Some Thoughts on Mentoring

Roger Hiemstra

[Parts of this material are adapted from Hiemstra, R., & Brockett, R. G. (1998). From mentor to partner: Lessons from a personal journey. In I. M Saltiel, A. Sgroi, & R. G. Brockett (Eds.), New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (No. 79; pp. 43-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.]


What is mentoring all about?


This piece was written about the mentoring-mentee relationship that Ralph and I have had for the past 22 years. It has come to mean much to both of us. In fact, the whole issue referenced above is devoted to answering the question shown in the heading for this section.


In terms of our learning and wanting to work together, it initially meant Ralph seeking help, advice, guidance, and a partnering relationship with me. Then over time it meant that I found synergistic value in working with Ralph that went beyond just helping a doctoral advisee work through his program and dissertation. Finally it has become a real partnership, colleagueship, and friendship where synergy is personified and our writing products have become so much more than they would have been if either of us tried to tackle them alone.


This relationship evolved naturally and incrementally out of mutual respect for each other's ability. The relationship was accelerated because of three reasons. The first was the fact that we shared a common interest in self‑direction in learning from the beginning of our relationship. Ralph's dissertation was on the topic and to date we have completed considerable co‑authored scholarship on the topic.


The second was that Ralph worked directly with me as a graduate assistant for the first two year's of my tenure at Syracuse University. This enabled us to work together on various activities, including my editorship of Lifelong Learning, some co‑teaching, and co‑presentations at conferences.


Third, Ralph joined the Syracuse University faculty upon completion of his dissertation in 1982. This enabled us to begin the process of collaboration on various program and scholarly endeavors. During the two years that Ralph was on the Syracuse University faculty, we began talking about more ambitious writing projects, one of which became Self‑direction in adult learning (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991). In addition, we have co‑authored several book chapters, co‑edited a New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education sourcebook (Hiemstra & Brockett, 1994), and have another co‑authored book due out in early 2003 (Brockett & Hiemstra, 2003).


Over the years we have developed a working relationship that is maintained via phone calls and electronic mail. Frequently, we send initial scholarly ideas, chapter, book, and conference paper outlines, and drafts of written materials to each other electronically. This facilitates fairly quick revisions and finalizing of such material.


However, we work best whenever we are face to face. We try to spend a day or two prior to or after at least one national conference each year on our mutual scholarly activities. Whenever possible, we travel to each other's homes for one or more days, especially when we need to finalize some aspect of a writing project. This time together is especially important in that our thinking and writing styles are quite similar. It is not unusual for one of us to finish the other person's thought. We usually can improve upon each other's initial stabs at putting down an idea or writing a paragraph. Occasionally, when one of us becomes stuck on an idea the other one can stimulate the thinking anew by trying out some new angle.


Roger's Story (Note: To read Ralph’s story, go to the New Directions piece described earlier)


If you are a Charlie Brown fan you know that Snoopy usually starts out his perennially rejected manuscripts with "It was a dark and stormy night." Well, my and Ralph's relationship actually began about that same way. My wife and I arrived in Syracuse on a late afternoon in March of 1980 for my set of interviews for a position there. We made our way to a Holiday Inn near the campus to await my activities that were to begin the next day. About 3 a.m., we were awakened to a howling wind and looking out the window saw a horrendous snow storm in progress. I said to Janet that I doubted many of my interview activities would take place that day.


However, when I exited the hotel at about 7:30 am, there was Ralph Brockett awaiting me in his automobile to escort me on my travels around campus that day and ensure that I did indeed make all my appointments despite the heavy snow. Thus began a relationship that has developed into one of mutual respect, admiration, and genuine friendship.


He noted immediately, before we even got to campus, that he was familiar with my publications, I suppose a wise thing to do with someone who may become your teacher, and that he was especially interested in my work with self‑directed learning. Sort of incidentally he also noted that he needed a permanent advisor and dissertation chair. I did not think much of it at the time, with other things on my mind, but he did not forget.


Upon my arrival at Syracuse University the next fall semester, Ralph was assigned as my graduate assistant and as one of my doctoral advisees. He served diligently and conscientiously as a graduate assistant and exhibited a maturity that was immediately obvious. He noted to me fairly early in the semester that he wanted to pursue the professorial route and so we fairly easily developed a mentoring relationship. I don't think it was anything either of us really understood in terms of what could develop, but my respect for Ralph's abilities quickly turned into his assuming increasingly larger responsibilities in helping with departmental administrative needs.


Within a year, I was asking Ralph to take responsibility for a few of my class sessions or to lecture on certain topics in my courses, to carry out some research related to my responsibilities as editor of Lifelong Learning, and to help me plan for future graduate program efforts. I also encouraged Ralph to undertake some of his own scholarly efforts and we began some initial thinking about and planning for his dissertation.


Ralph was also instrumental in the development of what became known as the "weekend scholar" program, an off‑campus graduate program that ran for several years and met the graduate training needs of hundreds of people in several Upstate New York cities. After completion of his dissertation, Ralph was hired as an assistant professor at Syracuse University and he helped to coordinate and teach in one of these weekend programs. During this period we had an opportunity to co‑teach some courses, further enhancing our respect for each other's abilities.


Ralph's dissertation, as noted earlier, was on self‑directed learning and it eventually resulted in several scholarly projects for Ralph. During these writing efforts, Ralph often sought my advice and feedback. My admiration for Ralph's research, writing, and editing abilities grew continuously, and we soon engaged in our first co‑authored publication work with another person (Brockett, Hiemstra, & Penland, 1982).


Unfortunately, Ralph was not on a tenure‑line track at Syracuse University, so he left in the summer of 1984 for a position elsewhere. However, our partnership continued and we found it fairly easy, although distance obviously constrained us, to work together on various writing projects and conference presentations. We have continued our mutual interest in self‑direction in adult learning, but have also added a shared curiosity in the broad topic of ethics and how humanistic thought as well as other belief systems play a part in determining the ways adult educators make ethical decisions.


We have stayed in close contact over the years in various ways. I was delighted this past summer to be able to travel to Tennessee with my wife for Ralph’s second marriage. I was further honored to have been asked by Ralph (and Mary) to even participate in the ceremonies. I anticipate that my story will continue for many years to come to be filled with interrelationships with Ralph.


How We Work Together


What began as a fairly typical mentoring relationship, has evolved into a true partnership built out of mutual respect and admiration. Although the majority of our collaborative efforts are on scholarship, we also use our close friendship to talk about personal relationships, occupational trials and tribulations, and other topics that simply need a second opinion. On at least one occasion for each of us, the other has been able to provide very much needed moral support when a personal crises was underway.


We are on opposite ends of many of life's continua with Ralph loving rock music and professional hockey and Roger loving barbershop music and gardening. But we also share a real passion for pizza, our children, and the adult education field. We have never had a real disagreement over any topic or situation, although we frequently nag each other when one of us falls behind on a writing deadline. Each of us will say that the other is one of our closest friends.


We usually begin most writing or conference presentation efforts by one of us asking if the other would like to be involved with some idea we have. We don't always take each other up on it because our hectic lives often run on different schedules, but we do more often than not. We both know that any mutual effort will be better than if it were done alone.


As we noted earlier, whenever possible we try to get together face to face one or more times a year because such times generally accelerate our writing progress. A favorite way to work when we are together is for one of us to sit at the computer keyboard and the other to start talking, frequently from an outline, about the topic at hand. Synergism usually takes over at this point and the sentences flowing out regularly improve as each other has his say. We often take turns doing this, so the ideas can benefit from different points of view.


For example, during the initial efforts to develop expanded chapter outlines, create some of the actual writing, and prepare notes on needed references, quotations, and supportive material for our most recent book (Brockett & Hiemstra, 2003), we stayed one extra day after a conference and completed most of the writing in the manner described above. Then we traveled to the airport to await out planes, we found an outlet near a restaurant for my laptop, and finished the process, including making notes on the next steps for each of us. An extra diskette for the other to take home completed the process as we both use similar computers and the same word processing software. In essence, that is an example of how we always keep each other informed on our separate progress on a writing effort by either working together, sending emails, sharing computer files, or making personal phone calls.


Potentials and Pitfalls


From my experience, there are a number of potential benefits from a productive mentoring relationship:


1. You reap the benefits of synergism and synergistic relationships. In reality you get better products, your thinking is enhanced, and you grow tremendously from the process.

2. There is always the potential that a mentoring relationship will develop into a real friendship as did ours.

3. You can model the potential of mentoring for others. For example, Howard McClusky (a professor of adult education at the University of Michigan for more than 50 years) served as my mentor and I received a good understanding of the value of the mentoring process. I, in turn, have tried to model for others how good mentoring can work.

4. You will be able to come up with many new ideas; this is made possible by the thoughts and experiences of two people working together and it has the potential of furthering or enhancing your field of interest.


There also are some possible pitfalls in developing a mentoring relationship:


1. There can be real time constraints in terms of getting things done, coordinating the combined efforts, and even in communication, especially if the two people live a distance apart.

2. There is always the possibility that the mentee will become too dependent on the mentor and not grow and develop professionally at a normal rate.

3. There is always the possibility that one of the persons in a mentoring relationship could take advantage of the other person in various ways.

4. It is not impossible that at some point in the relationship for whatever reason, hard feelings or jealousy could develop. Fortunately, that has never happened in the relationship Ralph and I have had.

5. There are various kinds of difficulties that could exist (real or perceived) or develop if one person is male and the other person is female, so the parameters of the relationship should be established early and checked frequently.


Cultivating a Mentoring Relationship


Following are some thoughts I have on how to cultivate and maintain a positive mentoring relationship. Some of them have been adapted from the work of Farber (1995).


1. Be selective; study those you admire and respect first before seeking to establish a mentoring relationship.

2. Don't be afraid to ask a person to become your mentor but recognize ahead of time that time commitments and other factors may prevent the relationship from beginning.

3. Be persistent and tenacious in building an initial relationship into one where mentoring is involved, but know when to back off if it simply is not working.

4. Be specific about what kind of a relationship you desire with a mentor.

5. Be willing and eager to work on mutually beneficial activities and follow through on responsibilities.

6. Realize that most people enjoy being asked to begin a mentoring relationship, even if they are not able to do so for various reasons.


Finally, remember that the way to return thanks to a mentor is often through becoming a good mentor to others and passing through the sharing of skills. I have watched with considerable pride as Ralph has not only become an excellent mentor to many people, but that he has surpassed me in so many ways in what he has been able to contribute to the Adult Education field.




Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self‑direction in adult learning. New York: Routledge. Available electronically: /sdlindex.html

Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (2003). Toward ethical practice. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Brockett, R. G., Hiemstra, R. & Penland, P. (1982). Self-directed learning. In C. Klevins (Ed.), Materials and methods in continuing education. Los Angeles: Klevins Publications.

Farber, B. J. (1995). Diamond in the rough. New York: Berkley Publishing Company.

Hiemstra, R., & Brockett, R. G. (Eds.). (1994). Overcoming resistance to self-direction in adult learning (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Available electronically: /ndacesdindex.html


September 10, 2002