REVIEW COORDINATOR: Seila Gonzalez
A Philosophy in Scarlett
Through the Journal Process
There is much to learn about mentoring and professional development interventions from translating lessons that emerge from investigating the specific ways in which largely immobile organisms adapt their growth and development to fluctuations in environmental parameters. Organisms, such as plants, which live out their lives in one location, are sensitive to changes in their external environment to increase survival and productivity. These organisms maximize their use and acquisition of available resources and limit or ward off danger from harmful factors. Systematic assessment of how these organisms sense and respond to environmental fluctuations or transitions can yield key lessons and inform practices that promote the success of students and junior faculty in academic environments, including in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Discussed herein are plant biology-inspired practices for supporting the comprehensive development of a diverse range of students, postdoctoral scientists, and faculty members as experimentalists, scientific thinkers and independent scientists and practitioners. Ultimately, growth-perspective relationships with plants that are exhibited regularly by humans indicate vast potential for our capacity for progressive support of diverse individuals in the academy. In this essay, I investigate effective means for planting and cultivating growth-focused perspectives on mentoring and faculty development, and explore this phenomenon from a consideration of the intersection of plant biology and mentoring.
Mentoring has been described as critical for supporting the development of skills and for providing socioemotional and psychosocial support that promotes personal and career advancement and success (Haggard et al. 2011, Jacobi 1991, Kram 1985, Packard 2016). Frequently, mentoring is enacted as a hierarchical, and often one-way, flow of information from a senior, experienced individual (i.e., the mentor) to an individual in need of development (i.e., the mentee) (reviewed in Montgomery 2017). However, mentoring can also be accomplished effectively (and in many cases preferably) by a mentee connected to several individuals in a mentoring network maintained by bilateral exchanges (Higgins and Kram 2001, Montgomery 2017, Rockquemore 2013, Sorcinelli and Yun 2007). Top-down, hierarchical mentoring and network-based mentoring have significant implications for promoting short-term or long-term career advancement, respectively (Higgins and Thomas 2001). Despite the clear outcomes associated with mentoring, it is frequently enacted based on goals of building up deficits in individual mentees, rather than as a tool for promoting growth of inexperienced, yet otherwise capable, individuals (Harper 2010). In particular, primarily white or majority institutions commonly adopt individual-deficit models in attempting to ‘support’ students in adapting to academic environments, particular in regards to minoritized or underrepresented students and faculty (Harper 2010, Packard 2016, Whittaker, Montgomery, and Martinez Acosta 2015). Less frequently are attempts made to investigate or assess the impacts of institutional cultures or structural barriers present in academic environments in which students or faculty are exhibiting challenges in progressing towards intended individual outcomes. Such culture-centered approaches depend upon surveying environments comprehensively and initiating active efforts to position institutions to address barriers across entire ecosystems, not just defaulting to a unilateral focus on fixing individual-related concerns. Underlying such approaches are an embrace and promotion of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset perspective (Dweck 2016). A unilateral focus on individual deficits that underlies ‘fixed mindset’ perspectives will continue to result in limited impacts and meager institutional outcomes and growth, reflective of what we have observed for years in such areas as broadening participation in the sciences (Whittaker and Montgomery 2012). Mentors and leaders have critical roles in promoting growth-focused engagement with individuals on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, acknowledging the need to address the environments in which mentoring occurs is critical and urgent. To be effective, these approaches require centering the mentee in mentoring outcomes based on considerations of ecosystem contexts.
Decentering the mentor in mentoring exchanges
Mentoring is based on personal relationships that support the growth of an individual being mentored in myriad ways (Montgomery 2017). Effective mentoring includes skills development, psychosocial or socioemotional support, and career advancement and success (Haggard et al. 2011, Jacobi 1991, Kram 1983, Packard 2016). Traditional and prevalent mentoring paradigms, which are intended to support mentees in moving ahead in academic, personal, and/or career goals, can functionally be more about the mentors and their values, i.e., affirming mentor views of valid career paths, or maintaining status quo views of success in particular disciplines or institutions. This widely accepted view of mentoring can de-center self-defined goals and views of success of individuals being mentored, and if 'successful' can actually limit the unique contributions individuals could be prepared to make if truly supported and mentored to develop individual views, goals and trajectories with an understanding of and input on promoting contextual success. Ultimately, mentoring will improve and be more successful when it is clear that excellent mentoring is not really about the mentor. The focus of excellent mentoring centers on mentors contributing to support individuals in moving forward along a self-defined path (Montgomery 2017).
FIXED- VS. GROWTH-MINDSET BASED SUPPORT AND INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT
There has been increasing interest in many domains, from education to the workforce, in the importance of cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ or the belief that the talents and abilities of individuals can be developed or cultivated. Largely attributed to Carol Dweck (2016), the growth mindset paradigm stands in contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’, the latter of which is based on a belief in the innate abilities of individuals. Whereas many individuals strongly support the idea of cultivating a culture based on the growth mindset concept, others struggle with associated overgeneralization and implementation (Dweck 2016). One particular challenge related to implementation is whether the focus on a growth mindset is interpreted or enacted primarily from the perspective of placing the responsibility on individuals to exhibit resilience and an expectation that they can grow in a ‘static environment’. However, there are examples from our daily lives that suggest that in some cases our default human mode is indeed to adopt a growth mindset. Undeniably, our general human responses to plants in our environment is a proxy for how we can invoke what is commonly referred to as a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. A comprehensive growth mindset-based approach to mentoring or individual development cultivates a bilateral focus on individuals and environmental contributors in promoting success of individuals. When a plant (or even a pet) is not faring well in its environment, we ask a multitude of questions about environmental factors (light, water, temperature, nutrients, etc.) that may not be optimal to support the health and success of the individual organism (Figure 1A). Universities and the individual mentors operating within them can, and in some cases through comprehensive student success or faculty development initiatives are beginning to, engage questions of the environmental impacts on individual potential for success or growth.
Individual-environment interactions—In addition to assessing growth, development and progress from the perspective of each individual, there are specific environmental factors that garner attention when assessing the potential for individual success. Unfortunately, in direct departure from our common responses to plants, we often hesitate to ask questions of the impact of one’s environment on supporting or hampering individual career success, particularly as it relates to individuals from groups underrepresented in a particular environment. This point is distinctly of interest as we consider parallels to our responses to plant growth in our environments. Indeed, the most common response a caretaker has when a plant exhibits impaired or less than optimal growth is to begin first and foremost with an assessment of the plant’s environment. Frequently asked questions are whether the plant is receiving enough or too much light; whether the nutrients needed to sustain plant life are available, accessible, and sufficient; whether the plant is being watered adequately; whether pests or herbivores are causing life-threatening damage or reduced fitness of the plant. A thorough analysis of the potential impacts of the living and non-living components of a plant’s environment is generally conducted. This assessment generally is then followed by interventions and subsequent valuations of whether the applied mediations make things better for the individual plant. In the event that a plant remains challenged in growth, a common outcome is for the caretaker to determine that the problem lies with their caretaking skills–for example, we frequently hear individuals declaring that they simply don’t have a “green thumb”. Whether the plant itself has a genetic defect or is incapable of growing successfully in its environment, i.e., attributes of a deficit state, are generally the last types of questions that we ask about a plant that is not surviving or thriving in its environment. With humans, we can be quick to judge individuals as incapable of growth or progress when challenges arise, rather than asking bilateral questions about the individual and the environment in which the individual exists. With students, especially those from groups underrepresented in the academy, and with junior faculty, again likely those from groups underrepresented in their disciplines and institutions, we often do the reverse. When such minoritized or underrepresented individuals encounter challenges acclimating to or succeeding in particular environments, the first response is often to label them ‘unable to succeed’. The environment is presumed largely innocent of detrimental impacts, or of containing ‘environmental barriers’ (Whittaker and Montgomery 2012), which may be limiting the potential of the individual. We need to invoke our natural responses to plants to probe many aspects of the environment, as well as our responsive tending of the environment as critical for promoting success broadly.
PLANT GROWTH-INSPIRED MENTORING IMPLICATIONS
To cultivate individual growth using growth-promoting perspectives drawn from successful cultivation of plants, specific human responses to plants can inspire effective leadership and mentoring approaches. Here, I review considerations of specific environmental parameters associated with effective growth of individuals and discuss effective means for applying these to supporting individual students and faculty members from diverse backgrounds. Specifically, I outline and provide associated mentoring lessons that should be considered and appropriate measures that can be enacted.
Plant Lesson 1—We probe the environment first and extensively when plants in our environment are not faring well.
Mentoring Implication 1—Unlike the approaches that we frequently take with students and junior colleagues in which we often ask questions about personal deficits first, our engagement with and mentoring of individuals would be well-informed by our practices with plants to ask questions first and systematically about the impacts of the environment on the potential for individual success.
Plant Lesson 2—We recognize that in some cases new and at other times the relocation of existing resources are needed to support plant growth.
Mentoring Implication 2—When specific environmental deficits or needs have been identified, we assess whether new resources are needed or whether resources already present somewhere in the ecosystem need to be relocated and/or connected to the individual to support the individual’s growth and development. Sometimes the default is that new resources are needed, which can become an impediment to progress or innovation in resource-limited environments. While new resources may be required, it is also possible that pre-existing resources simply need to be identified or recognized and then relocated. For example, water in a faucet is present in the environment but of no use to a plant until it is relocated from the faucet to the soil in which a plant is growing (Figure 1B). Thus, there are many efforts that can begin immediately to have an impact on students and junior colleagues when there is a full awareness of what the individual needs are and which resources exist in a particular environment. In such an instance, a primary and significant role for a mentor is to be aware of resources in the environment and to learn about an individual mentee’s needs to facilitate connecting the individual to resources. In other cases where resources are not already present in the environment, or new resources such as bottled water or fertilizers rather than mere tap water are needed, the mentor can help facilitate the identification and acquisition of new resources.
Plant Lesson 3—We recognize that caretakers and their specific preparation and expertise matter to plant persistence and optimized survival.
Mentoring Implication 3—Given two plants with equal potential for growth, the one which is connected to available and sufficient resources will grow better and exhibit greater productivity than a plant with equal potential that does not have access at all or only has limited access to needed resources. The ability of a caretaker to recognize the plants’ current and evolving needs and to both identify and make connections to required resources is critical in the process of supporting growth and potential. Likewise, mentors and leaders matter greatly in supporting the success of individual mentees. Given two individuals of equal aptitude, the individual connected to the right mentoring resources or imbedded in the right mentoring network is much more likely to succeed. Additionally, the potential for success and mentoring outcomes are supported greatly by the efficacy of the caretaker.
Plant Lesson 4—We seek external expertise when our own caretaking efforts are not effective or we lack knowledge about the underlying causes of the impairments or limitations in plant growth.
Mentoring Implication 4—When plants are not growing well, we will often seek the assistance of someone we know to be ‘good’ at growing plants for advice or assistance. When mentoring relationships are not progressing well, mentors likewise can seek external advice from others with experience, or mentors can seek training to improve their mentoring (Byars-Winston et al. 2015, Pfund et al. 2006, Pfund et al. 2014, Pfund et al. 2015).
Plant Lesson 5—We attribute a failure to support plant growth to our own inadequacies, inabilities, or a need to seek opportunities to improve our care regiment.
Mentoring Implication 5—In the unfortunate event that a mentoring relationship or exchange is not progressing towards successful guidance of an individual student or junior faculty member, one of the most useful lessons we can gain from the care humans offer plants is to consider that the mentor may not be meeting the needs of the individual rather than an individual mentee having intractable deficits. Certainly individual plant caretakers frequently admit to “not having a green thumb” when the care of plants is not successful. In the case of a ‘care failure”, caretakers may allow a plant to be cared for by another who demonstrates the ability to complete the task successfully. In the mentoring realm this is a much less likely outcome, yet may be closely linked to increasing retention of mentees with diverse levels of experience or preparation, or in cases where cultural or other mismatches may impede success in a mentoring exchange.
Plant Lesson 6—As a very last resort, when a plant is not faring well, we may attribute this outcome to a failure of a plant to thrive.
Mentoring Implication 6—In cases where a caretaker has exhausted all environmental interventions, has unsuccessfully called on another to intervene, or has sought training to improve potential care outcomes, the individual may ultimately reach a decision that the plant exhibits deficits or is incapable of thriving. However, in such instances there is often no real negative judgement of the plant per se, but often a reluctant acceptance of failure to support its growth. Mentors need to cultivate such a perspective for individuals that are in their environments seeking support for success.
There is a wealth of knowledge and mentoring inspiration to be derived from observing, contemplating, and enacting lessons from the care that humans offer to plants in a shared space. Our growth-perspective driven engagement with plants can be used to transform the experiences of students and junior colleagues who are being mentored towards attainment of personal and professional goals. Admittedly there are limits to analogies such as the plant-based one presented here, including that there are many impediments to implementing effective mentoring in many environments. Such impediments include limited knowledge and training, a lack of rewards associated with effective mentoring, and limited structures of assessment and accountability. However, where effectively enacted, pivoting from a frequently default deficit-based approach to mentoring, especially of individuals from groups underrepresented in academic and professional environments, to a growth-based mentoring approach has great potential for significantly increasing the retention of individuals we recruit to these spaces.
The author thanks Dr. Marquita Qualls, host and producer of the “Beyond the Bench: STEMulating Career Conversations” podcast for reigniting my focus on writing this essay in a recent podcast conversation (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/marquita-m-qualls-phd/beyond-the-bench-stemulating-career-conversations/e/51212294.) Research in the author’s lab on plant growth responses to the environment is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant no. MCB-1515002 to Beronda L. Montgomery). Work on growth responses of photosynthetic organisms and on mentoring is supported by the Michigan State University Foundation.
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Figure 1. What mentoring lessons arise from thoughtful assessment of humans’ care of plants in shared environments? (A) Human responses to plants that are not faring well include extensively probing the environmental factors that may be contributing to failure to thrive rather than defaulting to an individual-deficit causation. (B) Sometimes supporting growth requires relocating resources present in the environment to proximity of individuals to support growth. For example relocated water from faucet to the soil in which a plant is growing results in a healthy watered plant, compared to a similar unwatered plant that does not have access to the resource. Photos from public domain, photos in panel B by Victor M. Vicente Selvas.