Academic Mentorship in the Zoom Era: The AC Survival Guide Continues!

Dear Kim,

Happy belated International Women’s Day!

One year ago, I was sitting in a bar in Toronto, having beers with a friend. We were chatting waiting for food when my eye was drawn to a TV hoisted in the top corner of the room. The news ticker announced that the University of Toronto was temporarily shutting its doors due to COVID-19.

Like watching a wave roll onto the beach, I stared at the TV – intrigued, confused, a little nervous: one by one, the universities closed.

COVID-19 in Canada: Virtual Town Hall | CBC News special - YouTube
A television program that could not have existed on CBC a year ago.

That night was the last time I was in a bar.

Shifts in mentorship haven’t been a major talking point in pandemic-academic (pancademic, anyone?) circles. But the structures of mentoring have taken a major hit this year.

Mentors and mentees have been enveloped in a cloud of increased labour, affecting everything from availability and scheduling to emotional space. Virtual conferences curtail chatting between sessions or at events, making it hard to maintain or forge informal connections. One-on-one meetings are relegated to zoom or the phone, adding a formal and time-sensitive element to conversations, both official and casual.

All of this adds up to loss: of intellectual growth, of professional development opportunities, of community building, of human connections.

A lot of us are feeling the effects of this loss. I miss being able to meet with mentors in person. I miss forging connections at conferences. I miss humans that aren’t in my “bubble.”

But, when I reflect on the year, I am also struck by the mentorship opportunities that have emerged: an increase in free, widely available, online sessions with high profile speakers, hosted by artistic and academic communities; the generosity of colleagues who have noticed a new face on a zoom call and reached out via email to offer “zoom dates” or resources; friends who have slid in to co-mentorship roles, wherein parties of similar rank and experience discuss professional development and mentor each other in areas of strength.

Which brings me to my question for the week: As the dust of the pandemic starts to settle, where do you think scholarly mentorship is headed? Where would you like it to head? Is there anything we can take with us from this strange time? Anything we should leave behind?

– Kelsey

***

Dear Kelsey,

A year ago, I was on a VIA train, heading home from my Thursday teaching at Western (in London, ON) to my home in the Hamilton area. We were somewhere between Brantford and Aldershot, rocking along through the still-cold winter night, when a text came through on my phone. Western was going virtual for the remainder of the semester.

VIA Rail cancelling all Canadian trips until further notice | Urbanized
Train riding, a novelty of the past (and future?)

That was the last time I was on a train, the last time I performed my otherwise-routine commute.

The question you pose is one I’ve been thinking a lot about: what should we bring with us from the pandemic world to improve our academic labour in the future? (Assuming this pandemic ends anytime soon… and I’m a bit skeptical, to be honest.) What should we leave behind? I read a piece recently that argued we need to bring back in-person office hours (yes, agreed), and in-person department meetings (REALLY??). But that feels like the tip of the iceberg to me.

Let’s start with the mentorship piece you raise.

I’m more often than not a mentor, rather than a mentee, now that I’m mid-career and fairly senior at my school. I feel the many stressors of this time that you so aptly highlight: I don’t like Zoom meetings very much, and I find sitting and talking for a set period of time, through screens, with my ongoing bad-lighting-weird-shadows Zoom issues constantly distracting me, really agitating. (THANK YOU for the “hide self view” tip btw – SO GREAT!!)

So I’ve begun strategizing around how to make the experience better, less Zoom-y, and I’ve decided to implement a new strategy: NO VIDEO.

This is an extension of my already-popular “Zoom dog walks,” in which I take office hours while walking Emma the Dog, using my nice new noise-canceling headphones. I head for a local park, minimizing sidewalk distractions, and when the weather is nice we just sit on a bench for the chat.

Following the lead of Emma the dog, as ever.

No video is a requirement for these walks, more often than not, and I’ve found that my mental landscape opens when I’m talking and looking around me, at the world, rather than at a screen. (We already know Zoom is a deadening environment, on purpose – our affect is flattened and often digitally edited, making creativity, for me anyway, harder on Zoom.)

A couple of weeks ago I tested this IRL: I held a student meeting (part lesson, part mentoring session) in person, and we did social-distance walkies with Emma while discussing the relationship between theatre and history. We couldn’t look at each other (SOCIAL DISTANCING) and so we looked ahead, behind, around; again, I felt the warmth of the sun and the attention I was paying to my footfalls a helpful way to expand my thinking. My brain was wandering, in a good way.

COVID-19 pandemic: Tips to remain 'sane and safe' during social distancing  | 2020-03-18 | Safety+Health Magazine

Colleagues in other fields, who have to Zoom even more than we do (I KNOW CAN YOU IMAGINE AAGGHHH), tell me that no video is increasingly the norm for their work – nobody can tell if you’re stretching on a yoga mat, lying on the floor looking at the ceiling (or the sky), or multitasking (ok, so maybe I don’t advocate this, but… sometimes it’s a thing. #departmentmeetings). There’s freedom – including freedom to think, to be in the moment, to move in and out of the moment as needed.

So, back to your question.

What I want to take with me, from the mentoring landscape of COVID, is just this: voices in my ears, my attention wandering just enough to spark creativity, and my body moving, gently, to help light that spark. This can happen on the phone, on Skype, on Zoom, on WhatsApp… or in person. It can happen with colleagues around the world, or it can happen with students IRL, walking along the river valley apart-together.

Maybe this is why I yearn for the return of in-person-style office hours, and why I have no interest whatsoever in going back to sitting in a lecture hall for those monthly department meetings.

– Kim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s