I've been thinking about what we learn from our advisors, and how: the doctoral candidate may design the topic and do the work, but the resulting dissertation is often recognizably "the kind of thing X's students do."
In a limited way, this is just about specialization or methodology: you work with Advisor A if you want to do book history; Advisor B if you're interested in Lacan and gender; Advisor C if your project is on political theology. Grad students may come to their program knowing they want to work on a given subject with a given supervisor, or they're exposed to those topics and methods during their coursework, or they're gently or not-so-gently steered toward a particular approach by the questions their advisors ask or their suggestions for further reading.
But so much of what a scholar does or is known for can't be taught directly. If your advisor is a masterful prose stylist--or has a knack for exciting archival discoveries--or is a brilliant close-reader--or has built a new theoretical paradigm--well, how exactly does one teach that?
When I was deciding whom to work with, I was deciding between two people. I chose my advisor over the other logical choice purely because of what I perceived to be our temperamental or work-style compatibility. Otherwise, I thought the two were pretty equivalent: I'd taken classes from both; both worked on the kinds of things I was interested in; both were smart and well-regarded. I had no sense that their approaches or emphases might differ, or that that would matter.
I don't know, actually, that my dissertation would have looked much different if I'd worked with my other possibility, though I can now see clear differences between the kind of work both do and it seems obvious that I made the better choice. (But then we're back where we started: did I make the right choice because my work was always a better fit for my advisor's interests. . . or does it just seem that way because the work I produced emerged under her supervision?)
But though the overlap in our field of interest is significant, I haven't, in the past, thought much about what I might have learned from my advisor about research, writing, and thinking. Partly this is because we had a very hands-off relationship, but it's also because advisors usually don't teach us the most important things in any explicit way.
Still, I think there's one major lesson my advisor taught me. She communicated it in many ways over the years, but the first and most obvious instance happened at the lowest point in our relationship.
I had just submitted a draft of my first chapter and was meeting with my full committee to discuss it. My advisor and I had met one-on-one a few days earlier, and between that meeting and this I was pretty sure she'd written me off. She said almost nothing, letting the other two members of my committee do the heavy lifting. My draft wasn't great, but they tried to be encouraging, asking questions and making an effort to help me reframe the central text I was analyzing.
Finally, I said, "look: I know this draft isn't going anywhere. But I have this--I don't know, feeling--that this text is really doing XYZ. But that's totally unprovable, and ridiculous, and I know I can't argue it, so I'm stuck."
My other committee members gave no sign that this was any more or less interesting than anything else I'd said, but my advisor reacted as if I'd set off firecrackers in her office.
"YES!" She said. "That! Write that."
It would be wrong to describe this as a major turning point; I left the meeting feeling marginally better, but I still didn't know how I could possibly do the thing I vaguely wanted to do--and that particular chapter gave me trouble well into the revisions for my book manuscript. But in retrospect, I see my advisor as imparting two related lessons:
First, have faith in your own weird hunches, even if you don't yet have good evidence for them--and even if you can't articulate, in words, why the thing you think might be interesting actually is interesting. Not all of them will pan out, but they are, truly, your only hope for originality.
Second, don't be afraid to make a big claim. "Big" doesn't mean world-changing or paradigm-shifting, but something whose stakes are obvious and up front. We tell our students that a good argument should be contestable, and the same principle applies to scholarship: an air-tight case isn't exciting. One that says "okay. . . but what if we looked at it this way?" is.
My advisor and I are very different, and I've never expected to have anything like her career. Still, from this distance, I'm pretty sure that she's responsible for whatever argumentative and intellectual fearlessness I've acquired.