The Community of Scholars, Part Two

The following was originally presented in December 2008 at Flourishing in the Academy, the national gathering of the Emerging Scholars Network, at Following Christ 2008. Part one was delivered by Marc Baer, Professor of History at Hope College, and part two by Kenneth G. Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia.


It is a pleasure to be on a program with Marc Baer. I happen to serve on the Board of Trustees of Hope College. That does not make me Marc’s boss in any way. But being on the Board gives me unusual insight into the school where Marc serves.

Marc is a model faculty member. I can only wonder what would be the consequences if the entire Hope College faculty comprised people who combined Marc’s love for teaching, his love for scholarship, and his love for the Gospel. Thank you, Marc, for all you do for the Kingdom.


After all has been said and done, and a lot has been said and done at this conference, we are back to speaking about mentoring.

The founder of the University of Virginia, where I teach, was Thomas Jefferson. He had an unusual term for the University of Virginia; he called it an “academical village.” Mr. Jefferson did have a way with words.

Thomas Jefferson disliked the European model of a university because it was so hierarchical: professors dining at High Table, unapproachable; students sitting down below, rising when the faculty entered to dine; the European university’s emphasis on titles and distinctions. He would have none of that at the University he founded. Mr. Jefferson did not want the faculty to use titles like Dr. or Professor.

Mr. Jefferson would have liked the concept of mentoring that has occupied much of our energy at this conference. And Christians should be drawn to the concept of mentoring too, because mentoring has embedded in it Christian themes of community; of caring for one another; of building one another up.

But in graduate school, one rarely is taught, at least in any formal way, how to be mentored, or how to mentor others.

We are influenced by others. But being influenced is not necessarily the same as mentoring. Mentoring is influencing with a purpose in mind; mentoring is not promoting the career of the mentor; mentoring places the well-being of the person being mentored front and center.

Three Propositions about Being Mentored

In good Trinitarian fashion, let me mention three propositions about being mentored against the chance that perhaps one will be new, and beneficial and encouraging to you.

First, while years ago Thomas Jefferson talked about an academical village, it really only takes one faculty member to mentor a graduate student or another colleague. I am a case in point.

When I arrived at the University of Virginia, with all the pressure to do research, there was one professor in my department who took an interest in me as a teacher. But all I needed was one. He was my sounding board; he kept me from making bad mistakes; he encouraged me to teach well, even if institutional incentives were not aligned to reward this.

And while he was not a Christian, he was the person who told me my students should somehow hear it from me that I was a follower of Jesus.

So, being mentored does not involve assembling a crowd or a team. It takes finding one mentor.

Second, it is OK to ask someone to mentor you. Most of you are graduate students. I have had graduate students from other disciplines such as mathematics and history ask me to mentor them as they prepare to become professors.

I do not attempt to teach them mathematics or history, though I might visit a class they teach in mathematics or history.

Third, mentoring can be for a season; it can be tailored to very specific needs or questions that you have and then come to an end. When my colleague in Sociology, James Hunter, joined the UVA faculty, he came from Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college very different from the secular research university whose faculty he had now joined.

For a season, I was Hunter’s mentor: trying to teach him everything from how to set up a bookkeeping system (you heard that right, a bookkeeping system – it can help an academic career not to be audited by the IRS and it can help an academic career not to pay more in taxes than is required). And we talked about broader issues, such as how to allocate time between teaching and research.

It was soon evident that James Hunter did not need a mentor for very long. In a few years, his reputation as a scholar eclipsed my own. James is the Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture with a sizable budget and its own facility. I am no longer Hunter’s mentor; I’ve become his fan, as well as his brother-in-Christ.

So there are three propositions about being mentored: it only takes one person to mentor you; you can ask to be mentored; and mentoring need not be a perpetual arrangement.

Three Ways to be a Mentor

Let me turn now to some specifics about mentoring. Obviously, context will shape mentoring relationships.

Mentoring a colleague probably will differ from mentoring a graduate student, and this may differ from mentoring an undergraduate student.

Let me say, as an aside, I have logged more hours mentoring undergraduates than anyone else.

But again, in Trinitarian fashion, let me mention three practical lessons about mentoring and perhaps one of them will strike a chord with you.

First, to be a mentor means there is some area of life, for our purposes life in the academy, that you know something about, and you know more than the person you are mentoring. You may not be the world’s greatest authority. But to be a mentor, you have to know enough, relative to the person you are mentoring, to be of net benefit to that person. Don’t be a mentor if all you are going to do is share ignorance or commiserate about how unfathomable life in the academy is.

When I mentored James Hunter about bookkeeping, it was not because I was a CPA. But I knew a lot more than he did, at the time, about what kind of expenses were tax deductible and how important it was to establish some system of record keeping from the start, even if one’s academic travels and acquisition of books and journals is modest early on.

When I mentor undergraduates about time management, it is not because I’m a great authority on time management, with publications to my credit. I just happen to know more than they do.

Second, if you mentor someone in the academy, you need to have times of availability. For me, this can mean getting together once a week, for an hour. With undergraduates, we often meet for an 8–9 AM breakfast meeting.

In addition, the students I mentor (I believe) know they could call on me in the case of a crisis (though I don’t pretend to replace their family or their pastor). And sometimes I find they welcome getting together with me simply one-on-one.

If you are a young pup on the faculty, striving to become tenured yourself, mentoring some students should not be an enormous time-burner. If you are an untenured professor, I would caution you about mentoring unless you sense a real calling to this and God’s protection over the time demands.

Third, and finally, let me dispel you of something that the evil one probably would like you to think is true about mentoring: that unless your own life is fully in order, you have a great prayer time, your knowledge of the Bible is top drawer, and you have got it all together, you should not be a mentor. Satan would love for such a principle to hold. There would be so little mentoring going on.

My first point was that a mentor needs to know more than the person being mentored, in some areas. But the mentor need not be omniscient.

The great thing about mentoring in the gospel context is that the mentor is not out to prove anything about his or her own talents or brilliance. The mentor wants to share experiences that will be a blessing to someone else.

This is one of the reasons it is so much more liberating to mentor someone in the context of being one in Christ. What you know, you share. The posture is not one of grasping and holding tight, which characterizes so much of faculty relations. The posture is one of open hands, giving to another.

Mentoring in the gospel means praying about matters that remain genuinely confusing or uncertain. Here the posture is one of kneeling, if not literally at least figuratively, as both the mentor and the person being mentored seek God’s favor and blessing upon the enormous challenges of being a faculty member or researcher.

So to sum up, how do you mentor? I’ve touched on only three ways: have some relative degree of experience or wisdom; make yourself available to share that experience with another; and finally, be humble and pray for that person being mentored.

Ken Elzinga

Kenneth G. Elzinga is the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia. He has received numerous teaching awards, and each fall his introductory economics course attracts over one thousand students, making it the largest class offered at the University of Virginia. An expert in antitrust economics, and he has testified in several precedent-setting antitrust cases, including three Supreme Court decisions. As the author of more than seventy academic publications, Mr. Elzinga also is known for his mystery novels, co-authored with William Breit (under the penname Marshall Jevons), in which the protagonist employs economic analysis to solve crimes. Mr. Elzinga has a B.A. and honorary doctorate from Kalamazoo College and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He has been a member of the faculty at the University of Virginia since 1967.


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