In most science and engineering fields, success in research (in both academe and industry) requires not only advanced domain-specific knowledge and sophisticated experimental and analytical skills, but mentoring and managerial skills as well. Graduate students and post-docs here at MIT (and throughout the US) often have their first professional mentoring experiences when they are given responsibility for the day-to-day supervision of undergraduates in laboratories and/or other research environments. These close working-relationships between graduate students/post-docs and undergraduates can be very rewarding for all parties, but often graduate students and post-docs are given little explicit guidance or advice about planning research tasks, or how best to guide and manage undergraduate students.
A review of Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College by Elizabeth M. Lee, Cornell University Press (2016):
“How do low socioeconomic status students make their way through largely affluent college communities? . . . merely gaining access to an elite college is not the end of the story.” (p. 2)
“How do students negotiate the deeply complex boundaries of class position within their intimate friendships and peer circles?” (p.2)
“How [is] class inequality interpreted through a semiotics of class morality within an elite institutional context . . . ?” (p. 31)
Most faculty who do experimental work begin their academic lives leading fairly small lab groups: perhaps two or three graduate students and a post-doc. A group of this size is fairly straightforward to manage and support. At this stage, faculty are often physically present in the lab – working side-by-side with students – and it is relatively easy to know when there are issues with group dynamics, or when a particular member of the group is having difficulty or problems.
In addition, in these early stages, the lines of communication between the PI and their mentees, as well as those between other group members, are often fairly direct. However, as PIs build successful careers, their research often diversifies, and their lab groups grow. Often the old models for successful mentoring, management, and communication may not be quite so effective, and new, more relevant models may not be quite so obvious.
A friend who teaches elementary school once told me that the summer is like the weekend: June is like Friday night – full of anticipation and excitement; July is like Saturday – open and unfettered; and August is like Sunday afternoon – susceptible to the anxieties and pressures of the work week (or school year), yet filled with an excitement all its own.
As we move closer to the beginning of another academic year, the MIT Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL) is beginning a blog! Our intention is that TLL staff and guests will be posting our thoughts each week (as a beginning) on teaching and learning, assessment and evaluation – and about life in higher ed as we know it to be and hope it could become.