Redefining the Proxemics of the Mentorship

Redefining the Proxemics of the Mentorship

Christopher S. Schreiner (University of Guam, Guam)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7438-5.ch006
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The sociopolitical controversies on campus that have resulted in “safe spaces” have pressured traditional structures based on proxemics, such as the mentorship, to reinvent themselves or disappear. In the chapter, “proximity” itself is defined not in terms of spatial contiguity but as an attentional structure by which the mentee achieves an intimate understanding at a distance of the objective achievements in teaching and writing that distinguish her mentor and other role models and that provoke acts of creative mimesis and exegesis by the mentee. Inspired by the ancient Stoic practice of the “care of the self” as explicated by Michel Foucault, the crux of the redefined mentored relation is not inculcating knowledge but guiding the growth of the mentee's critical consciousness in preparation for a career and a life well-lived, befitting a noble spirit. Since the focus of the redefined mentored relation privileges distance and objective spirit (via the critical study of works) over personal interaction, the scholarly autonomy of the mentee is a noteworthy learning outcome.
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The Absurd Authority of Peer Judgment in Social Media

According to research by Chambliss and Takacs (2014), “the most valuable relationships students have with teachers are mentorships” (p. 53). Mentorships connect students and faculty members in an intellectual alliance that last longer than a course or a few semesters. “The defining characteristic of a mentor is a concern for the student beyond the immediacies of a course” (p. 54). It is regrettable that conditions on many campuses today are not propitious for mentorships. For example, the conspicuous rise of adjunct teaching, with its abrupt scheduling and tentative contracts, crimps the opportunities for mentored relationships. Another, less remarked trend, is that the authority epitomized in the disciplinary rigor of the mentor, and integral to her powers of guidance and role modeling, is being gradually shunted into the interstices of institutional history while hand-wrangling continues over how to further empower student-centered learning, an ideology which finds social media a perfect vehicle for its global enthronement. It does not help the cause of mentoring that today’s political climate encourages a disrespect for expertise, scientific and otherwise, a dire development reported by Thomas Nichols (2017) in his book, The Death of Expertise. The practices of social media have exacerbated the problem, arguably creating a perfect storm for mentorships by transferring authority from distinguished teachers and intellectual luminaries to generally adolescent, often anonymous peer surveillance. Although it may cause discomfort for fans of social media, it pays to take a closer look at this “perfect storm” that is causing adverse conditions for the growth of mentorship opportunities.

The interfaces and apps of social media behemoths such as Facebook and Instagram are engines of social equalization via peer influence, converting delicate souls into Big Data while instilling them with the illusory feeling of achieving meaningful self-expression. On the one hand, “New media thrive on differences to create predictable individuals” (Chun, 2016, p. 18); on the other hand, the force of peer persuasion via social media acts as “a tidal wave that is flattening everything in its path” (Lovink, 2015, p. 180). Like the uncritical comforts of public trust, which millions of gullible Facebook users have been alarmed to see betrayed by corporate “data harvesting,” it is alarming how peer judgment has been exempt from critique, growing into an absurd, infantilizing authority unchecked by dialectical mediation and expertise. Its aesthetic order or regime of taste (re: hair, clothing, use of language, choice of music, etc.) is immature yet sovereign, capable of destroying a life when applied as judgment to a wayward individual. The posting of stylized selfies and tweets, the exchange of quirky news items and trending memes, at best amounts to superficial, ersatz forms of personal expression lost in a sea of other selfies and tweets and memes. It is unlikely these whimsical postings mean: “I am making thoughtful, critically informed choices and decisions that are true to my innermost calling.” It is more likely they mean: “Much like my peers, I am circulating largely pictorial evocations of selfhood that are superficial and trending; at any given moment, my identity is in flux, my future, indeterminate.” These trivial displays of selfhood preset by algorithms offer the illusion of choice. Collective individuation occurs as a generalized, reciprocally affirmed (liking each other = becoming alike) peer consensus unchallenged by dialectical mediation. In other words, everyone individuates in the same general way within user groups, using the same interface, with the limits and possibilities of individuation set by algorithms and peer surveillance, not by critique or dialectical exchanges inside or between radically different user groups. The popularity of apps is due to the illusion that they further differentiate users from the routines of common interfaces. Each app, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, constitutes a sub-universe of practices within the digital commons wherein a connected group feels itself distinct from nonusers of their app. But again, sociality reigns in such a coded niche of exchange, with self-expression taking a generalized form or format, following certain codes and rules that simulate subjective individuation within a collective individuation that is actually what Bernard Stiegler (2015a) calls “technical individuation” (p. 118). In short, the precondition of app-enabled performances of selfhood is not the spontaneity of consciousness as described by existential thinkers, but technical coding, which, to repeat, presets the limits and possibilities of self-expression. As these codes become second nature for users, they become integral to their self-understanding, so that, if they wish to continue communicating, they can only think and act with them and not against them. Researchers Temple and Choi (2014) have concluded that “sexting” on Snapchat and other apps “is a new ‘normal’ part of adolescent sexual development” (e1291). This explains why students implicated in “sexting” scandals never thought they were committing the crime of distributing child pornography, but only doing what felt natural on their app. In this way the critical self-awareness that governs intelligent behavior gradually expires, its demise eclipsed by the narcissistic joys of technical coded self-exposure and instantaneous feedback.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mentee: The student whose love of learning motivates them to independently seek intellectual guidance and wisdom, not merely academic advice, from a mentor. The ideal mentee respects his prospective mentor to such an extent as to sustain an objective approach, at a distance, that is mediated by scrupulous attention paid to the mentor’s lectures, writings, and lifestyle on campus and beyond it. Over time this structure becomes reciprocal: the mentor comes to know his mentee primarily through the latter’s objective performances in writing (seminar papers and scholarly publications) and oral presentations (in class, at local and international conferences). A sharp mentee not only attends lectures in a state of intense wakefulness but reads all of the available publications of the mentor, and any other materials that illuminate the matter at stake in their shared research interests.

Nobility: A concept developed by F. Nietzsche primarily in Part Nine (“What is Noble?”) of Beyond Good and Evil (1885) AU19: The in-text citation "Beyond Good and Evil (1885)" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. . It primarily applies to the individual (e.g., mentor) who creates her own values within an institutional establishment, and who is respected at a distance as an exemplary type of intellectual whose free-standing integrity and disciplinary rigor preclude servile behavior or conformity. The noble person’s influence on students is inherently objective, through lectures, writings, and public presentations that are intellectually demanding, not entertaining or clownish. Although nobility (the noble persona) often seems incommunicable, this is not due to a lack of collegiality so much as scholarly preoccupation with the matter at stake. The power and prestige of the noble mentor who attracts mentees is that of an autonomous representation of disciplinary mastery in a lifestyle that can be studied and emulated without compromising one’s own independence.

Mentor: The mentor is not an academic advisor but an intellectual guide, sage, role model, and philosophical interlocutor. She consuls—directly and indirectly—the mentee about academic research, intellectual autonomy vs. the servility of social media, the purpose and methods of critique as a modality of care of the self, and about life beyond the academy and the value of intelligence and eloquence in a world characterized by widespread barbarism and coarse, ungrammatical language. The primary mode of interaction with the mentor is objective, via her lectures and writings, but this objectivity is modulated by the diligent intimacy of attention paid by the mentee to the mentor.

Proxemics: A study of the literal and figurative personal space that mediates the social world, intersubjective relations, and the academic mentorship. The space of proximity is described in terms of nearness and distance, intimacy and objectivity, verbal and non-verbal communication. Proxemics is less concerned with conventional social relations than with the space of representation by which exemplary academic behavior is demonstrated by the mentor for the benefit of the mentee, who is increasingly immersed in the scholarly pursuits they have in common through close reading and critique.

Care of the Self: This is a concept developed by Michel Foucault in his study of ancient philosophical practices that value independent learning and critical self-consciousness as a way of life, and not merely a means to academic success. The mentor demonstrates “best practices” in her own sphere of self-care, mainly by affirming eloquence, intellectual rigor, and persistent attention to the matter at stake in a scholarly endeavor without regard for trends and meretricious prestige. An academic career that merely strives for fame and an exalted reputation neglects the spiritual aspect of education that ennobles the scholar in the eyes of the community as a role model for youth based on objective achievements issuing from the integrity of a lifestyle that creates and upholds its own values.

Critique: This is the methodological component of critical thinking that both questions tacit ideological assumptions and biases of an intellectual argument or social problem, and subjects them to dialectical mediation by confronting them with their antithesis. Critical thinking is integral to the care of the self for educators and intellectuals and critique the ascetic habit of disciplined scholars and students. Although critique is always situated in a particular socioeconomic milieu, it seeks to suspend or bracket its underlying prejudices, much like the epoché or “reduction” that is the inaugural step in phenomenological research. Often applied to institutions as “ideological critique,” critique is equally indispensable as a tool of critical self-consciousness for clarifying self-understanding and self-determination within a reified institutional context such as college life and social media.

Proximity: The space of representation whose vectors of nearness and distance determine the relative intimacy and objectivity of the mentorship. This space of learning is not between bodies per se but psychophysical beings whose intellectual attention and desire, focused within an academic discipline, are the primary mode of interaction between the mentor and mentee. Proximity is dialectical insofar as a mentor’s nearness can be “remote” (encumbered with classroom protocols, scholarly preoccupation, and personal reserve) and her distance “intimate” (thoughtful email, however infrequent; mutual appreciation and critique of each other’s writings, etc.).

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