Friday, May 08, 2015

The sincerest form of you-know-what

This semester I had a new experience: an M.A. student whose proposed project made me say, "Damn! I want to write that!"

I've had students write good papers before, of course; one or two I've even thought might be publishable. But this is the first time I've read a prospectus and thought, yeah! I've been noticing that, too! and this is totally the kind of work I might do and seriously: this has never been written about? because this needs to be written about.

As new as this experience is for me, it must be relatively common for others, especially those who work with doctoral students. Teaching always means seeding the ground a bit, training students to do the kind of work--focus on the issues, ask the questions, pursue the methodologies--that we find interesting. Combine that with very smart students and students engaged in long-term projects, and it makes sense that the intellectual current would flow both ways. Still, the ethical issues can get murky.

In my case, it's no big deal: my student's topic is a cool one, and something I might be interested in keeping on a back burner, but it's not meaningfully related to anything I'm doing right now and my front burners are full up. If my student delivers on the promise of the prospectus, then cool: I'll recommend transforming it into a thesis and/or a journal submission. If not (or if the student eventually writes a thesis on some other subject), then the ground is clear for me to work on this topic someday.

Other cases are more complicated. I have friends who've felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition when reading the latest book of a former mentor. None of my friends were or felt themselves to have been robbed--but when a senior scholar produces work that arguably overlaps with or grows out of the work their students or juniors were working on years ago. . . well, I'm not sure who owes what to whom, but I'm pretty sure a gracious mention in the acknowledgments is a minimum.


Renaissance Girl said...

My most brilliant mentee ever wrote a senior thesis that I envied. She presented a version of it at a good conference, but has subsequently pursued another profession. I spoke to her recently about that project, and we decided that I would expand it significantly (it was about 20 pages) and publish it as a co-authored piece between the two of us. It's a win for everyone: she'll get credit for a brilliant idea, it's a project that should be out there contributing to the world of knowledge, and I'll get to run with an argument that is so near to the heart of my own research history but that I didn't arrive at without the innovative perspective of my student.

Flavia said...


That's a really lovely solution. I'd hope that we all want our students to do their own work and pursue it as far as they can (and that we're not so hard up for ideas that we're raiding theirs!). But when a student doesn't want to pursue a project further, it's hard to feel that that might be it, and no one else gets to benefit from their insights.

Historiann said...

This is so interesting. My next project was inspired by a thesis a grad student of mine was writing (and is still trying to finish, I hope). I hope she doesn't in the end feel like your friends who got the "uncomfortable frisson of recognition when reading the latest book of a former mentor." But of course, her thesis is just one work among a series of books on a set of topics in the last several years that have inspired me.

I will surely acknowledge her work and its role in bringing me into this new set of questions & evidence, esp. because she's unlikely ever to publish it (and it's a M.A. thesis, not a Ph.D.) Somehow it seems right to work harder to acknowledge work like this, as opposed to those who have published books & are established scholars in the field. Proper thanks and credit should go to them as well, but they already have a platform for sharing their ideas, whereas the authors of unpublished M.A. theses don't.

Andrew Stevens said...

I am resigned to hearing the word "mentee" in a corporate context, but surely university English departments should be free from this scourge. May I suggest protégé or, for classicists, telemachus?

Flavia said...


YES. This is exactly the issue--noblesse oblige, if you will. I never had the full experience of feeling inappropriately borrowed from (and thank goodness) but I remember quite vividly how disappointed I was, as a grad student or recent Ph.D., when senior luminaries with whom I'd exchanged work or to whom I'd given significant research leads failed to cite (or, in one case, even remember) me. Obviously, we should cite all the people who helped us along the way, but our juniors stand to benefit the most--and are the most likely to notice and remember.

They're also the most vulnerable, in the sense that they often don't have jobs, or many publications, and are the most likely to be anxious about being scooped; I've got a few nervous looks when I've said something like, "wow, what a great dissertation topic! I'm working on something similar for my second book!" So I try to be careful, when I ask a grad student or recent Ph.D. if they'd send me a copy of their conference paper or diss chapter, to add, "I definitely want to cite your work," or "please let me know if this gets published, so I can cite the most recent version."


You may suggest away. But sometimes, in blog comments threads, we're not always reaching for the most elegant phrasings.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, I certainly meant no serious criticism. "Mentee" has now been around for fifty years and I'm almost certainly fighting a losing battle. It's a hideous formation though, given the etymology of the word "mentor," which does not mean "one who ments" (or presumably minds).

I'm really hoping to get "telemachus" to catch on, but that's surely hopeless. Pushing for protégé is probably the best I can do.

Withywindle said...

"Ward." "Mini-me." "Pyschodramaturgue." "Eve Harrington."

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I've been acknowledged twice in footnotes for inspiring an idea. One of those writers was a medievalist, and my idea was not something I would have pursued. It was just an observation. The second was a Shakespeare person, but again, it was an off-the-cuff observation that wasn't something I was really interested in. If I saw an idea that I was actually working on in a mentor's or friend's work -- acknowledged or not -- I would be PISSED. But that may be because of where I am in life now. I have little enough time to do research, so if someone scoops my big idea that I have such little time to work on, I would lose it. I'm not sure what if anything could be done about it, but I would certainly be very unhappy.