Q & A

Mentoring is not handholding; sometimes it's pushing students out the door and getting out of their way.

Peter J. Brown

Professor of Anthropology and Global Health

Peter BrownPeter Brown is the recipient of the 2014 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. He joined Emory in 1978 and is one of the three founding members of the Anthropology Program. He teaches in both the Anthropology Department and the Hubert Department of Global Health in the School of Public Health and is the director of the Center for Health, Culture, and Society. He also serves as a senior academic adviser for the Emory Global Health Institute. 

The Academic Exchange: What influenced you to become such an active mentor? 

Peter Brown: I’m fascinated by anthropology, which means I’m fascinated by people, and students are pretty amazing, interesting people. I particularly enjoy watching an undergraduate develop over four years, or a graduate student over six to ten years. Getting to know them and helping to shape their intellectual development is a pleasure. I don’t think of mentoring as work; it’s part of my job that’s not a burden, but it can be very time consuming. I tend to focus more on graduate students, because our relationships are longer, and they don’t always end when someone gets their doctorate, particularly if someone is doing work in my field. I was at a meeting of the Society for Medical Anthropology and noticed that out of eleven people listed on one of the boards, four were previous students of mine. 

AE: What components are needed for a successful mentoring relationship? 

PB: Mentoring is really just an old-fashioned human relationship. For the mentor, it’s partly being a sounding board, partly being a cheerleader, partly giving students a little kick sometimes. The trick is just appreciating them as individuals. If I’m your mentor, I’m not necessarily your friend; we don’t hang out together. But I’m going to take your work seriously and talk to you as a peer. I’m going to respect you and not be condescending or overly judgmental, and I’ll let you know when you’re on the wrong track. The important thing is that students know you’re in their corner. Another part of mentoring is helping them create more independence, just as in teaching. For undergraduates in particular, I want to help them become more confident thinkers and writers. Mentoring is not handholding; sometimes it’s pushing students out the door and getting out of their way, [perhaps by saying,] “Wow, that’s a very interesting question; come back and tell me the answer when you find it.”

AE: What purposes does mentoring serve in higher education? 

PB: Undergraduate education has a lot to with broadening a student’s worldview. Those four years are really transformational and often difficult, and it’s important for a student to feel comfortable enough to talk to a faculty member. At the graduate level, that’s often mutually beneficial, because graduate students are doing all sorts of fascinating work. Faculty can become really overly focused and narrow—and rather boring—if they don’t work with graduate students. When I’m mentoring graduate students, it’s a challenge to keep up with all of the things they’re doing, so I have to read more about other areas of study and research just to keep up with them. To me that’s a real perk of mentoring. It keeps me sharp. Also, I know a lot from the literature that existed before electronic search engines. Knowing that part of intellectual history is something a mentor can provide beyond the myopia of looking at only what has been published in the last year or two. Helping students understand the longer view of intellectual discourse is important. 

AE: How do you deal with students who blur the professional/personal boundary of a mentoring relationship? 

PB: You can make the mistake of getting too close to students and letting them push you around. Students are grown ups, and you’re not responsible for their actions. If they don’t meet deadlines or the like, they need to face the consequences. I have avoided parenting frameworks and metaphors, but there are sometimes similarities—maybe like a helpful uncle. I don’t want them to think of me as their metaphoric grandfather. A mentor is not a psychological counselor, but a student should feel free enough to tell you about personal problems, particularly if they affect academic performance. You can listen to a student complain about pressures they’re feeling from home, or talk about something as fundamental as telling their parents they’ve decided to become an anthropology major. That’s a regular discussion. I had that very dilemma as an undergraduate myself. Part of mentoring is listening to those kinds of concerns and giving advice, and that comes with the territory in any human relationship. 

AE: What advice do you have for younger faculty interested in mentoring?

PB: Get tenure first before you invest too much in mentoring. Sometimes there’s a danger for a junior faculty member to spend a lot of time and effort mentoring students but at the risk of not getting their own work done. I think that’s one reason why mentors tend to be older professors. They’ve made a reputation for themselves in their field and can afford to be more generous with their time. Junior faculty can be mentors, but because it can be so satisfying they need to keep their priorities straight.