Monday, June 11, 2007

Advisor meeting

And, oh yes: I also saw Advisor this weekend.

In short, it was a delight. She was relaxed and chatty, gossiping mildly but not inappropriately about other advisees, former advisees, and people in our field, and telling me repeatedly how good I looked. Perhaps most flatteringly, she seemed genuinely happy to see me and to hear about my life. At one point, after I'd thanked her for a particular piece of professional advice, she said something to the effect that she'd enjoy keeping an eye on me--if I didn't mind her doing so. (To which I said, "I hope you will! Who else is going to?")

But here's the weirdest part:

Almost the first thing that Advisor asked me was how my personal life was going. Since we've virtually never discussed my personal life, this was unexpected. I told her that my boyfriend and I had recently broken up, and I think that I may have added an explanatory sentence or two. She blinked for a couple of moments, saying nothing, and then--as if recollecting the sentiment that was called for here--said, rather awkwardly, "Well. I'm sorry to hear that."

Conversation went on. Ten or fifteen minutes later I said something in passing about GWB, and she interrupted: "I have to admit that I'm not totally sorry to hear that your relationship has ended."

"Um." I said. "Okay. . ."

"Because you can do better."

I had no idea what she was talking about. She should know who GWB is (she was the outside-field member of his dissertation committee, and their intellectual interests have significant overlap), but on the occasions when I've reminded her of his identity it's been pretty clear that she has no recollection of him.

She continued, "You're going to be a. . . quietly influential mover in this field. And you can do better."

"Really." I said. "Okay. Well. Thanks!"

* * * * *

So, I have to ask: what the fuck was that all about? And what does my career--bright as it may or may not be--have to do with anything?

If we assume that Advisor doesn't actually remember who GWB is, we're left with three possible interpretations:

1) She was simply saying, in a maternal sort of way, that whoever the guy in question might be, anyone causing me drama could obviously be done-better-than. And P.S.: you rock and have a brilliant future ahead of you!

2) She meant that any relationship (but perhaps especially a long-distance one) must be a time-suck that I couldn't afford.

3) She thinks that I should go out and attach myself to someone important, who could be helpful to my career.

Now, I really don't think it's #2. As monstrously efficient as Advisor is, she's always been devoted to her partners and family; as long as one is on top of one's work, she approves of romantic relationships. #3 is totally gross, but not for that reason an invalid interpretation. Indeed, the decisiveness with which she made the comment, and the fact that it clearly came after some thought, makes that seem somewhat more likely than #1.

Dunno. But despite the grossness of what I think she might have meant, I left our meeting feeling ridiculously cheery. Because that's the way Advisor is: she makes pronouncements. And even when I know that she can't possibly have the necessary evidence to make those pronouncements, or when I don't respect the values that underly them--I tend always to believe her.

Dissertation directors, man. They're the gods that roam the earth.


heu mihi said...

Well, I read that comment somewhat differently (but rather weirdly, so I'm not sure that my interpretation makes sense). As in, Academics who date/marry other academics should be paired up with those who have roughly equal career trajectories (for the sake of symmetry? to avoid envy?). But that would suggest that your advisor has a very strange view of relationships, so it's probably not likely.

Or maybe she was using the career compliment as a general ego-booster--like, don't sell yourself short in your career or your relationships, because you're going to do extremely well.

Well, whatever her intentions, it was definitely a compliment!

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I got a lot of those comments when I broke up with ex. And I *think* I'm starting to see what people meant, because now I can see that they could see the ways in which he was dragging me down. Not that he's a bad person or trying to drag me down. Just that it wasn't what really would be best.

Anyway, sounds like a positive interaction. :)

Elizabeth said...

maybe in that time lag she remembered who he was and really thinks you can do better, in or out of the academic context? (i wonder if overall she has a better memory than you attribute to her--and she OBVIOUSLY thinks about you, despite your protestations to the contrary. . .)

one time a long time ago, a grad student married to a professor told me that *i* should get hooked up with a professor. THAT was gross and weird.

Flavia said...

JB (and Profgrrrrl): No, I think your first interpretation is probably correct, and I think it's a reasonable enough concern! It's just that GWB is doing quite well professionally, and even if Advisor doesn't remember him as a person or personality, she has reason to know that much, from what I've said about him.

And E: well, she seemed to believe that I was in town for my *graduation*, not my reunion, and she's failed to remember a crucial detail about one of my colleagues despite my telling and emailing her this information repeatedly and as recently as three days ago. I don't actually think that she has a bad memory, but I do think that things that are unimportant to her she doesn't bother to retain.

Anyway~~I've been mulling this over some more, and based on some other things that came up in our conversation, I'm beginning to suspect that she might have been thinking about someone (and I know exactly who that someone would be) she'd like to fix me up with. If so, that would still be weird and uncomfortable-making, but well-intentioned.

Ianqui said...

Dissertation directors, man. They're the gods that roam the earth.

I feel that way about my advisor too, since he happens to be both a genius in his field and an exceptional human being, but I just have this feeling that eventually my students aren't going to feel that way about me...

Anonymous said...

.. and was "quietly influential mover" a compliment?

Hieronimo said...

That's a pretty great Advisor meeting story, I have to say. So, my interpretation is a combination of a) general niceness, a general compliment that "you can do better"; and b) saying that you will become important in your field and that important academics in their field can, because they are so important, bed whatever hottie they want.

Seriously, I think she meant some part of b), not quite in those terms, but that's my guess. It's a pretty weird sentiment, but I think a lot of important academics in their field believe it. And the scarier thing is: judging by some of the matches I've seen out there, maybe they're right.

It's not that she thinks you "should go out and attach [your]self to someone important, who could be helpful to [your] career"--rather, it's the exact opposite: she thinks you will be that "someone important" and that good catches will want to attach themselves to you. Which is worse?

You must update us if and when she does try to set you up, and that info may help with the interpretations!

Tenured Radical said...

I think she meant #1, #2 and #3, given what you say about her personality. They do not rule each other out. I would also say it is quite possible that someone else told her that you and GWB broke up, and in the process, reminded her that she actually knew him and who he was. That kind of gossip gets around pretty quickly in our itty bitty little world.

Now, the doing better part is one of those odd mixed messages, isn't it? If it is a longish relationship that one is mourning, does one really want to be told that one sold oneself cheap in the first place? On the other hand, it is perfectly nice, even if you have no idea what you are talking about, to reassure the person that she is fabulous, far more fabulous than the lost beloved. It's the kind of thing John Donne would do.

Either way, discourage being fixed up with someone who might matter for now. It's way too soon, don't you think? It is not, however, too soon to flirt with extremely hunky and/or wealthy men, and let GWB know you are not sitting at home crying your eyes out. Isn't there a trip to Londodn in the works, where such men could be found and then discarded when they have played their destined role?


Fretful Porpentine said...

one time a long time ago, a grad student married to a professor told me that *i* should get hooked up with a professor. THAT was gross and weird.

Heh. A long time ago, one of my undergrad professors told me I should hook up with one of my students once I got to professorial age. (That would have been gross and weird, except he's the sort of guy who doesn't have any internal filters and says that kind of stuff all the time without meaning anything by it, and by that point in my senior year I was used to it.)

Oh, and hi, Flavia! I've been reading your blog for a while, but I don't think I've said hello yet.

squadratomagico said...

Here's my interpretation: Advisor usually has no clue who GWBoyfriend is. However, when you mention, perhaps with some apparent distress, that you two have broken up, she begins searching in the back of her mind in order to remember who he is. By the time you mention him again, 10 minutes later, she's retrieved the memory: Ahhh! That guy whose committee I was on!

Her ensuing comment, that you can do better, is thus a sincere reflection of her thoughts about him. There was something about him that she did not like. He can be doing well in her career, yet still have struck her as less-than-brilliant, lacking in creativity, or some other quality she values. Or perhaps she found him arrogant. At any rate, I'd suggest that it *was* an informed comment, and that the time lag is the key to understanding it.

I also agree with TR -- have a fling!

Flavia said...

Squadrato: you know, that could totally be true. I can well imagine that there might have been things about GWB when he was a grad student (which was nearly six years ago, and if he hadn't changed in the interim, we wouldn't have stayed together for as long as we did) that might have been less than totally impressive to Advisor.

FP: welcome! I'm glad you said hello.

TR: yes, that's exactly right. On the one hand, one does wish to hear that one is awesome, can do better, etc. But on the other. . . does one want to? Or think that's a useful description of the situation?

And I'm totally not taking this possible set-up seriously. First of all, even IF this were what Advisor had in mind, I have no reason to think that the gentleman has been consulted. Second, I think I would have a problem having anything other than a professional relationship with someone of the. . . er. . . status in question.

anthony grafton said...

As an advising unit, let me assure you that we often mean much less than it may seem. I'm often fascinated, and sometimes appalled, by the hermeneutics applied to advisers' speech and writing, sometimes years after the communications in questions were made. Really, all most of us want to do is help you write the best theses you can, find decent jobs and research support, publish your work and lead happy lives in other respects.

I have made any number of supportive (at least I hope they were supportive) remarks to students whose relationships were in crisis or had fallen apart, and sometimes have suggested that the former partner didn't deserve the student I hoped to cheer up. But I can promise you that I never meant to suggest any romantic or marital strategy--far less anything as gross as deliberate academic hypogamy. Reading this thread has made me rethink some of those remarks, and think that in the future I won't make them.

anthony grafton said...

Sorry, looked at from the student's standpoint, that should have been phrased in the opposite way: anything as gross as deliberate academic hypergamy!

Many apologies, a pre-coffee confusion.

Flavia said...


Thanks for your comments--we all do (or, okay, *I* do) become rather feverish about the things our advisors say, don't we? I'm trying to work through that, and it was a truly lovely meeting; I'm happy with where our relationship is these days.

That being said. . . this wouldn't be the first time, or I the first person, who has received unusual (or semi-inappropriate) personal advice from Advisor.

anthony grafton said...

Well, after all, even we dim advising units have our individual quirks . . .

medieval woman said...

But Anthony, before you were an "advising unit" you were a grad student - did you ever (over-)interpret things your advisor said? I'm already certain that my advisees have taken some of my comments down interesting side-streets of interpretation - as have Flavia's.

Flavia, I'm glad you had a good meeting with Advisor - it sounds like she genuinely likes you as a scholar and as a person (what's not to like?) and it sounds like your relationship is transitioning nicely into a relationship between colleagues.

anthony grafton said...

Medieval woman seems on the money on the meeting as a whole. As to my own distant past as grad student--in honesty, my adviser was a master of direct, precise, pointed language. I certainly remember resenting some of the things he said, and warmly appreciating others. But I don't recall a lot of elaborate interpretation going on in my cohort. Different times, different customs. We were in many ways far less sophisticated than grad students are now--and in most respects I think that was a disadvantage. But not in all . . .

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have been (and still am!) way guilty of over-interpreting my advisor's remarks - perhaps because she is generally a person of few words (ESPECIALLY in e-mail) so sometimes my fellow advisees and I felt like acolytes of the Delphic oracle!

And I say unto you again, Flavia: did we have the same advisor? I can so see my advisor having this conversation!

(But yes, I am quite sure that I over-analyze what she's said to me.)

I also have to confess that my reading of the conversation was not so much that you could do better with another guy, but that you could do better by focusing on your career and not being dragged down by concerns about a relationship. But I think here I'm channeling my own advisor... (who, I should add, has never explicitly suggested anything of the kind, but whose husband used to tell us that academics shouldn't marry till they had tenure).

Tenured Radical said...

Heavens, what a fascinating exchange. Here's my theory: that advisors have become ever more the objects of various kinds of projection the more difficult the job market and having a career as a tenured intellectual have become. One of the things I have been thinking about lately, for example, is that at Zenith we are all up in arms about the number of people having difficulty with tenure and promotions (yours truly included.) Part of the presumption is that to not get tenure is to have one's career ended involuntarily. But actually, to hear stories of the 1960's and seventies, all kinds of people were turned down for tenure -- and went on to other jobs, usually at the same level. While it was a blow, it wasn't career-ending for most people.

Now the market has changed significantly: getting a job at all, in some fields, is quite a feat, as there are barely any (we ran a search in a specific field of modern European history a few years back: 500 applications, sportsfans, some people who had been on the market four or five years.) And many people are quite grateful for jobs at state schools people with a similarly prestigious degree would not have craved fifteen years ago, and many of those young scholars imagine that they will stay at that school for a big chunk of their career.

This is all to say, I don't think the advisors have really changed -- they all have their quirks -- it's that anyone in a gatekeeping role appears to be exponentially more influential nowadays, and all those quirks are being read like tea leaves as an indicator of who will be allowed to succeed.

I'm not sure that there is much graduate advisors can do about that. One analogy I would draw is that I have seen Zenith students comment -- on my blog and on RateMy Professors but not (significantly) on the university teaching evaluation form -- that I like my lesbian students best. I honestly have no idea why anyone believes this, including if I count them up, the majority of my thesis students have been the dreaded straight white men, which should leave me open to other critiques too fearsome for a Radical (and a feminist) to contemplate. And yet, I periodically run into these comments about how I like the lesbian students best. All I can say is, I am sure it is connected to something real that students are observing, but: ?????????

Susan said...

TR -- As a survivor of the market of the early 80s (at least as bad as it is now) and tenure denial, I'm not sure it has changed so much. (And I have survived professionally, if a bit on the margins.) I think grad school is much more professional than it was in the late 70s: more attention to building a CV, teaching etc. It was pretty loose back in the day.

But still, we did often over-interpret our advisors comments!