Sunday, December 31, 2006

Approval-seeking, still and always

For the past couple of weeks--or ever since I received a very good piece of news about a proposed essay of mine, one that would represent entirely new work--I've been walking around composing in my head the email message that I plan to send to my dissertation director. You know what I'm talking about, or perhaps some of you do: the "hey, I'm just checking in to tell you how fabulously I've been doing, and about all the amazing projects I have going on, so please don't forget that I exist, because I'll probably need another recommendation letter from you before too long. Okay, bye-ee!"

(Or maybe you have a different kind of relationship with your own dissertation director--the kind that George Washington Boyfriend has with his. GWB emails him every month or two, about all kinds of things, large or small, and gets an immediate, thoughtful, and helpful reply. Nice if you've got it.)

There's pragmatism, obviously, in my desire to keep my advisor in the loop, since none of us is ever really not on the market--if not the job market, then the market for a book contract, a speaking engagement, or just for new contacts, collaborators, or professional friends. And really, given the dual career thing that GWB and I have going on, I could go back on the job market at any time (although I really hope that that time isn't next fall). So it's good to touch base now and again. But the thing here is that my advisor is not and never has been the kind of person that I could go to with problems or just to bounce ideas off. She is, I know, proud of me when I succeed. And every once in a while she has said something astonishingly complimentary about my work. But she likes to be associated with success, and I feel that aside from the occasional query--"help! I really want to participate in this collection, but am I going to be overpublishing material from my dissertation if I do?"--I can't admit to uncertainties. To interest her at all, I have to be presenting ever-new and at least modestly impressive accomplishments.

But this is all okay. In the end, having a more distant advisor worked just fine for me, and despite some of the psychic trauma that she casually inflicted along the way, having a slavish need to please her probably was (and continues to be) an effective motivator for me.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel some of my old middle-child resentment when I ran into Younger Sister at MLA. Younger Sister is on the market this year, and while we engaged in the usual eye-rolling about Advisor's behavior, Younger Sis is obviously her pet: Advisor has been emailing her almost daily to give fresh advice or to get updates about Younger Sis's interviews. She did almost the same thing with Elder Sister. By contrast, she was extremely uninvolved in my own two years of job searching, never emailing me to check in and never even replying to my messages unless they involved a campus visit.

But I'm going to try to put all this out of my mind when I email Advisor. Whether she likes her other advisees or former advisees better than me doesn't matter. Whether they are, in fact, doing better than I am doesn't matter. I just need to concentrate on--and do--my own stuff.


Hieronimo said...

Sadly, I think this never ends. My own director, I have good reason to suspect, still has something of a love/hate relationship with his director (who is still alive and quite famous), probably leaning towards the latter half of that dyad.

I always imagine it like Zeus, Kronos, and Uranus. The other option is to do what Renaissance apprentices habitually did: wait for your Master to die and then marry his widow.

Either way seems to work.

Happy new year!

Chaser said...

This is me!! This is totally me! My nemesis was the guy I refer to as Golden Boy. While advisor would shoo me out of his office after 10 minutes, GB would spend at least an hour in there every other day. And now they are writing a book together. I'm not the middle child, but I was neglected as a child while my mother lavished attention on my brother, and I completely project this onto the new relationship.

I OTOH, don't write emails to my former advisor. I'm one of those types who, if rejected, turns her tail in the air and walks off like a kitty. I just secretly hope I achieve fame that he only dreams of, along with his little toady GB.

Hieronomo made me snort coffee btw.

Flavia said...

H: although I'm sure that the dyad you meant was the love/hate one, I initially read it as alive/famous.

And indeed, I can think of quite a few scholars who--though still living--are at this point more famous than alive.

(And Chaser: I'm glad it's not just me!)

Hieronimo said...

I can't tell you how much I prefer your interpretation, Flavia.

Tenured Radical said...


Do keep your dissertation director updated, paricularly sending stuff to read once in a while becauase when it comes time to write the letter, she doesn't want to have to play catch-up ball. ake it from One Who Knows.

But here's a hint: when you do write, ask how she is -- better yet, ask how her work is coming. A tentative move by you to a more adult/equals relationship will be somewhat reassuring and may give you more confidence in your own progress towards independence. My diss. director was (is) a somewhat unusual person, but over time we have become friends, talking over research in ways that are really mutual. I am very proud to say she recently asked me to write a letter for a ffellowship -- and it felt really great, because she has done so much for me that to be able to return it as an act of friendship was really great.



Horace said...

While my advisor scenario involves decidedly less fame than yours, I do know the sense of general neglect when others seem to get all the love.

My approach has been to keep in touch as if nothing is the matter, convinced that someday, he will realize that not only am I more productive and beloved by the masses and the elite than my grad school peers, but him as well, he shall realize the error of his ways, and he will begin asking me for advice and contacts.

This illusion got me defended and got me a perfectly decent job, so I have no reason to change tactics now...

Dr. Crazy said...

I've got to second Horace's strategy, as it's been what I've been doing for the past few years and it seems to be working! (And given the fact that my adviser is the most "fashionable" of this year's MLA, I'm pretty pleased that he seems interested in what I'm doing now more than ever before - perhaps I too will become fashionable by association?)

It was so great to meet you!

Anonymous said...

TR makes a very good point. As an aged and crochety dissertation adviser, I have committed many sins and errors, from slow replies to email to much worse. But I do also spend a lot of time, thought and energy trying to give each student, present or former, such help, advice and support as I can. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate it when former students treat me not as more than a machine for the production of recommendations. So check in with former advisers from time to time. Ask about their work and themselves. Send them your own publications.

And one more point--offered from the standpoint, the only one I can occupy, of the aged advising unit. If you don't do any of this, if you never contact that former teacher except to ask for professional help, if he/she plays no part in your current intellectual life--shouldn't you find someone else, whose mind and thought really do matter to you, to write those letters?

Clearly, this isn't Flavia's position. But believe me, it happens, regularly.

Happy new year to the creator of this excellent blog!

Tony Grafton

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oy. Tony Grafton's comment cuts a little too close to home with me! (makes note to send off chatty e-mails...) I really appreciate this post and the comments, because this is an issue with which I have problems too... thanks, Flavia!