Innovative Mentoring – Mentoring Innovatively: 10 Years Later

David Roberts, July 2011 at Manchester’s Tea Cup and Cake.

I’ve been thinking, this first week of not teaching in the 2020-2021 academic year, about my friend David Roberts – his mind, heart, soul beauty. In thinking, I’ve been reading essays I wrote because of his invitations and conversations, especially a series of them for his cooperative blog Societal Innovations, which offers this tagline: Thoughts and ideas for an optimistic future. Yes, that’s our David.

And of the three posts I composed for David 10 years ago, the one I’ve reblogged here resonates in two ways:

  • Had 2020 been an ordinary year, I’d have spent September in England and Wales, hanging out with friends while attending conferences, roving, and writing. Had that time unfolded in ordinary ways, I’d have been in attendance at David’s funeral service – grieving with friends the unexpected death of this extraordinary human.
  • Instead, in September 2020 I began teaching in unordinary ways, keeping David in mind while striving to teach for an optimistic future, and holding David in my heart while thinking about mentoring as I’d set it out in that essay –

When I think about mentoring I don’t think about mentor, mentee; about issues and problems; about external mandates. I do think about mentoring as people sitting together out of some common bond, interest, curiosity, accidental circumstance who imagine what could happen, what we each and together might make possible because we took time to talk, listen and imagine on our ways to making something in the world happen – new, anew.

Now in that optimistic future I imagined with David, I know as a mentor what I learned as a mentee: it is possible for people to move from teachers-learners to peer thinkers, to friends who draw on those spaces in shaping a lifelong, lifewide journey. Not just possible, but necessary for the futures we now imagine.

Innovative Mentoring – Mentoring Innovatively

During the drafting of this post, David Roberts and I talked about mentoring as part of a wide-ranging video conversation, then I read his September 1st post which, from a conversation with Philippe Lukacs, notes these “Three Requirements for Societal Innovation”:

  1. Accept the value and potential in each and every human being.
  2. Search for mutuality among both people and organisations.
  3. Learn to appreciate more nature and the environment (which I find myself recasting as “Learn to appreciate more the variations in human nature and the daily impact and opportunities of social and natural environments.”)
Mentoring isn’t moon over tower, it’s the sparkling lights working together.

Yup, I thought, with the small twist of wording noted above, my 54 first cousins were innovative mentors: value as ethic, mutuality as mode, appreciative as mindset, future thinking as focus, creativity as norm, history as those interactively and distinctly functioning vertebrae that held us up but we guided to new places by other nerves, tendons, bones, flashing bundles of neurons.

Because of the 48 cousins I grew up knowing well, I was pretty much mentored weekly, if not sometimes daily, through exhortations and examples that seem now fall into two slightly distinct and simultaneous categories:

  • just get over yourself: stop being scared or deferential – just make a decision;
  • just get on with it, a more positive spin of number one: you know what, how and why to do something so get to it with actions based on who and where you are engaging – just get on with doing it.

There was another twoness I learned in the richest of these interactions, the ones where the two involved both took on roles of “being a mentor” and “being a mentee.” An interaction that I now call simply “mentoring” (or when I’m with graduate students, “peer mentoring”) as I see mentoring for innovative, creative just futures as a process which engages all the players in:

  • learning (asking what I’d now call “generative questions”)
  • listening (with flux in why and when one acts in a “designated listener” role)
  • synthesizing (discussion are marked by transitions and points of closure that includes as sort of inventory of what’s been said – and what’s been “not said,” those errors of fact or understanding, ignored perspectives, smothered/oppositional views)

My first non-family mentor appeared, of course, thanks to one of my cousins who tapped a cousin from another family whose administrative assistant role allowed me access for setting up an interview with the college president for my college newspaper tryout: Networking 101. Got the interview. Got the job. Started my first college term with the college president who walked the talk of every faculty member being an active mentor to undergraduates as a mentee, who also set me on the path of multiple mentoring.

Happily Dr. Douglas R. Moore also did not subscribe to a conventional definition or enactment of “mentor.” That conventional definition being something like this: a trusted counselor or guide; role model, counselor, advisor, teacher, nurturer, friend, sponsor who is generally older and of a “higher” rank or stature than the mentee with the purpose of being engaged in mentoring as a “civilizing process” that involves passing along skills, expertise, insight and wisdom.

Like my cousins who carried on as active – rather than accidental – mentors in my life Doug Moore saw three traits:

  • the reciprocity,
  • the tripartite asking-listening-synthesizing as key to acting and envisioning, and
  • the absolute necessity for multiple mentors in any one life.
    Athena – at the Louvre, 2012.

He also taught me to pay attention to how Athena functioned as mentor / Mentor in Homer’s The Odyssey. As a reminder: heading to battle, Odysseus charges his friend Mentor to guide, support and nurture his son Telemachus. Mentor as mentor / Mentor does little to fulfill his duties. It is Athena – in the guise of Mentor and in several other forms across the poem – who actually mentors Telemachus.

Athena as Mentor is a mentor, is she who acts from multiple, overlapping, simultaneous – interdisciplinary, interconnect – ways and brings to the enterprise, the exchange these embodiments:

  • cool, prudent courage;
  • excellence in arts and crafts – trumpet, flute, pot, rake, plow, bridle, ship; cooking, spinning, weaving: home, hearth, community;
  • willful strides as goddess of justice – a goddess of war with spear, aegis
    “going towards the awful strife” with an intended to restore order, to elicit courage, to be guided by circumspection, to enact the goddess of peace role;
  • deft manifestations of self as appropriate to the role for each discrete interaction;
  • pursuing generativity – choosing to see potential, to build on talents/skills in existence, collaborates in searching for best in people, builds from learning as a process of change, is directed by movement toward a future in the making rather than being guided solely by a past that needs extending.

In this redirecting, mentor was no longer only – or always or importantly – Mentor: male, older, higher ranking; nor did mentor have to be situated in a mentee’s workplace or habitats; not did it require transfer of skills, and guidance into existing structures; or matched to the mentee at behest of a common superior. And that “Athena as mentor ” was an Athena in multiple embodiments in her interactions with the one Telemachus with his multiple human questions and quests. In these aspects, Athena conveys the idea of multiple mentoring and Telemachus of the human with multiple, simultaneous and overlapping identities, as articulated by the Combahee River Collective.

For innovative mentoring, I find myself now thinking of a writing assignment framework from teaching in the 1980s – the “I” Search paper: “a personal research paper about a topic that is important to the writer. An I-Search paper is usually less formal than a traditional research paper; it tells the story of the writer’s personal search for information, as well as what the writer learned about the topic.”

“I” Search is about inquiry, ideas, issues, insights, inklings, inadequacies, inappropriateness, insecurities, incivilities, insistencies, imagination, information, ideals, intricacies and intimacies. An “I” Search is not about problem solving but about problem posing, which involves queries and quandaries that need sorting and understanding and prioritizing and discernment and judgement – hopefully in a judicious, perceiving mode rather than a condemnatory, pernicious mode.

Mentoring as “I” Search – calls forth “I” as individual, institutional, instructional, innovative and insightful, calls forth mentoring that joins humans in generative collaborative searching so that the participants are able to

  • think in new ways about social, political, cultural, educational and personal structures and institutions
  • seek new options, frameworks, partners, alliances, means and modes of personal and collective action
  • “quest for new ideas, images, theories, and models that liberate our collective aspirations, alter the social construction of reality and, in the process, make available decisions and actions that weren’t available or didn’t occur to us before”
  • engage the anxiety of dealing with real concerns, rather than to cover it over with positiveness or postponement or suppression of expressions of dissent – making room then for discussions that address hurt, anger, injustice, despair

When I think about mentoring I don’t think about mentor, mentee; about issues and problems; about external mandates. I do think about mentoring: as people sitting together out of some common bond, interest, curiosity, accidental circumstance who imagine what could happen, what we each and together might make possible because we took time to talk, listen and imagine on our ways to making something in the world happen – new, anew.

Minerva – once adorned the Walker Art Gallery roof in Liverpool.

In “Homer’s Mentor,” Andy Roberts posits that an 1699 French publication by François Fénelon’s, which extends the Odyssey story to the then contemporary moment, offers an enactment of Mentor as providing the wisdom, the support, the nurturing and the guidance” not found in Homer’s Mentor. In Fénelon, it is Minerva – Athena’s Roman counterpart – who assumes “almost exclusively” the role of Mentor – again, making mentor is a woman who transgresses shapes, roles, forms, circumstances to collaborate with another shaping action into the future.


Alexander, Ilene, Josh Casper, Douglas Ernie, Jane O’Brien, and Lawrencina Oramalu. SUCCESS for Faculty Mentors & Graduate/Professional Students. University of Minnesota, 2010.

Bushe, Gervase R. “Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About The Positive.” OD [Occupational Developer] Practitioner 39. 4 (2007): 30-35. (Downloads PDF.)

Stanley, Christine A., and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Cross-Race Faculty Mentoring Change, 37.2 (Mar-Apr 2005): 44-50.

Originally posted at Innovative Mentoring – Mentoring Innovatively – some links in the original are broken; I’ve made updates in this “Truth of Things” version.

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