From Advising to Mentoring: Shifting the Metaphor

Annette M. Holba
Plymouth State University

Volume: 14
Article first published online: November 28, 2012
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1461318


Institutions of higher education should reconsider and reposition academic advising as mentoring. By shifting the metaphor from advising to mentoring, we discover how to better help our students develop the skills they need to be successful in their public and private domains. This essay considers the meaning of “mentor,” from its origins in philosophical thought to practical applications in contemporary experience, and identifies selected literature on academic advising pertinent to making this linguistic shift. By revisiting the rhetorical education of Isocrates (436–338 BCE) and the philosophy of John of Salisbury (Johannes Parvus, 1120–1180 CE), this essay invites us to think about our holistic responsibility to our students and how mentoring can serve in this responsibility.

Keywords: advising; mentoring; metaphor


Institutions of higher education should reconsider and reposition academic advising as faculty/student mentoring. By shifting the metaphor from advising to mentoring, we discover we can better help our students develop the skills they need to be successful in their public and private domains pertaining to matters such as seeking employment, continuing on to graduate studies, or exploring their individual worldviews. The mentor-mentee relationship between faculty and students is key to student successes and contributes to the development and growth of programs and majors (Coll & Draves, 2009). This essay first considers the meaning of “mentor,”from its origins in philosophical thought to practical applications in contemporary experience, and secondly identifies selected literature on academic advising that represents issues in academic advising today. Third, the essay revisits the rhetorical education of Isocrates (436–338 BCE) and the philosophy of John of Salisbury (also known as Johannes Parvus, 1120–1180 CE) to consider shifting the advising metaphor to mentor in higher education. Fourth, this essay invites us to think about our holistic responsibility to our students and how mentoring can serve in this responsibility. In our current historical moment, as we struggle with potential decreases in enrollment, increases in tuition, and a shift toward skills-based programs (Levine and Nidiffer, 1996), we must consider how we can help our students successfully complete programs of study in a timely manner and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in life as well.

Academic advising has been the customary practice in higher education for years (Scholsser, Lyons, Talleyrand, Kim, & Johnson, 2011). Advising sometimes falls short of mentoring in that many faculty view academic advising as a duty to tell students which courses to take for the next semester (Shaffer, Zalewski, & Leveille, 2010). When it comes to talking about the future path of a student, the possibility of declaring a minor, or how the student is doing with time management, academic advising does not necessarily or naturally include these conversations (Baker & Griffin, 2010; Shaffer, Zalewski, & Leveille, 2010). Some institutions see academic advising as teaching, though there is little or no assessment related to advising efforts (Hall, Graham, & Johnson, 2009; Hester, 2008). The research of scholars such as Wes Habley, Terry Kuhn, and Gary Padak confirms that academic advising currently does not meet the standard of scholarship and is yet to be considered a discipline or field of inquiry itself (Shaffer, Zalewski, & Leveille, 2010). By shifting our framework of advising to an attitude and approach of mentoring our students, we provide them with tools for success and contribute to the success of our institution at the same time. The metaphor of mentor is a textured concept. This essay begins with understanding the concept of mentoring through storytelling.

The Role of Mentor

In Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 800 BCE/2000), Mentor was charged with watching over Telemachus, the son of his friend Odysseus, for a particular period of time. At one point in the story, Athena took the form of Mentor and encouraged, supported, and advised Telemachus in his dealings with events that touched his personal life in challenging ways. This was not the only point in the story when someone took the form of Mentor to provide support, direction, and advice to another person. In popular culture today, mentors are teachers, role models, examples of best practices in workplace environments, and people who embody just and right engagement and good citizenship in society and within one’s family.

In storytelling, the archetype of a mentor teaches moral actions, guides another less-experienced individual through unknown and unpredictable experiences, and encourages the other when in doubt. Homer’s stories resonate with us as they provide universal messages that are relevant to human nature across time and culture. In fact the rhetorical act of storytelling in Greek culture is itself a mentor to storytelling and storytellers around the world. The reason for this universal effect can be explained through Walter Fisher’s (1987) narrative paradigm in which he provides the rubric for what it means to be persuaded by stories. According to Fisher (1987), people make decisions based on good stories that have narrative rationality. Narrative rationality is measured by two aspects, narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. Narrative coherence can be determined by asking the question, “Does this story make sense (or are there holes in the story that do not make sense)?” Narrative fidelity can be measured by asking the question, “Does this story resonate with what I already know or have experienced?” Fisher’s narrative paradigm is based upon the stories that make up our individual lives. Stories have significant power and influence over us—stories teach us and guide us as well. Understanding how stories influence us can help us to shape experiences that our students have when they get to college. The next section explores selected literature on academic advising and mentoring in college today.

Selected Literature Review on Mentoring in Higher Education

There is an undeniable relationship between academic mentoring by faculty or advising staff and academic success for students (Jacobi, 1991). Mentoring at the college level is a valuable strategy that helps students successfully earn their college degrees (Coles, 2011). Mentoring is a useful strategy when high school seniors transition to their first-year college experience as well as when college seniors prepare to graduate and transition into the workforce (Levine & Nidiffer, 1996; Pascarella, 1980). Crisp and Cruz (2009) conducted a literature review on mentoring in higher education and suggested that the role of the mentor would become increasingly more important as economic challenges confront higher education. Crisp and Cruz (2009) identified fifty different definitions of mentoring in the social sciences. There are common characteristics identified within these definitions that include a learning partnership between a less experienced and a more experienced person (Garvey & Alred, 2003); emotional and instrumental functions (Jacobi, 1991; Kram, 1985); and a relationship that grows and strengthens over time (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). It is also helpful to acknowledge that students’ individual and particular lives might mean that mentoring goals will differ from student to student, and faculty or advising staff must be perceptive in recognizing the differing goals for individual students (Coles, 2011).

Coles (2011) identified formal and informal mentoring experiences. Formal mentoring occurs intentionally and with a particular purpose; informal mentoring occurs naturally and typically during the course of communicative interactions both inside and outside of the classroom. Faculty or advising staff may be called to engage both kinds of mentoring. The mentoring of students should include helping students select the right courses, assist students with monitoring their social commitments and student organizations, discuss options for graduate studies, provide insight into finding employment and maybe help with resume building and interviewing for employment. Mentoring might also include more sensitive content as well. Mentoring includes referring students to support services and knowing your mentee well enough to identify or recognize when something is wrong and may warrant referral for specialized care.

There are many tools to help faculty learn what it means to be a mentor and include recommendations on how to become an effective mentor as well (Jacobi, 2006). Shaffer, Zalewski, and Leveille (2010) identified theory as being central to successful mentoring in that theory will provide faculty with a deeper understanding of the reasons they should approach mentoring in a particular way. Another element to being an effective mentor is demonstrating an attitude of acceptance that mentoring is different from academic advising and it is not limited to academic matters. The kinds of things for which faculty mentors are responsible will sometimes go beyond selecting courses with students. Mentoring has been a natural part of world cultures since before Homer’s stories of human relationships. Considering two philosophical perspectives on the concept of mentoring provides a philosophical grounding to underscore the value of mentoring to both faculty and student.

Isocrates and John of Salisbury

Isocrates (436–338 BCE) emphasized the importance of a rhetorical education and attributes of good citizenship. He was well versed in human nature and human relationships; he prescribed attributes of good leaders and what it meant to be a good teacher both inside and outside of the classroom. Isocrates exemplified best practices in mentorship as defined by Greek culture and created a framework to help to build and nurture the mentor-mentee relationship. Likewise, John of Salisbury (1115–1176 CE) developed the metaphor of “footprints” to exemplify his understanding of mentoring. Salisbury embodied the qualities of an Isocratic mentor/mentee model, but he also added texture to our understanding of the nature of this relationship. This section introduces Isocrates’ philosophy on mentoring and explores John of Salisbury’s metaphor of footprints to enrich our understanding of the mentor-mentee relationship. These reflections help us think about how we can shift to the metaphor of mentoring in our own practices.


Isocrates exemplified the good citizen in word and deed. He taught the common man and instructed leaders in the art of leading by example and by being open to learning from others or treating learning as a reciprocal experience (Poulakos, 1997). For Isocrates, a king or leader is a mentor who teaches subjects to be good leaders and good citizens. In Nicocles, Isocrates provided prescriptive words to leaders who are mentors to their followers, demonstrating an ethical and empowering leadership agenda (Poulakos, 1997). Isocrates told Nicocles to be a good king, he must first and foremost be a good leader in general and mentor to the particular aspects of being just, moderate, and ethical (Poulakos, 1997). Isocrates indicated that once one becomes a good leader, one must continue to assist others reach excellence in what they do and in their communicative actions (Poulakos, 1997). Outside a formal rhetorical education, Isocrates advocated that leaders live by example. This is an ethical responsibility—to guide those less able or from less means. This makes the leader a good citizen in the polis.

As a mentor/adviser, Isocrates went beyond what other sophists taught about rhetorical action. Poulakos (1997) told us that “Isocrates distinguishes himself from those who treat public speaking largely as a means of amassing personal fortunes and instead represents himself as a principled and responsible teacher ….” (p. 4). In his instruction to Nicocles, Isocrates provided mentorship to many leaders that is philosophical in nature—teaching the art of living a good life with others; doing right and being good.

In Antidosis, Isocrates (354–353 BCE/1929) continued this call for mentoring and advising about what not to do if one wants to be a good leader and a good citizen. First and foremost, one should not waste youth on drinking, parties, or childish folly that causes one to neglect cultivating the rhetorical arts in education. Isocrates argued that maintaining distance from these activities of folly cultivates one’s external image and the faithfulness of the soul. He made the case that mentoring cultivates the interiority of one’s being as equally as it does the external image that others see and judge (Isocrates, 354–353 BCE/1929). For Isocrates, being a mentor and opening one’s self as a mentee requires a gymnastic of the mind—preparation for philosophy and subsequently, wisdom. Several hundred years later a medieval perspective on mentoring would become a central voice supporting the art of mentoring.

John of Salisbury

John of Salisbury wrote Policraticus in the twelfth century. In it he imparted a prescriptive philosophical political theory advancing a philosophy of rule and an ethical approach to political leadership. In Cary Nederman’s (Salisbury, 1159/1992) introduction to his translation for Policraticus, he argued that Policraticus is the “first extended work of political theory written during Latin Middle Ages” (p. xv). In it, Salisbury provides exempla and stories that teach the reader right action. Salisbury presents high standards for the common man and for leaders/rulers. Some of the main concepts that he emphasized in mentoring are moderation, self-discipline, and moral character in words and deeds. Salisbury’s mentoring was quite naturally comparable to that of Isocrates, but what distinguishes his idea of mentoring can be seen in the footprints metaphor he used.

One of the guiding metaphors in Policraticus is “footprints,” which represents the ideal of mentoring (Salisbury, 1159/1992). Salisbury explained that the value of writing things down is that writing illuminates examples from our ancestors that serve as inducements and incitements to virtue. In short, we can learn from the action of others. A mentor is the writer and reminder of the past, and the mentee must be open to learning from the mentor and the past experiences of others. Footprints are experiences from the past that illuminate the present and, potentially, the future.


If we look for one word to exemplify Salisbury’s idea on mentorship, that word would be “footprints.” Salisbury (1159/1992) wrote many letters to those at every level of leadership. He indicated that his letters are like “footprints” (p. 3) in that they provide footsteps for humanity as we live our lives together. One example of Salisbury’s prescriptive mentoring comes in the form of his instructions about moderation in all actions. He wrote that certain past times are allowable in moderation, because if there is no moderate approach, then there can be no circumspection and actions can become thoughtless—paving the way for mistakes in one’s decision making and actions (Salisbury, 1159/1992). Some of the activities he refers to include gambling, hunting, musical performance, and theatre involvement/attendance. Salisbury tells his readers the conditions under which they can participate in these activities and to what extent. This kind of prescription is a social mentoring—a bit different from Isocrates, who focused on professional mentoring in the context of interpersonal and organizational experiences. Salisbury provides six explicit points on which to mentor a leader: 1) be oblivious to carnal desires, 2) do what is demanded of oneself for others, 3) treat those served with affection, 4) present self to other people as they prefer to be, 5) desire love over fear, and 6) be successful and ethical over adversaries (Salisbury, 1159/1992). Salisbury brought the footsteps alive through exempla—stories that were particularly relevant to the issues at hand. Salisbury found great value in mentorship as he sought his own mentor (Pieper, 1960); a fitting public recognition that he too needed to learn from others through their footsteps.

Conclusion: On Mentoring

While these are only brief comments using ancient and medieval exempla to advocate shifting the metaphor in the academy from academic advising to mentoring, it opens the discussion and rationale for this shift. Friedrich Schiller (2004) posited mentoring as intellectual enlightenment—training the sensibility of another’s improvement. In many institutions today, academic advising instead of mentoring is customary, but academic advising falls short of the potential that mentoring can provide. In this historical moment exemplified by rising costs of higher education and in recognition of our ethical responsibility toward students, it is a fitting time for institutions across the nation to shift to mentoring as an appropriate response to our students and to higher education in general.


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Annette M. Holba is an associate professor of rhetoric at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. She can be reached at