Metaphors for mentoring: lids and rims

Is a mentor like training wheels on a bicycle? Do the brave not need them, staying up with a gentle shove and a good sense of balance? Is a mentor like staking a sapling until its roots can support it? If the stakes stay too long, the roots will never do their job. Or is your mentor more like your kindergarten teacher who knows both what to teach you and when you need a nap? Do these metaphors matter anyway to good mentoring?

We had dinner with friends last night who would say that they do. Stan shared with us that American Kennel Club descriptions of dog breeds can actually change those breeds to match the descriptions more closely. Nancy told a story of a scientist being surprised at how much someone from a humanities department cared about precise text. Both made it clear how language matters. What should a mentor strive for?

The metaphor that came to me recently comes from the tomato canning I’ve been doing this weekend. It is a simple process for this acid fruit. Cook the tomatoes down, run them through a strainer to take out the skins and butts, pour them into clean jars with a little citric acid and sterilize.  The trick is to let nothing in after the boiling water bath. It is done with a combination of a lid and a rim. Ultimately the lid does all the work, held by pressure to the glass jar as it cools. On a cool shelf, the rim can even be removed.

DSC05618But if you put the filled, lidded jars in the boiling water without the rims, the contents will spill out into the water, so the rims are crucial at this stage. They should be screwed down firmly but not too tightly. This is because in the tension between the rim and the lid, the lid should always win. It is the only party that can make a sterile seal with the jar.

I always worry about the dance between rim and lid. Have I screwed the rim down tightly enough to let the lid find its seal? Or have I screwed it down so tightly that an unconformity in the rim keeps the lid from finding its match?

After sterilizing, there is a clue that everything went well. The lid should not pop up when pushed, but should hold tight to the jar. If it doesn’t, you can open the jar, check the contact zone for tomato bits, reassemble jars, lids, and rims and resterilize. I had to do this for a few of the 80 pints of tomatoes I canned today.

IMG_0886By now you’ve probably figured out that the rim is the mentor, the lid is the student, and the jar and its contents are life and research. The rim needs to provide tight guidance early on in the boiling water bath, but ultimately it has to let go and let the lid find its own seal, particularly in the cooling stage. To push the metaphor a little further, it is all right to keep extended contact between rim and lid, so long as the rim doesn’t hold on too tightly. And never forget it is an iterative relationship.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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