The Matrix and Mentoring

As I’ve moved more into the middle part of my career (I’ve been at the same institution now for 12 years), I’ve shifted my emphasis toward helping the younger faculty succeed at their jobs.  I’ve done this partly through being an official mentor in our new faculty program, but, more often, in an unofficial capacity in simply talking to younger faculty.  I never really planned on taking on this role, but it is one of the more enjoyable parts of a job I already like.

I was thinking about The Matrix yesterday because, well, it’s a day that ends in y.  As most of my classes can attest, I think about that movie almost every day, and I use it for any example I can.  Unfortunately, as I get older, fewer students actually get those references (the movie was released in 1999, after all, when my incoming first-year students this fall were all of 3 or 4), which is a tragedy I can barely survive.

Buried within one of my favorite parts of the movie, though, is one of the best pieces of advice for new faculty I have found, one that I am only beginning to try to convey.  For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (and why not, by the way; at least go here and watch the scene), here’s a bit of context.  Neo has been taken out of the matrix, and he has had various martial arts programs uploaded into this brain (really, if you haven’t seen the movie, doesn’t this just make you want to watch it right now?).  When he tells Morpheus that he knows kung fu, Morpheus tells Neo to show him.

They are uploaded into a simulation program, which, as Morpheus says, “is similar to the programmed reality of the matrix.  It has the same basic rules, rules like gravity.”  He then goes on to say what should be said to all new faculty at any institution:  What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system.  Some of them can be bent; others can be broken.”

You think that’s air you’re breathing now? Hm.

Rules, both written and unwritten, vary from one institution to another, but all colleges and universities have them.  What new faculty have to learn is which rules can be bent, which rules can be broken, and which rules should be followed at all time.  For example, in the first job I had, faculty meetings were held regularly, but people missed them from time to time, and nothing was ever said.  In fact, my department chair made a crack when I missed one (I had, in fact, missed some information that was distributed to people by name, so my absence was even clearer), but did not chastise me in any way.  At my current institution, someone takes roll at faculty meetings, and we should have a good reason for not being there.  As we have grown larger, we still like to keep the community feel of when the institution was smaller, so getting the entire faculty together is seen as quite important.

This approach holds for everything ranging from how one gets tenure (how important is publishing/teaching/service, really?) to how one is perceived by peers and the administration (how could you miss the annual Christmas banquet?) to that ever elusive idea of fit (he/she just never really seemed to participate in the life of the department).

New faculty members need to seek out a variety of voices, ranging from their department chair or other administrators to faculty who break a good many of the rules, yet are still clearly seen as successful, to begin to understand, like Neo, which rules can be bent and which ones can be broken.

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