at best, unprofessional and misguided armatures.

A Pedagogy of Mentorship Enacted

Before I unpack how to enact these ideas in our classrooms, I want to address self-criticism that surfaced during my own attempt to incorporate mentorship into my course design and student interactions. In her New York Times article “U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This,” Molly Worthen deftly articulates the dangers of the erosion of professionalism, as well as professional boundaries, within higher education. She specifically notes how such a relaxed attitude puts particular faculty in a more compromised position, namely women and minorities. While at first glance it may look like I am advocating for a less professional attitude toward the student/ teacher relationship, I am in fact suggesting a lateral transition, one in which we simply redefine the relationship based on professional standards found in the business world rather than those that have traditionally dominated education. Such a change, rather than decreasing professionalism, helps define and enact examples of equitable professional relationships based on mutual and reciprocal respect and benefit, the goal for all professional interactions.

In addition to this concern, the question of scalability and sustainability of such a pedagogy weighs heavily on my mind, particularly as questions of adjunct faculty workload and equitable employment practices come to the forefront in higher education. At first glance, implementing a pedagogy of mentorship seems like it will add a heavy load to faculty who are already overburdened. However, I found that my transition required more mental reorientation, a reframing of what I was already doing, rather than extensive curricular revision or additional labor. By using the two-step structure and three support structures of corporate mentorship as a guide, I transformed the focus of my educational efforts from my own ends to those of my student protégés:

Relationship Building

Building relationships with students begins with demonstrating that we care about their dreams, goals, and objectives. This can be challenging because past educational experiences have likely taught them that their teachers are more concerned about their own objectives rather than theirs. The following are practical ways I have found to build a relationship with my students, leading to successful mentorship:

Ask Questions about Them: The orientation of a professional relationship can be gauged by the pronouns used during interactions. Take advantage of the “get to know you” period at the beginning of a course to ask about their goals and dreams. Rather than being a perfunctory activity of “syllabus day,” these interactions can set the tone for a successful mentoring relationship. Outside the first day, you can keep this dialogue going by using a discussion form in your school’s LMS, or in a communication management tool like Microsoft Teams, Google Slack, or #GroupMe.

Video Conferences: Although COVID-19 has made most of us sick of video conferencing, the truth is that digital office hours have made us available to some of the most marginalized students, such as trans-national students who may be from cultures that privilege oral communication over written communication. Through video meetings, I have been able to mentor parents with newborns at home, students who work full-time, and those who are immunocompromised and cannot travel to campus.  While we cannot be, nor should we be, available 24 hours a day, video conferencing via scheduled meetings can help build relationships with a wider range of students.

Skill Development

As a teacher, one of my greatest joys comes from seeing my students use the skills they have gained to change the world around them for good, whether that be through landing that first job out of college, taking a position as a volunteer, or pursuing further education. Through task, emotional, and role model support, I equip them for those transformative tasks by subordinating my course outcomes to their professional goals in the following ways:

Task Support

  • Couch criticism of submitted work in light of the protégé’s career ambitions. For instance, if I know that a student wants to work as a technical writer for the aviation industry, I will critique their work with that user in mind. This leads to feedback such as, “This is a fairly dense paragraph in the middle of your instructions, which could be hard for a pilot to follow if she is pressed for time. How can you use bullets, tables, or graphics to help her process this information quickly in the cockpit?”
  • Include a “job skills” section on your syllabus, outlining the valuable skillsets students will exercise through your course. I have found that listing both hard skills and soft skills helps my students see how the course content relates to their career aims.

Emotional Support

  • Speak words of possibility and hope to your students, whether that be in person or through digital message.  Let them know that reaching their ambitions will take time, but that they are on the right track. You can also share your own career journey, mentioning any times you may have doubted yourself or your chosen path. To remind myself to send these messages, I keep a class roster on my desk, checking off the names of the students as I message them.
  • Post open jobs on your class discussion board or send them out through email, even if you know your students are not ready to apply. Seeing that there are jobs out there and they would qualify for those jobs one day cultivates optimism and positive anticipation.

Role Model Support

  • Live out the compassionate, consummate professionalism that you know your students will need to obtain their professional goals. This can be accomplished by practicing active listening. By interacting with students in this way, we teach them how to critically engage with future employers.
  • Be willing to share past fears, doubts, and even failures where appropriate. One of the best places for this role model support comes in the summative statement we often give at the end of a graded project. Such transparency, I have found, works wonders for professional composure as my students realize that we all worry about our careers.

Will these changes magically fix years’ worth of educational assumptions that birthed the, “you know they are just going to use it to cheat” mentality? Likely not. Yet adopting a pedagogy of mentorship will reshape our perspective of students, allowing us to see them as emerging professionals that we can encourage to take from our courses the tools they need to reach their professional goals.

And I believe that such an aspiration is well worth our effort, in part, because of the way that mentorship played such a vital role in helping me reach my own professional goals. If it were not for those pivotal relationships at Starbucks and Bank of America, I would have never had the courage to pursue a graduate education, nor would I have ever fully understood how a humanities education could provide mission critical skills for the corporate world. I will forever be grateful for my mentors who have helped me reach where I am today, and my mentorship of my students is one very small way that I can thank them for their investment in me.