Jeremy Yoder

Postdoctoral associate at University of British Columbia

Mentoring in Pop Culture: the Good, the Great, and the Extreme

Full buffy giles

Image: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 20th Century Fox Television

I’m nearing the end of a three-month stretch of job interviews that has taken me all over the United States, to institutions of very different sizes and types. One of the most consistent elements of the tenure-track hiring process has been lunch with graduate students. And one of the most common questions I’ve been asked at those lunches: What kind of mentor would you be?

I have, I think, a good general answer: I would aim to be accessible, but not micromanage. I also mention some specific examples of things that my mentors have done for me that I hope to do for my mentees.

Still, contemplating the as-yet hypothetical day when I open up a lab and start supervising my own graduate students, staff, and (funding agencies willing) postdocs has gotten me thinking about the kinds of teacher-student and mentor-protégé relationships that I’ve seen beyond academe. Which is to say, in pop culture. Here, then, is a list of the names that kept coming up when I tried to envision models of mentoring in the books, movies, and television shows I love.

Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation. The deputy director of the parks and recreation department of Pawnee, Ind., has mentoring right in her job description. Among the people Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) supervises is a summer intern, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). Leslie persuades the elaborately unenthusiastic April to take on more and more challenging tasks. Eventually April graduates to a permanent staff position and, by the fifth season of the show, she has worked in the office of newly elected Congressman Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), taken management training, and even filled in for Leslie to manage a public forum.

Leslie begins to treat April more as a colleague than a trainee as they work a garbage route together to show up sexist city workers and clash over the use of a city lot for a dog park, but continues to offer support and guidance when April considers veterinary school. Eventually, April comes full circle, helping to supervise new interns. Leslie’s mentoring is one of the best, most explicit examples on this list — she identifies April’s skills, helps her apply them, and guides her to building a satisfying career.

Benjamin Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Fellow Trekkies might guess that the obvious choice of mentor from our beloved franchise is Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, we see much better and more specific mentoring by the commanding officer of the starbase Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). When DS9 and the Federation are threatened by deteriorating relations with the Klingon Empire, Sisko recruits the Klingon Starfleet officer Worf (Michael Dorn) to the station’s crew for his unique combination of security and tactical expertise and cross-cultural competency.

Through four seasons of the series, Sisko continues to offer Worf greater responsibility as he demonstrates his readiness, including command of a starship assigned to DS9. Sisko also gives Worf room to pursue projects of personal importance, which often pays off for the interests of the station and Starfleet. The commander stands by Worf’s side when he’s accused of a war crime and then, after he’s exonerated, helps him see what he should have done differently all the same.

Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada. Now for a less admirable example. Editor-in-Chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) controls every detail of Runway magazine by sheer force of will, and, to all appearances, doesn’t break a sweat while doing it. Staff members at Runway know what the editor expects of them, and they do excellent work. As Miranda’s executive assistant, Andy (Anne Hathaway) learns the ropes of fashion journalism and its role in a global industry, and Miranda gives Andy more and more to do as she proves herself capable of handling even seemingly impossible requests. When Andy decides to leave Runway, Miranda gives her a letter of recommendation that opens doors to the journalism career Andy hopes to build.

Still, while Runway runs impeccably, it does so because everyone on staff is terrified of Miranda. Most of Andy’s education at the magazine comes not from Miranda per se, but from other magazine staffers who take pity on her. Art director Nigel, played by Stanley Tucci, is arguably the better mentoring model in the movie, though he’s not Andy’s supervisor. Miranda’s impossibly high standards force everyone on staff to subordinate everything else in their lives — even eating carbs — to performing and looking like the Runway ideal. She might be effective, and she has an enviable skill for ending meetings before they get awkward, but Miranda Priestly doesn’t provide anything like the emotional space and support a good mentor, or even a good boss, ought to.

Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is one of the few people on this list who is actually a professional educator. When we first meet him, he’s the librarian of Sunnydale High School, where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a new student. But it turns out he has a second, secret job description: He is a Watcher, tasked to train and guide the once-a-generation Slayer — Buffy — in her mission to, well, slay vampires.

Giles provides that training, initially over Buffy’s protests, as well as the expertise to diagnose the many, many supernatural threats that plague Sunnydale. As the series progresses, he comes to realize that his bosses on the Watcher’s Council view the Slayer as a necessarily disposable weapon in the fight against evil, and he goes rogue to protect Buffy, choosing his mentee over the institutional structure in which they both work. Even when he judges that Buffy has developed to a point beyond the need for his training — and her friend Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) has gained the kind of supernatural knowledge he offered — Giles keeps in touch, and steps in to help the Slayer and her friends when needed.

Mentor, The Odyssey of Homer.The original mentor is, of course, Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus to whom the titular hero of The Odyssey entrusts his household before sailing off to the siege of Troy. Mentor doesn’t do much more than keep the household running, though, because after years of Odysseus’s absence, the place is overrun with hangers-on and suitors seeking the hand of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. However, when Odysseus’s son Telemachus vows to discover what has happened to his father and prays to the goddess Athena for guidance, she appears to him “in the likeness and voice” of Mentor.

Why she chooses this form is obscure. Having the Goddess of Wisdom speak through Mentor might be a metaphor for the value of his advice and support, I guess, though there are moments in the epic poem when it is clear that Athena-as-Mentor truly is a different being from Mentor himself. (Someone actually says something along the lines of “Wait — what’s Mentor doing here? I thought I just saw him over there.”) No matter why she decides to manifest as Mentor, Athena makes an all around-excellent mentor. She advises Telemachus on his decision to go look for Odysseus, helps him plan for the journey, then recruits and supervises the crew of his ship. She coaches him through a mission to seek more information about his missing father from Nestor, the king of Pylos, who fought alongside Odysseus at Troy. When Odysseus finally comes home, she helps him and Telemachus retake command of his household.

If I could cherry-pick qualities I want to provide in my own mentoring relationships, I’d want the motivating power of Leslie Knope, the steadfastness of Benjamin Sisko, the efficiency of Miranda Priestly, the expertise of Rupert Giles, and the wisdom of Athena. I can’t conjure those attributes just like that, of course, but I can certainly work toward them.

A word of thanks to Twitter user Leah, @HoxInSox, for reminding me about Leslie Knope and April. Did I miss your favorite pop-culture mentor? Of course I did! Tell me about them in the comments, or tweet additions to the list with the hashtag #PopCultureMentors.

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