Describing the Ineffable: A Mixed-Methods Study of Faculty Mentoring Information Practices

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Formal mentoring programs are a valuable tool for the professional development and socialization of new employees, and for the mentor. However, formal mentoring is often difficult to institutionalize. What are the indications that mentor and mentee should be split up? How often should mentoring partners meet? These questions and others highlight the problem: without a clear definition of mentoring itself, we are challenged to identify the characteristics of good mentoring. Mentoring is so contextual, and generally so private, that it is difficult to define. However, there is one element that is central to all mentoring relationships, and that can be used to describe mentoring explicitly – the exchange of information. The study described here consists of a longitudinal, mixed-method investigation of mentoring attitudes and practices among higher education faculty, with the goal of gathering data about the information practices – information seeking and sharing in a social context – of faculty engaged in mentoring. The study identifies the information practices of faculty who are engaged in mentoring, as well as how those information practices change across time. Faculty were surveyed about their attitudes toward mentoring, using an online instrument. The respondents provided data about their experiences with mentoring, including aspects such as the frequency of their meetings with mentoring partners, the topics they often discussed, the number of years they had worked with mentoring partners, their expectations of their mentoring partners, and their personal philosophy of mentoring. Faculty mentoring participants also completed an online diary of their mentoring information practices. The information diary provided an opportunity for faculty mentoring participants to share their information practices in real time, without requiring a prohibitive amount of effort. Data analysis shows that faculty mentoring participants do engage in information practices, such as seeking or sharing information regarding the specifics of the work environment, with the goal of transmitting culture (e.g., the requirements to achieve tenure). Both mentors and mentees value honest and open communication with their mentoring partners. Examination of the information exchanged between mentoring participants gives us a sense of what topics are most likely to be addressed, and also recommendations for new mentors and mentees.