A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

DIY Mentoring: Developing Personal Learning Networks

Shelley Rodrigo, Old Dominion University
Susan Miller-Cochran, North Carolina State University
Duane Roen, Arizona State University
Elaine Jolayemi, Ivy Tech Community College
Cheri Lemieux Spiegel,Northern Virginia Community College
Catrina Mitchum,Old Dominion University

Enculturation: www.enculturation.net/diymentoring
(Published: April 7, 2014)

Graduate school is sometimes compared to and treated as an apprenticeship, where faculty members prepare graduate students for similar tenure-track, research-oriented positions upon graduation. Although some students might choose to pursue similar paths to those of their faculty advisors, this analogy implies that career options are limited for recent graduates to those that look like the career choices of the members of the faculty in their programs. However, the Association of Departments of English (ADE) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) recently reported that the “master’s degree in English has acquired increased complexity and significance as a credential and route to employment in higher education, secondary and elementary school teaching, and business, government, and not-for-profit organizations” (1). In this context, academic advisors need to see their primary roles not as replicating themselves but as helping graduate students to pursue their own goals—regardless of what those goals might be, even if those goals lie outside of academia.

Indeed, James Sosnoski and Beth Burmester argue that the replication approach to graduate education is no longer sufficient and that “the traditional master/apprentice relationship between students and teachers needs to give way to a more collaborative attitude” (326). Similarly, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) affirms this principle in its “Statement on Graduate Students”: “Graduate students’ freedom of inquiry is necessarily qualified by their still being learners in the profession; nonetheless, their faculty mentors should afford them latitude and respect as they decide how they will engage in teaching and research.”

We argue for an important distinction between simply serving as a faculty advisor to a graduate student and fully mentoring a student, as the AAUP “Statement on Graduate Students” uses the term. Advising is traditionally understood to be part of a faculty member’s role in a graduate program, but mentoring—as we are defining the term—broadens the scope of a faculty member’s responsibilities to help graduate students build a foundation for success beyond the dissertation project. The first task of a mentor is to ask a graduate student, "What are your professional goals?" instead of outlining a path for that student based on preconceived notions of what those goals should be. By asking that question, the mentor can work with the graduate student to help him or her achieve personalized professional goals. Mentoring moves beyond traditional advising about coursework, research, and the dissertation project into helping graduate students develop effective tools for network-building that will help them achieve their aspirational goals, and often such mentoring means helping graduate students understand that they must develop networks of mentors that extend beyond the graduate advisor.

For example, one of the authors of this article teaches in an interdisciplinary doctoral program where many of the students come from academic backgrounds unlike those of their professors, and many will pursue professional paths (both in academia and in industry) that will be similarly distinct from their advisors. Students who graduate from the program complete academic preparation that is unlike that of their advisors because they take core courses that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. One course in the program, a class on technology and pedagogy, is required for all students regardless of their career aspirations. Each semester, at least one student in the class has no experience in teaching and does not plan to pursue an academic position after graduate school. The author’s challenge as the teacher of that course is to rethink not only the objectives of the course but also her preconceived ideas of what career paths her students might choose to make a course on pedagogy applicable to students who might choose non-academic careers. One recent student, for example, works for a firm that conducts searches for executive administrative positions at institutions of higher education, and she teaches search committees how to conduct effective searches. When tasked with the course assignment of developing a digital teaching philosophy, an assignment primarily designed for an academic audience, the teacher wanted to help her think of a connection she could make to professional aspirations. Together, the teacher and student determined that the student could construct her philosophy on LinkedIn as a profile that outlined her experience as an executive recruiter and her objectives as a trainer. Although the end result was different from many of the other digital teaching philosophies produced in the course, LinkedIn was an ideal venue for highlighting her philosophy of teaching for her potential clients so that she can reach her career aspirations. Similarly, one of the other authors teaches a “teaching writing with technology” course and recently had a doctoral student who already knew she was going to continue to be a grant writer. At the end of the term, the author and the student negotiated the final teaching-related project to focus on opportunities when the student teaches workshops about grant writing as well as the “teaching” she does as a grant writer with her clients. “Mentoring” graduate students requires a willingness to look beyond assumed expectations for academic careers to help students develop connections and produce work that will help them pursue their own professional goals.

The shift in the potential street value of an MA in English, paired with Anya Kamenetz’s championing of “Edupunks and Edupreneurs,” indicates that graduate faculty in English must stop teaching to replicate themselves. Instead, they need to help their students carefully articulate long-term professional goals, and they need to model DIY (Do It Yourself) mentoring that promotes building a Personal Learning Network (PLN), a “universe of people, texts, books, Web sites, blogs, any and all knowledge resources and relationships that help situate you in a community of practitioners” (Kamenetz 158) so that students can build individualized networks for mentoring and learning that will match their own career goals. First, as already mentioned, graduate faculty cannot possibly advise, or more deeply mentor, students for every possible career opportunity upon graduation. Second, graduate faculty will continue to grow the number of both basic advising connections and more robust mentoring connections; although most mentors do stay in touch with their students, mentors need to help graduate students expand their mentoring networks for both current and future mentoring needs. Although this is a departure from many faculty members’ expectations for advising, departments should support and reward mentoring as part of faculty members’ service and work with graduate students. In this piece, we argue why such mentoring is time well spent, and we provide suggestions for how to pursue mentoring graduate students effectively.

Theorizing Mentoring

Although we ultimately discuss using PLNs pragmatically to help both mentors and students develop networks of mentoring that are uniquely matched to goals and objectives, we first want to explore the concept of network as metaphor to theorize our model of contemporary mentoring. Gane and Beer, in their summative text about new media, divide the concept of networks into four aspects: architecture, nodes, flows, and interfacing. These four aspects of networking allow us to reconceptualize some of the issues and opportunities in mentoring: infrastructure, connections, relationships, and screening.

Network as Architecture; Mentoring as Infrastructure

The history of network as a term originates with technology networks being defined in terms of both their physical architecture as well as their rule-laden software. In the twenty-first century, when technology is so often associated with wi-fi and the Cloud, the physical architecture required to maintain Internet access and use has been erased or, more specifically, relegated to dungeon-like basements or back closets. Users are largely unaware of the physical architecture supporting their technology use and access. Mentoring has a similar challenge of invisibility.

Most graduate students will work with advisors both earlier in their careers while picking courses and later while completing their final research project; however, academic and research advising are not the same as professional mentoring. Professional mentoring asks students about their professional goals and helps facilitate experiences and connections so that students might achieve their goals. For example, one of the author’s PhD students is “location locked” and will not be leaving the area upon graduation. We have discussed a variety of professional options, ranked them, and discussed the types of scholarly projects and professional experiences to help make the student marketable for local full-time positions.

Both mentors and mentees have a difficult time identifying one another; unless someone explicitly states, “I am happy to mentor you” and/or “I want/need a mentor,” people will go about their already busy lives without giving much thought to mentoring. Research supports, however, that students with specific experiences and/or goals have specific mentoring needs and probably need help fulfilling them (Okawa), yet they might not find that help—or know how to find that help—unless mentoring is made more visible.

The results of mentoring, and sometimes even the transfer of knowledge from mentoring, is similarly kept invisible. For the faculty mentors, the work itself is often not visible, too frequently unaccounted for in tenure, promotion, and/or annual review packages (unless acknowledged officially as a thesis or dissertation committee member). We know, however, that mentoring does not take place only between official academic advisors and students; mentoring occurs in hallways and at social events, both at home institutions and at conferences. Similarly, graduate students are not regularly asked to report and/or reflect explicitly on the mentoring they receive or provide to others.

Thinking about mentoring as networked architecture asks us to make the mentoring explicit and visible. In A Guide to Professional Development for Graduate Students in English, Cindy Moore and Hildy Miller discuss the “visible” mentoring agenda, which we are calling advising, that includes “course work, assistantships, exams/thesis/dissertation, faculty advisors and committees.” Each of these advising acts has institutional recognition affiliated with it, and an established precedent for acknowledging mentoring effort. Often connected with such work, however, other mentoring is occurring, often less visible or even invisible. Carving out ways to acknowledge such invisible mentoring at an institutional level can make the work more visible, though. For example, one of the authors works at an institution that gives space on annual reviews and in promotion dossiers to outline specific mentoring efforts as part of teaching, and to place those efforts under separate headers of “Mentoring Activities” and “Doctoral and Master’s Theses.” The flexibility of the “Mentoring Activities” header allows reporting of activities that involve formal and informal mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students as well as junior faculty colleagues.

Making mentoring visible also means that both mentors and graduate students explicitly acknowledge their wants, needs, and goals, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, one of the authors worked with five undergraduate interns and researchers over a summer. Because the author also had a heavy writing agenda that summer, a graduate student also worked with the team. In the first team meeting, all members of the team took time to discuss their goals and expectations for the summer project. By knowing everyone’s wants and needs, all team members worked together more collaboratively and were able to support one another more fully. They functioned in a Vygotskian “zone of proximal development” in which the group provided scaffolding that allowed each member of the group to achieve more than what he or she could have done alone (Vygotsky 86).

Acknowledging these aspects of the mentoring relationship allowed for more explicit connections during the project and learning reflections. All parties were more publically reflective about their research and mentoring actions, becoming reflective practitioners as promoted by Donald Schön. Similarly, one of the authors always has her students begin projects by discussing their goals, both what they want to do after their degrees as well as their goals for what they want to learn while doing each project. More often than not, the students are asked to write the goals in a project proposal or reflective blog entry. The explicitly written objectives allow both the student and the teacher/mentor to return to the goals while producing and assessing the project.

Nancy Myers discusses the power of “textual mentors.” Social media and the Internet provide a proliferation of textual mentors beyond the traditional book and journal editor or peer reviewers. Our graduate students are being mentored through reading and participating in blogs, wikis, and other social networks. Although social media such as Facebook and Twitter certainly are not always serious sites of mentoring, intellectual ideas are being discussed and sincere mentoring advice delivered in those places as well as on email listservs, through other social networks such as LinkedIn and Google+, through more scholarly social networking sites such as Zotero, Mendeley, and Academia.edu, and even through visual social applications such as Pinterest and Instagram.

Making these networks of mentoring visible does not always mean making them public. Instead, developing visibility involves making mentoring networks knowable, trackable, and accountable. Information, experiences, and connections can be made visible in a defined, or mapped, network. Even if mentoring occurs in private digital communications such as through email or social networking sites, it is still knowable and trackable, thus accountable and visible if needed when a faculty member reports out on his or her work. More importantly, mentoring can, and does, occur when mentors and mentees are able to make these connections explicit, supporting Okawa’s goal of mentoring as activism. One way scholars in our own field are beginning this work of making mentoring visible and trackable is through the Writing Studies Tree project (writingstudiestree.org).

Network as Nodes; Mentoring as Connections

In The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells discusses “nodes” as locations of “strategically important functions that build a series of locality-based activities and organizations around a key function in the network” (443). When we change the focus from the network at large to the nodes of the network, the idea of the network becomes more decentered, individualized, and a “highly dynamic, open system” (501). Focusing on the nodes within a mentoring network helps remind the field that the myth of the official mentor does not work, especially if a graduate student is not following a traditional academic path. Instead, we argue, all graduate students need multiple mentors and that mentoring can happen anytime and anywhere.

Thinking of mentoring as a network of nodes makes the idea of mentoring open to anyone and infinitely flexible. It becomes easy to add nodes, and to add mentors, as needed. Much scholarship about mentoring, even in English studies, emphasizes the need for multiple mentors (Kiernan) as well as a diversity of mentors (Petrone; Cahill, et al.). Once the networking infrastructure is developed and made visible, mentees can take advantage of, and explicitly build, more nodes, more mentoring connections.

Making almost anyone a possible mentor, however, implies that both mentees and mentors are “live” all the time; social activities, hallway chatter, after-hour happy hours and/or conference social events are spaces where connections happen. Jennifer Clary-Lemon and Duane Roen discuss taking advantage of mentoring as the “serendipitous byproduct” of social events. Mentoring networks as nodes can be liberating for mentors who can share the burden and responsibility of mentoring with the entire network of nodes and remind everyone involved that no one can be “on” all the time; we are only human.

Technologically-mediated mentoring nodes can also help make the casual communication more of an explicit mentoring act. Current social networking technologies foster relatively impromptu social events such as people meeting for tweetups and finding one another in the real world through Foursquare or Google Places. Firek discusses ways that technology can facilitate mentoring, especially student-student e-mentoring through email, and also the immediacy of mentoring that email can provide (9). One of the authors has experienced how this immediacy is amplified through social networking; if a graduate student expresses distress on Facebook over the progress of her dissertation, is it imperative that the mentor respond and try to help? Furthermore, is it appropriate? And how much should the mentor help mentees consider how they shape their professional personas online? Of course, regularly asking the question, “How are you feeling about your dissertation?” allows mentors to monitor the stress of working on such a big project.

Castells reminds us that focusing on the nodes does have its problems, producing a “pattern of sociability based on individualism” (130), in other words, people seeking out connections with other people for their worth. Although one of the objectives of mentoring is to make connections with mentors based on what they know, Castells’s concern about abusing relationships is well-taken. Although it is normal for individuals to want to seek out connections with possible mentors in the field, it can certainly be done in a manner that doesn’t cross a line of appropriateness. Obviously students can ask colleagues and other mentors to introduce them; the social networking site LinkedIn forces this by not allowing individuals to “cold-friend” one another because they must be connected through other individuals or group membership. Other ways to avoid abuse might be to emphasis the “serendipity” of the connections, through face-to-face social events and/or socially networked groups. Ultimately the most effective way to avoid abuse is to emphasize building the mentoring relationship itself. For example, one author’s graduate student wanted to talk to a scholar about his work. None of her dissertation committee members personally knew the scholar. She drafted an email discussing her scholarly interests and mentoring desires, ran the email by her committee members, and then sent it to her future mentor. The well-crafted email started that mentoring relationship on positive and productive ground. The Council of Writing Program Administrators has also started to facilitate the development of such connections through The Mentoring Project and specifically the Mentor Match Program, which puts a junior colleague who requests mentoring in contact with a senior colleague who has experience in the areas of interest to the junior colleague, and who has offered to be connected with someone in a mentoring relationship.

Networks as Flows; Mentoring as Relationships

When some theorists consider networks as social structures, they discuss the flows between nodes to emphasize the depth between connections or the quality of relations. Thinking about network as flows brings us back to the idea of tracking the network and making it visible. Instead of simply mapping connections, however, focusing on the flows implies spending time developing the quality of the connections. If we use a roadmap metaphor to visualize the network, focusing on flows is about showing which connections are interstate highways versus two-lane backroads. Howard Rheingold, for example, describes some virtual social relationships as weak and detached and others as strong and intimate.

Thinking about mentoring in terms of developing networked flows means strengthening the quality of connections and the building of relationships and community; in other words, focusing on flows or connections is focusing on socialization. Thinking about mentoring as flows in networks helps make mentoring an active, repetitive building of relationships and community that socializes graduate students.

Shulamit Reinharz explains that “socialization is not merely the transfer from one group to another in a static social structure.” It is not just making connection to new mentors, new nodes; but, instead “the active creation of a new identity through a personal definition of the situation” (374). In other words, it is through robust, active relationship building that a mentee’s new identity emerges. Jerome Manis and Bernard Meltzer add that socialization is “a product of a gradual accumulation of experiences of certain people, particularly those with whom we stand in primary relations, and significant others who are actually involved in the cultivation of abilities, values, and outlook” (168). Robust relationships—deep network flows—develop over time with continued, quality connections between mentors/nodes.

Thorton and Nardi identify four stages of socialization and role acquisition: anticipatory, formal, informal, and personal. Like Moore’s and Miller’s “visible agenda,” mentoring activities in the anticipatory and formal stage of graduate socialization can include taking a class or workshop or reading scholarship. Every time the graduate student works with that instructor or reads, writes, and/or teaches with that scholarship, she strengthens the mentoring relationship or flow. Thorton and Nardi’s informal and personal socialization is also important, however, and it requires mentors and mentees to be ready, available, and taking advantage of connections. John Weidman, Darla Twale, and Elizabeth Stein provide further examples, claiming that during the informal stage mentees learn through “behavioral clues” and observing “acceptable behavior” (14). Building relationship flows is certainly not only quantitative; without the ability for repeated access and connections, strong, intimate relationships cannot develop.

Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia, as well as Castells, remind us that “weak ties flourish online.” Mentors and mentees that might have connected only once a year at a conference can now develop more robust mentoring relationships with repetitive interactions enabled through various communications applications (e.g., email, listserv, audio and visual meeting software such as Skype and Google Hangout) and social networks. Using various networked technologies provides mentees with both access to more mentors/nodes as well as more opportunities to connect and build relationships/flows. Online journals and scholarly wikis also provide opportunities for readers to reply and interact more deeply with authors and the content. Various online communities and their “add friend” options provide that many more possibilities to connect and to keep interfacing.

“Weak ties flourish online,” is a double-edged sword; it not only means that mentoring relationships have the opportunity to develop between the rare face-to-face interactions of the individuals involved; it also means that a high number of weak, not fully developed, mentoring relationships can emerge. When faculty are constantly reminding their students and untenured colleagues to protect their time, spending time developing a large number of weak connections is not beneficial to either party. Although we argue that graduate students need to expand their mentoring networks, they obviously need to do so with care.

Networking as Interfacing; Mentoring as Screening

In networks, the interface is the actual connection between two or more entities, more often than not referring to the connection between the flesh and the machine, humanity and technology. Castells discusses a specific network interface, the switch connecting networks. He claims switches are “the privileged instruments of power. Thus the switchers are the power-holders. Because networks are multiple, the inter-operating codes and switches between networks become the fundamental sources in shaping, guiding, and misguiding societies” (502). Nicholas Gane and David Beer draw on Sherry Turkle’s observations to remind us that “interfaces are not just portals or ways into different systems, but are phenomena that play an active role in structuring the use of, and perhaps even emotional attachment to, new media technologies” (67).

In The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture, Mark Taylor discusses screening both in terms of seeing something, but also in terms of filtering. The screen as interface allows someone to see something, but it also filters out “noise.” Thinking about mentoring in terms of interfacing allows both mentors and mentees to acknowledge mentoring as screening: interfacing with what is needed and filtering out what is not. For mentors, thinking about mentoring in terms of screening means thinking about how to filter all of the casual and official requests for mentoring—how to focus on which mentoring opportunities will actually result in stronger relationships, or flows. Focusing on screening helps mentors and mentees to make sure productive “weak” relationships “flourish online.” For mentees, mentoring as screening becomes a challenge: how does the graduate student stand out from the rest of the available nodes, break through the noise and be visible to the mentor?

The growing number of communications technologies and the methods with which faculty and students are constructing PLNs represent one of the major technological advancements in mentoring as screening; the PLN is the mentoring interface, or screen.

Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)

PLNs draw on the individualized educational idea of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) describes PLEs as

the tools, communities, and services that constitute the individual educational platforms learners use to direct their own learning and pursue educational goals. A PLE is frequently contrasted with a learning management system in that an LMS tends to be course-centric, whereas a PLE is learner-centric. . . . A typical PLE, for example, might incorporate blogs where students comment on what they are learning, and their posts may reflect information drawn from across the web—on sites like YouTube or in RSS feeds from news agencies. While most discussions of PLEs focus on online environments, the term encompasses the entire set of resources that a learner uses to answer questions, provide context, and illustrate processes. (ELI, 7 things PLE, 1)

As a learning philosophy that asks students to take responsibility for their own learning, PLEs are useful tools for graduate students who should be making the professional shift from guided student to do-it-yourself scholar. The shift from LMS to PLE represents the same philosophical shift graduate students make from being graduate students to independent scholars. Both LMSs and the classes that they represent are usually constructed to provide a more uniform, scaffolded learning experience. PLEs are meant to allow the individual learner, or socializing graduate student, to identify his or her own learning goals and to then connect to environments that facilitate learning.

Although technological components are not required to construct a PLE, Teemu Valtonen et al. remind us that most scholars emphasize that PLEs “are typically described as a collection of different [Information and Communications Technologies] ICT tools and software, usually social software, to foster self-regulated and collaborative learning” (732). In other words, although a traditional paper portfolio might represent some of the connections and learning that occur, an electronic PLE, which includes communications applications, can both represent as well as facilitate the learning.

Digital networking technologies allow individuals to build PLNs as opposed to PLEs. Although both are designed with the focus of making learning individualized, Theresa Carter and Jeffrey Nugent describe PLNs as “based on the premise that learning occurs through interaction with multiple people and in multiple contexts through virtual communities” (226). In other words, the use of the term network emphasizes the interactions with people, the relationships, and the mentoring that can occur in these environments.

PLNs Make Visible the Mentoring Infrastructure

In practice, most PLNs include a central hub that allows the learner to reflect on his or her learning. The hub must have the technological ability to upload, embed, and/or link out to other digital/digitized artifacts and applications. In most cases, the central location of the PLN is an application where the learner can write and reflect; a technology that enables longer texts—often blogs or wikis. Blogs and wikis also allow learners to easily upload materials, embed information from other locations, or link out to resources they cannot embed. The ability to link to other resources within PLNs or other materials out on the Web facilitates a robust, non-linear representation of what is hopefully a robust, and usually non-linear, process—mentoring.

These hubs are the main locations that allow for mentees to make visible the where, when, and how of their mentoring. Within the reflective spaces, mentees can post initial goals: educational, professional, and mentoring as well. Lois Zachary, in The Mentor’s Guide, provides a work plan for mentoring goals: “1. Identify the learning goals and success criteria; 2. Lay out the objectives; 3. Identify the learning tasks; 4. List potential resources; and 5. Set a target date” (151). Students can include note taking from their textual mentors and the traditional visible mentoring in classes.

Part of redefining the role of the mentor in graduate education is to rethink what “counts” as scholarship and scholarly work in the academy. The PLN can be a place we ask mentees to explore and experiment with their scholarly work, possibly collaborate as well. To expand the various ways of defining scholarship, we draw on the work of Ernest Boyer, who reminds faculty and administrators in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate that there are four equally important kinds of scholarly work: (1) the scholarship of discovery, (2) the scholarship of application, (3) the scholarship of integration, and (4) the scholarship of teaching and learning. We extend these categories beyond traditional sites of scholarly inquiry to argue that graduate students might pursue scholarship in multiple ways beyond the tenure track. In other words, not only do we agree with Boyer’s expanded definitions of what “counts” as scholarship within the academy, but we also believe that the categories Boyer defines can be reinterpreted and extended to sites of scholarly inquiry outside of the academy. Additionally, we argue that the categories Boyer defines are not discrete, and many scholars find that the most effective way to engage is to pursue projects that cross these boundaries. In our mentoring we try to help graduate students contemplate their own possibilities for scholarship while promoting broad definitions of scholarship in our own writing and speaking (see Bush, Maid, and Roen; Maid and Roen; Miller and Moore; Miller, Rodrigo, Pantoja, and Roen; Roen, Maid, Glau, Ramage, and Schwalm). Further, we have encouraged graduate students to think beyond traditional conceptions of scholarship.

The reflective and hypertextual aspects of the PLNs resemble texts we already ask graduate students to develop: professional portfolios and CVs.

PLNs Facilitate Mentoring Connections

PLNs expand with resources and applications linked out from the organizational and reflective nodes in the hub. Many individuals include social networking applications, like Twitter and Facebook, as a portion of their PLN. There is also an increasing number of professional and academic social networks like LinkedIn and Academia.edu. Applications labeled as “social networks” are not the only social applications; many other applications that at first seem focused on another functionality, like saving bookmarked Web pages in Diigo or archiving images and videos in Flickr and YouTube, also have social networking functionality at their core. Many contemporary Web applications, commonly referred to as Web 2.0 applications, include user profiles and the ability to add friends or connections. Even Mendeley, a newer reference tracking application like EndNote or RefWorks, includes basic social networking features like profile, contacts, and groups. The social networks allow for an ever-expanding network of people and potential mentors.

The tagging and RSS functionalities in many content managing and curation applications provide similar opportunities for networking between ideas and resources. Most of the information repositories—blogs, social bookmarking, image and video sites—include the capability to tag individual elements with representative and organizational terms. As individuals continue to add to their repositories, the connections between tagged resources allows for students to see a growing network of ideas and themes between resources. Further, if the repository application allows tags to be aggregated across user accounts, connections between resources expand exponentially. In most cases, once items are tagged, users can subscribe to an RSS feed of any new content associated with that tag. Students will be notified of new items that their “friends” add to the repository. Instead of waiting for someone to publish an article to see a bibliography, mentees might track their mentors in the reading and thinking about a given topic.

Both the inherent linked nature of PLNs, as well as the social and conceptual networking capabilities of many of the applications included in PLNs, naturally make PLNs a space for making connections. Mentees can use their PLNs to take advantage of serendipitous by-product mentoring of social and professional events. Instead of just meeting a colleague and potential mentor, mentees can go back to their PLNs and plug in contact information and “friend” or “connect” with the individual within the various networks. Mentees can then see what processes and resources those new mentors are currently working through. Mentees can also see what groups new mentors are members or “fans” of and consider joining or following. Needless to say, however, this type of connection making, or node building, can get wildly out of control.

In “7 things about PLEs” ELI acknowledges “personal learning environment is an evolving term, one without a single, widely accepted definition. Even as defined here, the concept remains somewhat amorphous, made up of disparate resources—including people—often beyond the boundaries of the institution or the user, that can come and go, creating a lack of continuity” (ELI, 7 things PLE, 2). One of the authors blatantly confesses the inability to keep up with all the social networking and RSS feeds. To be productive, mentees, probably mentors as well, need to be both strategic about making digital connections, as well as organized in maintaining them. Most social networks and RSS feed readers allow users to design various types of filters to help organize all of the information flowing towards them. Mentees might group feeds according to a given topic or as connected with a certain project. Having pre-determined goals helps mentees to grow and to maintain their connections made through their PLN while keeping them manageable.

PLNs Screen Mentoring

The entire PLN is the interface, the screen, for mentoring relationships. In other words, mentors and mentees don’t only need to plan, track, and reflect upon mentoring within the PLN. They can actually do the mentoring activities within the PLN. Besides serving as technologies that make connections, most of the applications used in various PLNs foster communication. There are synchronous applications such as instant messages, MOOs and MUDs, as well as audio and video meeting applications such as Skype and Google Hangout. However, PLNs excel in fostering asynchronous mentoring communications. Email, discussion boards, and reply features in online publishing venues, such as blogs and many online periodicals, allow for alphabetic communication. Applications such as Flickr and Pinterest provide users with the ability to comment around and on top of images. Similarly, the social bookmarking application Diigo allows users to post location specific “sticky” notes on a Web page; these notes can be turned into conversations among users. Mentors and mentees can exchange traditional voice mail messages; however, applications such as SoundCloud not only allow users to record messages, but users can insert comments, as well as replies, at specific points within the audio file. Similarly, VoiceThread allows users to stop at specific points within a video and comment. And although most of these applications are Web based, many of them also have “private” options. Just because most components of the PLN can be public, doesn’t mean they need to be. However, by conducing mentoring in these environments, many of the communications are still archived in a way that allows the mentor and/or the mentee to track the relationship and learning.

The various types of filters in PLN technologies not only help mentors and mentees keep some communications private, but also help both parties screen out noise and undesired content. The same social media and online content filters mentioned above to help organize content also screen out information overload. Although all the authors are likely to say “yes” to a social network friend request from a colleague or graduate student in the field, it doesn’t mean we have the time to constantly read and respond to all posts. Managing flows of information also allows mentors to pay closer attention to closer mentees, like students who have asked them to be on committees and those from their home institutions. Mentors need to know what their screening processes are and inform their mentees accordingly. For example, although her students have friended her in various social networks, one author explicitly tells her students that email is the best medium of communication to get a response—even if it is to say “I’ve got a new blog post I would like for you to read.”


If we accept the premise that our students might want to prepare for and follow career aspirations that do not mirror our own, and if we accept that our role as graduate mentors is not simply to replicate ourselves but instead to help students identify their own goals and develop plans of action for meeting them, then we must follow a strategy for helping our mentees who might aspire to be different from what we experienced in our own graduate work. We’re called upon to explore uncharted territory.

Understanding mentoring as network-building helps mentors and mentees imagine an array of possibilities for developing effective mentoring relationships, and provides a framework for understanding how mentoring can grow, expand, and shift over time. Mentoring relationships can cultivate through formal and informal means, and the network metaphor helps mentors and mentees imagine a multitude of avenues available for developing PLNs, individualized to help meet specific career and aspirational goals. As much as we would like to share guidelines for faculty and/or students on how to develop rich mentoring relationships; instead, we have to remind readers of the DIY title: Do It Yourself. There is no checklist nor secret handshake. Instead there are commitments to mentoring and being mentored, constantly screening possibilities, making connections, developing relationships, and building infrastructure. The anecdotes of the mentoring relationships in the timeline below demonstrate the multitude of paths mentors and mentees can travel to find and work with one another.

Developing PLNs for networking requires that both potential mentors and mentees be transparent about their professional wants, needs, goals, and constraints. Mentors can acknowledge that they would like for everyone to succeed; however, they are limited in their time and resources and have their own professional agendas. Students can be honest about their professional goals, and mentors be accepting of those goals, so that mentors and mentees can more quickly identify the benefits of working together. On some level, being transparent as a mentor means acknowledging that the mentor gains from the relationship as well; many of the mentoring moments mentioned in the timeline circulate around events where both the mentor and mentee are fulfilling some professional need. Sometimes mentors and mentees might work together on scholarship, other times they might both learn more about something new, they may even reach out to new mentors together. This transparency is potentially more than just with new mentees, but being transparent as a professional and a scholar to welcome mentoring relationships.

With such vast differences in how mentoring can grow and develop, however, we need a common framework through which we can measure the effectiveness of a mentoring relationship. In Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professoriate, Charles Glassick, Mary Huber, and Gene Maeroff, offer criteria for assessing success in scholarly work that are adaptable to a variety of definitions of scholarship: (1) clear goals, (2) adequate preparation, (3) appropriate methods, (4) significant results, (5) effective presentation, and (6) reflective critique. We argue that effective mentees can use these six criteria as a heuristic for DIY mentoring and also as a measure for its success. To start, mentees, sometimes with the help of certain mentors, could answer the following questions:

  1. What are the graduate student’s (not the mentor’s) goals?
  2. How can the mentor help the graduate student prepare to achieve those goals, not the mentor’s goals?
  3. What are the most appropriate methods that the mentor can use to help the graduate student achieve those goals?
  4. What significant results would provide evidence that the graduate student/former graduate student has been successful in achieving those
  5. How can the mentor and the graduate student effectively communicate success to those who have traditional notions of success?
  6. How can the mentee effectively reflect on the mentoring so that it becomes even more helpful in the future?

In the name of transparency, mentors may want to reflexively explore the six questions as well. By answering these kinds of questions, mentors and mentees develop working plans for mentoring and only need to incorporate a list of deadlines and deliverables, including a planned date and time for when both the mentor and mentee will revisit their goals and reflect on the mentoring relationship’s progress. In short, it is not enough to meet a mentor and hope that by being “friends” that professional knowledge will rub off. While talking about how to maintain a scholarly persona in social media, Clay Spinuzzi specifically mentions the need to have goals and a plan. Mentees need to take responsibility for identifying what they want to learn and then negotiating with mentors when, where and how they will learn it. By making this mentoring plan public in the PLN, the mentee holds herself, and her mentor, accountable for the work.

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