A relationship of trust: Dr. Laurent A. Parks Daloz on mentoring and meaning

Laurent A. Parks Daloz

When I was searching for someone to interview for National Mentoring Month, a colleague recommended I contact Sharon Daloz Parks, whose book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams is a foundational text on mentoring young adults in the faith community. Little did I know that her husband, Laurent A. Parks Daloz, also did pioneering work on mentoring adult learners which he explores in his book, Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners. They are Principals of Leadership for the New Commons and Senior Fellows of the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA. Although originally both Dr. Parks and Dr. Daloz had planned to do this as a joint interview, Larry writes, “Sharon sends her regrets but she is feeling swamped. I’ll mention her work where appropriate but will not attempt to speak for her.” I’m incredibly grateful to them both for sharing their time and insights with us. 

Both you and Sharon have written extensively about mentoring, but from different angles. How did you initially come to explore the topic of mentoring? 

In the early 1970’s I was the founding academic dean of the fledgling community college system in Vermont. We served returning adult students (then called “non-traditional learners”). Our neighboring pioneer institution, Empire State College, called their faculty “mentors” to distinguish their more personal role from that of traditional professors. Although we did not adopt the term, when I later moved to Vermont’s External Degree Program based on the Empire State model, I became a “mentor,” myself, working with students in their homes and workplaces to help them fashion individualized degree programs. In that role, I was part of a research project designed to determine whether and how our program enhanced students’ intellectual growth. This introduced me to the literature of adult development, and the key finding of the research was that “mentors” were extremely important to the students: their interventions seemed to play a significant part in the learners’ development. It was during that time that I grew intrigued by the term, “mentor,” and re-read The Odyssey to see what I could learn about the deeper, mythic dimensions of the role. I also began to think more extensively about exactly how mentors actually supported and challenged their students. The rest is history. 

For both of you, as I read your work, it sounds like a primary role of the mentor is to help others make meaning. Can you talk more about that? 

Both Sharon and I were profoundly influenced by the work of Bill Perry who studied the ethical and intellectual development of Harvard students over many years. Bill used to say, “organisms organize; what humans organize is meaning.” It was from him that we first heard the phrase, “make meaning” used as a way of understanding epistemological development. What we learned, and based much of our subsequent work on, was that epistemological development—the ways we make meaning—seems to progress in identifiable patterns and that growth in the complexity and inclusiveness of these patterns is an important measure of educational effectiveness. We found ourselves in the midst of a rich school of thought growing out of the work of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, Gilligan, Fowler, Kegan and others.   

In my case, I began to link mentorship with this developmental work in part through the studies we did in Vermont. In fact it was Bill Perry who first suggested, over a glass of single malt as I recall, that I tape the conversations with my own students and include those over time as part of my data. Subsequently I received a “Shaughnessy” grant from FIPSE to do just that, and the mentoring book grew out of it. I have told much of that story in the Preface to the latest edition of Mentor. 

It also sounds like another role of the mentor is to help those undergoing transformation, which is a destabilizing experience for anyone. How can mentors help those who are feeling the ground of their beliefs or understanding shift beneath them? 

Beautiful and important question. That’s central to a real understanding of transformative learning and mentorship. I often wish I had written more about that. I think it begins with the first work of the mentor: to establish a relationship of trust with the student so that the subsequent challenge to his or her way of making meaning can be held. The term, “holding environment,” which comes out of early childhood developmental theory (Winnecott), is useful here. It implies the existence (or creation) of a safe space in which the learner can risk letting go of ways of thinking that no longer serve and can reach out to try on or to construct new, more adequate ways of making meaning. And this has to happen together. That is, it is a lot easier to let go of something if we can see something ahead that we can grasp. I have always loved the moment in the Indiana Jones film where he is confronted with a bottomless abyss between him and the grail. Stymied as he tries to step out into nothingness, he finally takes some kind of pixie dust and sprinkles it over the void. Miraculously the outlines of a narrow walkway appear. He takes a tentative step and it holds. It’s that kind of risk that we all face when we are in a transformative moment, and the mentor’s job is to give us that dust—to help us see that the new structure will hold. 

Now, of course, it’s a lot more than this, and I wrote a whole book about it. But I think that the establishment of trust (and the holding environment surrounding it) is central to ensuring a reasonably safe passage across the epistemological abyss between the hard world of fundamentalisms and the shimmering but much more adequate world of mature, constructed knowing. 

We used that very film clip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in an earlier edition of Confirm not Conform.

What else do you consider to be the role of the mentor? Does that change over time, depending on people’s developmental stage? 

It absolutely does change over time—both with the growth of the learner and that of the mentor as well. Imagine a teen-ager “mentoring” a ten-year-old. Surely the older of the two has much to offer the younger, but the pre-adolescent lives in a very different epistemological world than the teen, and will respond in accord with the way she makes meaning at the time. Coming from a less self-conscious and probably more authority-driven place than her older “mentor,” she may understand a given situation or dilemma in a very different way than what her mentor intended. And it is the older girl’s challenge to reach back into her own earlier understanding to translate if she is to provide real help. But both are working out of their own different frameworks which will, themselves, change over time at different rates and in differing aspects. So it becomes a very complex phenomenon. 

The same goes, of course, for later ages and developmental stages as well. Although mentors and protégés may occupy the same or similar developmental frameworks, we tend to think of the mentor as being one or two positions more mature if she is to provide the transformational context within which development can occur.  When I was teaching adult learners in Vermont, the majority were moving from a conventional to a post-conventional world. When Sharon was doing the research that led to Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, many of the young adults she worked with were similarly developing a new critical consciousness that moved them closer to a post-conventional orientation. Thus, while her students and mine were often different ages, they were doing similar developmental work. 

Now that we are each over seventy, however, we find ourselves in a rather different mentoring role. It is much less about enhancing students’ cognitive development than it is about holding a kind of model and in some cases, wisdom, for younger people—and as we age, that increasingly involves a wider and wider range of ages and developmental states! We now work shoulder to shoulder with a number of thirty and forty-something people and find, somewhat to our surprise, that they still look to us for certain kinds of guidance, modeling, and even inspiration. We often do not feel that we quite deserve the level of respect that we are given. After all, as I wrote years ago before I knew how true it was, that it’s important to remember that those whom we see as mentors are always creatures of our imaginations, constructed in part out of our own particular configuration of needs at the time. And yet at the same time, unworthy as we who are dubbed “mentors” may sometimes feel, it is important that we honor the projection, even as we may work slowly to dismantle or at least bring it to a more realistic level. And it is in the deconstruction of the projection that much of the important mentoring work is done, for it provides the stuff of which the younger one is then able to construct a more adequate self.   

So our work transforms, as do we, over the years as we age and hopefully grow wiser. And always it is our responsibility to use who we have become in the service of the flourishing of those who come after. I have always loved the story of the old Rabbi at the Bar Mitzvah. The boy reads a passage, then asks a question of the Rabbi who, instead of answering it, simply says, “You know, I wonder about that too.” 

Sharon writes about mentoring young adults in their 20’s. For Confirm not Conform, we’re mostly working with teens preparing for confirmation. How are the questions of meaning different for youth and for young adults? Is there an age that is too young for mentoring in faith? 

That’s another lovely question. I won’t attempt to answer it and know that Sharon would answer it wonderfully. But I do know that although she would probably say that the term, “mentor” does not apply well at younger ages, she would also strongly affirm that since children begin to learn the foundations of faith in the womb, no age is too young for us to care about the nature of the holding environment from the very earliest moments of development.  But youngsters and teens still need parents and additional adults to hold the peer community in healthy patterns. They have not yet entered the full force of responsible critical thought—a development for which a mentor is classically vital. 

Larry, one of the things you wrote that intrigued me was about the teacher as mentor. You write “Education is something we neither ‘give’ nor ‘do’ to our students. Rather, it is a way we stand in relation to them.” Can you talk about how we might stand in relation to students in our confirmation classes or spiritual formation program?

Yes. I have always believed that if learning is to be about more than knowledge acquisition, then what we most need to learn from true teachers (aka “mentors”) is the how more than the what.  What truly matters, what students most need to learn in spiritual formation, is a way of being in the world, a way of being in relationship with knowledge, surely, but more, with other human beings and more still, with the whole of Creation. I think that stance is ultimately one of curiosity, reverence, awe, wonder, respect, and love. That’s why I think that real education is much more about how we relate than what we study. 

One of my teachers likes to remind us that “one of the greatest acts of love is to say, ‘Look.’” 

Sharon also writes about the “mentoring environment,” in which a whole community becomes a place where faith is formed. She notes that these communities have certain features that “include a network of belonging, big-enough questions, encounters with otherness, important habits of mind, worthy dreams, access to key images, concepts (content), and practices that mediate these gifts of a mentoring community.” Whew! I could ask so many questions just about this sentence! But let me start with this: what are some steps our churches can take to create such an environment? Is there any one feature that you think is most important? 

These are wonderful questions and perhaps the best thing is to take a look at the section on religion at the end of her book. There is a whole section on religious faith communities.

I'll probably crib from that for a future blog post. 

One of the concerns we had when we wrote Confirm not Conform for Adults was that no one had asked adults in our churches any big questions since their own confirmation classes. What are some things our churches can do to help adults in our churches continue to ask the big questions and be transformed by faith? 

Sharon and I are both members of a small Quaker Meeting and I can tell you what we do, but that’s about it. We have a committee (which I chair at the moment) responsible for planning and implementing a monthly “Learning Meeting” in which we address the big questions on a regular basis, bringing folks together in a large group (12-20), introducing a topic for which there is usually some reading, discussing it, then breaking into small groups for an hour or so, and then returning for harvest. Our most recent session was on paradox and how people encounter and work with paradoxes in their public lives—especially in their volunteer work.  But I imagine most churches do something like this, don’t they?