Mentors and masters

Telemachus_and_Mentor_cropIn the epic poem the Iliad, Odysseus was absent twenty years; first at war and then wandering on the long route home. Meanwhile his son Telemachus grew to an adulthood. Having pity on the basically fatherless youth, the goddess Athena disguised herself as an old man, took on the pseudonym “Mentor”  and became his guide.  For the novice in creative and experimental fields finding an appropriate mentor with experience and the willingness to advise seems almost essential.

Choosing a mentor often starts around college age as students seeking to further their experience in creative and research fields search for someone of standing that they can relate to  and latch on to. But mentors are real people, not deities that have set themselves up as guardians. Why would they want to enter into this kind of relationship? One obvious answer, is for the ego boost.  It is a great self-esteem builder to have someone select you as their role model, especially in fields where success is based on subjective judgment. Second would be a desire to maintain quality of creative work in their  area. However, a voluntary mentorship takes time away from the mentor’s own productive work, so this kind of relationship is not widespread.

Often mentorships are organized  programs in upper levels of education.  The tendency in many Master’s level creative writing programs is for the instructor to essentially perform the duty of a mentor among a small hand-picked group. Mentors unlike instructors, can only work with a few individuals, making this kind of relationship in education elite and partial (Churchman 1984). This may also lead to marginalizing those individuals that differ from the instructor. The Iowa Writers Workshops were initially promoted as collaborative. But by members own account, the weight of  praise and criticism came from the instructor. These workshops were also know for being male dominated (Bishop) .

However, look into another field, such a s science,  and slightly differing models for the mentor appears.  Male science field students tended to choose mentors who had distinguished themselves in the field and rarely chose a female mentor. While the female seem to be split in their criteria, with some seeking professional expertise and others concerned with the interpersonal aspects of the relationship. The females often preferred a mentor who provided encouragement (Dowdall, 1979).

Those who reached the highest acknowledgement in the realm of science, the scientific Nobel laureates,  were familiar enough with their specific domain that they selected both the university and potential mentors  “doing work at the frontiers of the field” (Zuckerman’s 1977). They did not just receive knowledge from mentors but also a socialization into the culture science that helped the students discern what the scientific community viewed as important problems and sophisticated solutions.

It is that socialization, basically an introduction into the tastes and sensibilities of the domain, that seems to be the driving force for most creative individuals seeking mentors,  no matter what field.

Illustration “Calypso receiving Telemachus and Mentor in the Grotto” by William Hamilton – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –
Bishop, Wendy. “Teaching undergraduate creative writing: myths mentor and metaphors” Journal of Teaching Writing .pp 83-102
Churchman, Deborah. “Fertile Times for Creative Writing: More College Courses Every Year.” New York Times 8 Jan 1984: 42-43
Dowdall, Jean. 1978. “Mentors in Academe: the Perceptions of the Protege”, American Sociological Association Annual Meetings
Zuckerman,  Harriet. 1977. Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, New York, The Free Press
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