My mentor, Christopher Knapper, recently turned 80, a milestone worthy of celebration and reflection. Here’s what I’ve learn about mentorship from one of the best.
Let finding a mentor and becoming one happen. Should you look for a mentor or someone to mentor? I’m not sure. I do know that naturally formed mentoring relationships can can result in life-changing connections, and that doesn’t usually happen when the relationships are arranged. I wasn’t looking for a mentor when I first contacted Chris. Having just been hired to head a fledgling faculty development program, I needed help. I happened onto an excellent review of the literature on teaching and learning. On a fluke I wrote the author, told him the article was useful, and asked for further references. He replied—in a three-page, single-spaced letter packed with references, advice, and an invitation to attend the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference. I met Chris there.
Mentoring evolves out of connection. At the conference, Chris took me around. He appeared to know everyone. We talked. I asked questions and told him what I thought. He asked questions and told me what he thought. We connected. Early on I did not think about Chris as a mentor; he was more like a helpful colleague. But we kept connecting. I became a regular at the STLHE conference. At some point Chris and I stopped attending the big banquet and opted instead for dinner and extended conversation. Still later at a STLHE conference in Calgary, we decided to skip a day and drive up to the Rockies. When I got back, I remember madly writing down all the ideas, insights, and new understandings I’d gleaned. And then I thought, where were the Rockies? Had we been there, seen them?
The best mentors are wise persons. Although mentors usually know a lot more than the people they’re mentoring, their wisdom transcends knowing about something. It starts with good common sense and the knowledge that’s been culled from experience. That knowledge has grown into personal integrity and real-deal authenticity. I can’t remember exactly when I started thinking I wanted to be like Chris. Yes, I wanted to do the kind of international consulting he did and have his global perspective on teaching and learning in higher education, but it was more than that. He had it together: he knew who he was, what he did, why he did it, and what made it important. He exuded a wholesome confidence iced with a bit of ego that made him revered by faculty developers across Canada and in many other countries as well.
The best mentors are more on the side of discontented than satisfied. Like most new professionals I was awash with awe when one of the “big names” spoke at a conference or led a workshop I attended. I’d tell Chris the story; midway through, he’d turn in his chair, recross his long legs and say, “Yah, but what about . . .” For all the years I’ve known Chris, he’s chafed at the accepted ways of improving teaching and promoting learning. Leading from the edge, he leans into the future that others remain unable to see. From Chris I learned to reask the questions that have already been answered.
The best mentors see more in you than you see in yourself. Fairly early in our relationship, Chris got me an invitation to an international gathering—at Oxford, no less—of folks interested in improving teaching and learning. I worried that I wasn’t prepared. Chris replied with something to the effect of “we’re all just coming together to learn.” And I learned a lot. Ironically, right from the beginning, Chris made me feel as though he was learning from me. He always (and continues) to ask, “What are you reading?” “What’s the status of student evaluations in the States?” He’d note down things I said, agree and disagree with what I’d written. Once after a keynote that I told Chris wasn’t my best, he rattled off “five things I learned from your talk.”
Mentoring ends and friendship begins. For us it was a gradual transition—maybe first felt after the conference in Oxford when Chris, his partner Laurel, and I toured the Cotswolds for a day that lives in memory as one of those perfect outings. Or maybe it was in Macau, where we hiked in dripping humidity, hotly debating learner-centered teaching methods, or the video he made of me holding forth on tenure after way too much wine. But at some point, the equation balances with terms of respect, companionship, and endearment on both sides, almost equal but for the gratitude on the mentored side.
At this juncture I’m left wondering whether these characteristics of mentoring that are relevant to professional relationships aren’t just as appropriate and important to the mentoring that teachers do for and with students. Thinking back to our own student days, how many of us could pay tribute to a mentor who made a world of difference?