Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 44 seconds
I will never ever forget Jon Nixon. Jon was my first PhD supervisor at the University of Sheffield in the UK, but he moved to another institution right after I passed my upgrade viva, so I only had him as a supervisor for about 18 months or so. But I could not have finished my thesis without him! And I would not be the person I am right now without him.
Here are the things I learned from Jon that I hope I can be as a mentor to others:
- We don’t mentor people because we have a formal role to do it. We can mentor anyone we feel could benefit from it, if they give us space to. Jon mentored me all through my PhD up until the very last moment. He read my drafts before I showed them to my supervisor, because Jon was retired at the time and could respond to me faster. He did for me a mock viva back in 2013 before people were regularly doing that kind of thing (and before Zoom and such).
- Mentoring can center care. His mentoring approach was careful about my heart and not just my intellect. He saw me as a whole person, recognized I was a woman with a child who needed to finish my PhD, operating on little sleep, major parenting responsibilities, and a need for intellectual stimulation and to achieve my ambition of completing the PhD in order to do more research beyond
- Mentoring is about believing in the person more than they believe in themselves. From the moment I finished the PhD, Jon had me writing a book review, helped me pitch a book to a publisher (this did not work out, but it’s OK, I think I needed more time), kept encouraging me through so much of my early work publishing and getting on editorial boards of journals and such, before I became a known expert in my field. I remember when he encouraged me to ask to contribute a book chapter to a book whose deadline for contributions had ended. I learned never to take deadlines as “set in stone” no matter what. Always ask. You have absolutely nothing to lose.
- Mentoring can be open and forever. He didn’t stop mentoring me when his duty towards me ended. He stayed in touch. He asked and found me again. He helped me get through the PhD. He helped me beyond the PhD. We invited him here to Cairo to give a keynote at my department’s symspoium in 2015 (this is where the photo is from) and I still remember hugging him when I picked him at his hotel the first day.
- Mentoring is personal. He knew about my family, I knew about his family. We discovered at some point that we had the same chronic illness when I shared with him that I was diagnosed. We exchanged notes about how this was affecting our pandemic experience.
I don’t think I can say enough about the impact Jon has had on me, but I know that this past week alone, three different people have thanked me for how I’ve mentored them, some of them short-term mentoring when a friend needed help; some of them ongoing mentoring; none of them directly “my duty” to mentor. Maybe to me mentoring has become like breathing? The most important thing I learned from Jon is that we can mentor anyone who needs this kind of care, and particularly when we see an inequity in that person’s access to mentoring. I was a remote PhD student whose supervisor was very busy with many other students to mentor. Other students could knock on his door and ask him questions. I could not. Other PhD students have daily access to alternative mentors. I did not. I was on maternity leave, all the way here in Egypt in a country that underwent political upheaval in huge ways twice in 2 years – I did not even have easy access to other educators at my institution who understand what I was doing my PhD in (I had some, but not enough who both understood education as a field AND the UK system – at the time, we did not have a full department of education yet).
Generous mentors offer to help, even before you realize you might need them, because most people don’t know they can ask, or that you have time for them. They help get you where YOU need to go. I know Jon cared about many of his students, but he always made me feel like I was special, and I hope that everyone I mentor feels the individual attention I try to offer them. I hope in my lifetime I can have the capacity to be for others what Jon Nixon was for me for so long.
It was with deep sadness that I learned from Jon’s wife that he passed away recently. The world has lost so much in losing Jon Nixon… but he lives on through everyone he has mentored, and through all of his books that he kept writing up until the very end. He helped me understand and interpret so many other great thinkers in education through his writing about them, which helped me a lot with Edward Said and Gadamer especially. My favorite book of his was Interpretive Pedagoges in Higher Education, but so many others are so beautiful. Check them out here. I’ve never seen anyone like him, but I will strive to be like him every day. And I will work harder to publish a book, he always wanted me to publish a book (or more!), and I will dedicate it to him. Inshallah