The Meaning of Mentorship: On Preparing Future Faculty

 May 15, 2024

Who ever thought a faculty meeting could be so much fun?

I sat in an over-air-conditioned room at Elon University on an unseasonably warm fall day in 2023. The scene was an English Department meeting, and I was there at the invitation of my mentor in Duke’s Preparing Future Faculty (PFF)program, Professor Dan Burns. Dan had invited me to observe the proceedings, and I was lucky enough to have landed in a meeting with high stakes: the department was reworking its mission statement.

There I was, occupying a front-row seat to a debate on the ideals the English department should uphold. On the one side, justice, equality, and ethics. On the other, beauty and the aesthetic life. The discussion was passionate, sometimes contentious, but always collegial. I found it inspiring and exciting to witness a group of professionals debating the stakes of their discipline, articulating its collective purpose. This, I thought, reminded me why I wanted to get into the business of higher education in the first place.

Ordinarily, graduate students like me are especially susceptible to mole-like hermeticism. As a Ph.D. student in English, mired in the ambiguous pleasures of my narrow topic of research, I was once blind to the kind of labor that constitutes the day-to-day life of an English professor. So in spring 2023, curious about these aspects of university life, I decided to look up from the privacy of my desk and venture out into the public world of professional administration. Last June, I applied to, and was accepted in, The Graduate School’s PFF program.

You’ve probably heard of PFF, if not by way of official newsletters, then certainly through the informal channel of water-cooler chat in your department’s grad lounge. You probably know, for instance, that the year-long program is organized around guided tours of a diverse array of institutions, from local liberal arts colleges like Meredith College to community colleges like Durham Tech to other R1 universities like NC State. PFF is more than just an opportunity to network with tenured and tenure-track faculty, deans, and even university presidents. It also offers a chance to discover who you are: your goals, ambitions, desires, and plans within higher education.

This mode of self-discovery is facilitated, in part, by your faculty mentor. Think of this as a year-long conversation with an advanced colleague in your field. My mentor—Dr. Dan Burns, Assistant Professor of English—shares my specialty in contemporary literature, literary theory, and the history of the novel. He also happens to be an exceptionally kind human being and a paragon of professionalism. Dan agreed to mentor me for the academic year 2023-2024 and invited me to peek behind the scenes of institutional life in his department.

It has been illuminating and clarifying to see how the sausage of a liberal arts education is made. This year, Dan and three colleagues began developing a new minor in Global Film and Cultures. Forging this minor out of the unruly stew of existing curricula required making a case to the university administration. Making such a case is hard work, but it also offers a chance to articulate the mission of English studies to the university administration. Dan welcomed me into the conversation about this process, revealing the hidden abode of administrative labor required to sustain the superstructure of Elon’s intellectual life.

I would argue that this view into the hidden abode of production is the true value of PFF. As graduate and professional students at Duke, it is easy to get lost in the privacy of your mind and the narrow focus of your research. Whether you are working in a lab, or in a dimly lit library stack, research is usually a solitary endeavor. While conferences, classes, dissertation workshops, and reading groups are valuable professional opportunities designed to bring this private work out into the open, they still obscure the administrative labor that undergirds university life. There is, on the one hand, the work of thinking, writing, and teaching; and on the other, the labor of administering.


Teaching is, of course, at the heart of Dan’s job at Elon, and I had the pleasure of sitting in on several of his classes. Dan’s enthusiasm and dedication to teaching manifest in the excitement of his students. There was never a silent moment in his Spring ’24 class on The Novel. In a session on graphic novels and underground comics, discussion ranged from the finer points of literary theory to the ethos of ‘60s counterculture to the ways we work through difficult trauma by way of making, and appreciating, art.

But the real conversation with Dan always began after class, by way of our post-game analysis. After each session I visited, Dan and I would grab coffee and discuss the technicalities of pedagogy. Dan has been teaching English at Elon for over 13 years, having started as a part-time adjunct and worked his way into a tenure-track Assistant Professorship. I had much to learn from his wide-ranging experience teaching literature and theory to two generations of students. In our final session, Dan and I grabbed a beer at an Elon bar and re-capped the year. I’m happy to call him a friend, in addition to being a colleague.

What, then, are the outcomes of PFF that are not advertised on its website? For me, it led to a collegial friendship and a collaborative conversation that will continue to unfold after my stint as a fellow is over with. It helped me clarify my goals and how better to achieve them. It also led to a deeper understanding of what it means to live an intellectual life within the institutional context of the university. Most astonishingly, it helped me see that meetings could actually be fun.


Editors’ note: The application deadline for the 2024-25 PFF program is June 7, 2024.


Draney headshot
James Draney, Ph.D.

Recent Ph.D. graduate, English

James Draney is a literary scholar whose work examines the relationship between fiction and media. His scholarship has appeared in Journal of Modern Literature and NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. He recently defended his dissertation, “Computable Worlds: The Novel in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” In his free time, he enjoys walking on the Ellerbe Creek Trail.