Not a fix-it shop: Making mentoring productive

Prem Phyak, PhD Scholar  in Second Lang. Studies, University of Hawaii, USA

In this blog post I discuss some strategies that can be helpful to make mentoring more productive and goal-oriented. Drawing on my own experience working as a writing consultant/tutor for the Writing Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for two years, this post focuses on how to make mentoring more interactive, grounded/bottom-up, and collaborative rather than top-down and authoritative.

Starting the conversation

One undergraduate student came to the Writing Center and asked whether I could help him. “Yes, I am available now”, I said. After we introduced to each other, I asked what his problem was. He said, “I want to write a research paper for my political science class. But I am struggling to identify a topic. I am worried because the assignment is due next week.” His face was telling me that he was procrastinating and finding no way to move forward.” 

First, I was perplexed how I could help him as he was not sure what he was going to write about. Second, I was not sure what the student was expected to write in his  research paper. I began our mentoring session by telling him that every student faces the same problem. I gave my own example; I quite often do not know what I am going to write in the early stage of my writing projects. As the writer was in the early stage of writing, I thought that it would be better to help him understand what he would feel comfortable to write about. I thought that he should first understand his own areas of interested. So I asked him what topics the course that he was taking were included and what topics he found interesting. I also asked him what kinds of readings are included in the course. He mentioned various topics such as globalization, indigenous history, gender issues and social movements. “Then what areas you are interested in,” I asked him. I am interested in “immigrants rights” and “labor rights”. Wow! Our discussion is leading the writer close to the topic of his paper. I asked him why he was interested in these topics.

He revealed that he knew many immigrant friends and families who had hard times to settle down into the local culture and systems. He further said that they were not receiving many facilities such as education, health and so on due to their legal/illegal status. “It’s a fascinating topic to write about,” I said. “What particular geographical area(s) you want to focus on? Which group of immigrants?” I asked him. He said that he knew many Mexican and Filipino friends and families. After that I asked him what the goals of writing his paper could be. He was silent for a while. “I am not sure, but your goal might be to explore discriminations against Mexican and Filipino immigrants in the USA,” I mentioned. “Oh yea, I read an article about how immigrant children are discriminated in terms of their language and culture,” he said. “That’s great! Do you remember the author,” I asked. “I don’t remember now,” he said.

After that I told him that I also knew some articles  related to immigrant politics and history and promised to share some articles with him (which I did later). “So what would be your topic then”, I asked him. Based on the previous conversation, he now feels comfortable to work on Mexican immigrant politics and discriminations. After that I asked him to write what he wants to accomplish in the paper i.e., the objectives of the paper. “Objectives? I do not know any,” he said. I  told him that “Objectives can be anything that you want to pursue while writing this paper. For example, you might analyse the history of Mexican immigrant politics and discrimination in the USA. You may be willing to explore Mexican immigrants’ views and perspectives about education and health system in the USA and analyze in what ways they feel discriminated.” Until now, we are able to identify a topic and started talking about the objectives of the paper. But the thirty-minute-session is already over. I asked “Did you find our discussion useful? We can talk about other issues in other sessions.” He said that he would come early next week with a draft paper.

Writing for effective communication

The writer and I met again to talk about what he wrote. First, I asked him to read the first paragraph aloud and found some major issues in the first paragraph. I asked him what the thesis statement was. Although he had introduced the topic quite well, his thesis statement — which describes the main idea of the paper — was not quite explicit. After working on the thesis statement, I read through other paragraphs, which were excellent in terms of language correctness. However, I could see that there were some issues such as lack of organization, topic sentence and explanation of the data. While reading through each paragraph we stopped at the point where we realized more work was needed. How about rewriting this sentence (pointing a particular sentence) in another way? How about explicitly mentioning what you are going to discuss in the paragraph? Are you sure that the paragraphs are related to each other? These questions were helpful for both of us to identify the issues and revise each paragraph.

Another major problem in the paper was lack of supporting details (see Oshima & Hogue, 1997). In some paragraphs the writer had very strong arguments, but he missed to bring into data or references to support his arguments. At some point there were data, but they were not quite relevant to the main idea of paragraphs and the topic of the paper. We also discussed how to use appropriate cohesive devices to make the paper more comprehensible. While he had a very good understanding about the topic and made very relevant and strong arguments, at some points, the  transition between two paragraphs were not smooth. When we read through the paper, we also worked on creating different transitional sentences. While reading the paper, I was also pointing out the good points in the paper. The writer was able to demonstrate his ability to critically examine both arguments and counterarguments and make his own point of views. I frequently said “Wow! Great point! I learned a new thing. Your professor might like this.”  Acknowledging mentees’ strengths creates an opportunity for mentors to ask the writers more questions about their arguments. For example, I often asked the writer “Right.. you say this, but what other people might think about what you are saying? How does your ideas relate to real life situations?”

Not a fix-it shop

If not done properly, mentoring might turn to be a fix-it shop, where a mentor is expected to fix his/her mentees’ problems. For this reason, I am little critical about the whole notion of mentoring that  builds on the binary distinction between mentor and mentee based on their different roles. This means that mentors are expected to repair their mentees’ issues with their little (or lack of) engagement in the mentoring process. In other words, mentees do not actively participate in the mentoring process while they are focused more on the product. What I am trying to say now is that the mentor-mentee binary distinction does not help mentees become a sustainable learner, who can identify their own problems and collaborate with their colleagues or peers or teachers to address them.

In the above example, I was trying to pull the writer into discussing issues associated with his own work by asking different questions. My intention was not to test his ability rather to engage him in interaction. However, asking questions may not always work. I was giving him some examples and providing alternative ways to what he had already written. My experience shows that the mentors’ questions to their mentees should not be abstract and technical rather they should be concrete and general that generates further ideas which the writer might find useful to add onto his/her works. Asking very general questions might be very useful to establish a good mentor-mentee relation (Maldarez, 1998). For example, I have asked my mentees (including the one mentioned in this post) how they are doing on their studies; how they feel about writing; what kinds of books they like to read; and how many classes they are taking. One cautionary note, however, is that mentors should make sure whether their mentees enjoy being questioned. Asking questions might also impose the mentors’ authority over their mentees.

Don’t teach; collaborate

Mentoring is not synonymous to teaching a class in that teachers make most of the plans about what students are expected to learn. In other words, teacher authority is invested in teaching. While I cannot deny the fact that teaching can be part of mentoring (depends on how we teach), my experiences tell that teaching has narrow scopes while mentoring opens up space for collaboration and further explorations. In the above example, I was collaborating with the writer in two ways. First, I was providing him resources and second, I worked with him throughout the semester (the example mentioned above is the beginning of the story — I have not included the full story due to space limitation.). Investing time, energy, and expertise on mentees’ works develops a sense of collaboration. Collaboration can also be developed in each interaction.

As mentioned above, mentors can ask further questions about what their mentees have written or thought to write about. Taking something as a granted does not help in finding spaces for collaboration with the mentees. Being skeptical shows mentors’ curiosity to learn more about the topics of discussions and their willingness to help mentees better develop their projects. Some frequent questions I asked my mentee were: So what? Can you tell me more about this? Can you write what you just said in your paper? These questions always helped my mentees interact meaningfully and develop further ideas that enrich writing their research papers, argumentative essays and any other projects. Collaborative interactions are open for criticism, dismissal of ideas, and  acceptance of multiple alternatives (Barrett, 2000). It is not unusual when mentees disagree with mentors, but mentors should  make sure whether mentees are clear about what they are trying to say.

Collaborative interactions do not entertain unequal power relations. As mentioned above, mentors should not think that their mentees have to follow what they say. Attentive listening helps a lot to minimize mentors’ authority. This means that by allowing mentees to talk first might be helpful to understand what they want to achieve. Questions such as Why are doing this project? Who are you audience? What are the other closely related topics of your project?, I found, can trigger mentees to think and talk more about the topic. However, mentors should remember that there are not any definitive answers to any questions. I frequently asked my mentees “what do you think about this and that ideas?” Moreover, mentors can also say that they do not know much about mentees’ projects and they want to learn from them. In the above and other mentoring sessions, I have always acknowledged the fact that I learned so many things from my mentees.

Final thoughts: Build on what students know

Co-learning in mentoring is possible only when mentors build their conversations on what their mentees’  know and are able to pursue. Rather than making a hasty judgement on their works, mentors should always try to understand what background knowledge mentees have and how they are going to utilize that knowledge in their own works. This process helps mentors understand what support their mentees need and how they can collaborate to achieve common goals. The above example illustrates that engaging mentees in interactions unravels many useful information that mentees can use to accomplish their objectives.

The language used by mentors is always critical in shaping the nature of interactions with mentees. Mentors should know what language mentees feel comfortable to use. The use of mentees first language is always desirable, if mentors can also use those languages. Young mentees benefit much more than adult mentees if mentees’ first language is used in mentoring. Quite related to this issue is the use of simple and plain language during interactions. Complex sentences and jargons make interactions further complex and both mentors and mentees cannot reach to a logical conclusion. To conclude this post, I argue that mentoring never becomes a learning space if power relations between mentors and mentees are not equal and mentees are not engaged in understanding what their responsibilities and strengths are. In other words, mentoring is not simply about sharing what mentors know about  various topics that mentees are interested in rather it is about collaborating each other in planning, organizing and accomplishing tasks and projects.

Mentoring goes beyond classroom and draws on socio-cultural, linguistic and academic resources that both mentor and mentee have collected in their lives. This implies that while the end product is always the goal, a rigorous process which includes communication, research and intercultural skills is the most important aspect of mentoring. With this theoretical understanding, mentors should not consider mentoring a fix-it shop but an open learning space for both mentor and mentee.


Barrett, T. (2000). Studio critiques of student art: As they are, as they could be with mentoring. Theory into Practice39(1), 29-35.

Malderez, A. (1998). Mentor courses: A resource book for teacher-trainers. Ernst Klett Sprachen.

Oshima, A., & Hogue, A. (1997). Introduction to academic writing. Longman.

Prem is a PhD Candidate in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii, USA, where he also teaches the undergraduate Bilingual Education course. He is also a lecturer at the Department of English Education, Central Department of Education, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Prem’s current research interest includes bilingual/multilingual education, community and school-based language policy and planning, sociolinguistics, critical pedagogy, and youth and community engagement for social equity.

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