Sunday, December 11, 2011

Resisting the urge to stage mom

This semester I've been directing two independent projects: one M.A. thesis and one undergraduate honors thesis. It's my first time directing a thesis of any sort, and though I've been a second reader on at least half a dozen--and in some cases got pretty intimately involved in the project--being this up-close and personal with another person's thought process has been interesting.

On the most basic level, it's hard to guide usefully without guiding too much, and it's hard not to be disappointed when a smart student nevertheless doesn't quite get what you're saying or go as far as you think he or she could go. I spent a lot of time talking ideas through with both students, trying to help them to recognize certain connections that they seemed to intuit but couldn't quite express--and in both cases it was mildly frustrating to lead them right up to an idea and not have them able to make the final leap on their own.

That's fine, of course, and they both did some good work; when it comes right down to it, a thesis is more a skills-building exercise--a demonstration of growth and mastery--than something that needs to be lovely and perfect in itself. (God knows, this is how I came to see my own graduate seminar papers and to some extent my dissertation.)

So yes: it's satisfying to see students grow and improve and I certainly point out to mine the places where they've grown and improved and I tell them what I'm pleased with. But when you're interested in the project and you've got a restless, tinkering mind, it's hard to know what's good enough, or what's sufficient improvement, when it's somebody else's life and work.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a parent.


Anonymous said...

At the beginning of the semester I had a really good student who needed to write an essay to try and get into a really good college. She sent me a draft and it was TOTAL CRAP. So I really got into it, dissected it, and really tried to encourage her to open it up and improve it. I told her I was willing to look at several drafts. I really wanted her to do well. She cleaned it up a bit and, without telling me, just sent it along. It is mediocre at best. But you know what? She chose to do a half ass essay so we'll see if she gets in. It can be frustrating sometimes......

cattyinqueens said...

I've had similar experiences. And then with some of the MA students, I've had to write rec letters for PhD programs based on the work in progress. Without having the final product, I was always optimistic about the work, only to be fairly let down by the end results--which often seemed to have some virtues, but primarily in places where my hand had been heaviest. And that makes it difficult to tell where the student really is in terms of ability to work in the field.

This semester I was asked to write a rec letter after having seen the final product for one, and, well, it was a different letter from the one I wrote for the same student last year around this time. She got into a program, but decided to try to get in somewhere else, and so wanted a new letter. I was totally ambivalent. The thesis was...okay. And for my grad program, definitely good enough, better than most. But her prospects beyond the MA? Can't say I feel particularly good about them after seeing the very small bibliography she compiled after 2 semesters, and after my constant prodding that she needed to do more legwork on the previously published work on her topic. That's not even really a critique of her intellectual ability, which is harder to evaluate...mostly I think she just didn't make the effort. Like you said (very well), the thesis is kind of more about skills-building and hinting, if not demonstrating fully, that you've got some skills, and though I didn't really expect a perfect draft, I'm not sure she showed that she was committed to learning the scholarship in the end.

It's really interesting to think about the experience of thesis directing in light of my own experiences as a pretty clueless MA student. At what point did I actually start figuring things out on my own? How much do I owe my advisors for the best ideas in my work? I can say now that I did most of the hard thinking on my own once I was writing the dissertation, though I can think of one article whose final sentence is really something I couldn't have written without one of my professors. Before the diss, (I didn't ever write an MA thesis, since my program only required a big-ass exam), I'm not sure what I could have come up with if i had to write something substantial without guidance. I'm not sure how many professors at my MA program would have thought I'd go on to get a PhD and publish in the field. But then I was at two big programs that had all the resources to do well, and my students aren't really (at least not the grad students).

Flavia said...


Yeah, this process has made me feel (some, limited) sympathy for my dissertation director's response to my early work on the diss; I think it's genuinely hard, if not impossible, to accurately assess someone's "potential" from their preliminary ideas or first drafts or even first complete essays or chapters. Intellectual growth is such an unpredictable and erratic thing, and it's understandable that we privilege those who can talk a good game or who seem to have lots ideas right at the start over those who seem confused and inarticulate--but who may actually be dogged and perceptive and capable of doing better work over the long haul. It's difficult to know if a messy disaster will STAY a messy disaster, or if a student is capable of bushwhacking it into something great.

Part of this, too, is about differences in work styles--and the fact that we (all, I think) tend to radically misunderstand and mis-estimate those whose intellectual and writing processes differ from our own.

cattyinqueens said...

"It's difficult to know if a messy disaster will STAY a messy disaster"

This sentence applies to so many things, not just things written by students! HA!

Canuck Down South said...

I'd like to jump in here, from the perspective of a graduate student who also--like many graduate students--teaches writing-intensive freshman classes. This sounds to me a lot like an intensified version of an ordinary problem of teaching: the students can seem very bright and articulate in class--and they may be--but that has nothing to do with their academic skills, or even the amount of work they've done. That is, I can tell my students to do something 20 times, and they will spend hours on it, come consult with me about it, and sometimes follow my directions, (often resulting in an improved project), but they still aren't capable of making those improvements themselves on the next project, or even being able to work out why I've asked them to make those improvements. After experiencing this side of the problem, the side you describe, Flavia, I'll go meet with my advisor and experience the student's side: my advisor will ask me to do something, patiently explain it, I'll spend hours and hours on it, and it will still be bad/not up to the standards--and fairly often I'm incapable of knowing how to improve. This is not usually a problem with either my advisor's explanation or the amount of effort I've put it: despite time and patient explanations, I just still don't know how to reach the next level. The time it takes for each person to reach the next level may vary, and he/she may have to go back and loop around a few times first. Or, to put it more poetically, you can't make it over the next mountain when you still can't see that mountain exists because of the clouds.

I don't know how to fix any of this except to keep trying, I guess. I think what I'm saying is that (as you do mention) learning is not a lineal process, but that's very difficult to accommodate in our very lineal course and program structures--and that perhaps, both as teachers and students, we should make an effort to keep that in mind.

Flavia said...

Hi Canuck, and thanks for commenting. I think you're right that it's a version of the same problem that we encounter in all our classes and in written work of all sorts. However, to me it feels different--perhaps only because I've been teaching for long enough that I understand very clearly that comp papers or 5-6 pp. close-reading essays are about building skills, are part of a process of learning, etc., and don't expect them to be anything different. (Also, I see so damn many of them that I don't invest in the same personal way in every student's every assignment: I know that, on average, my students are getting better, developing new skills, etc., and that, on average, they're likely to go on to do better work in future semesters.)

Since I've only just started directing independent projects, though, and since such projects are a lot closer, at least in theory, to the kind of work that I myself do, it's harder not to view my students as very junior colleagues, who really ought to be further along or capable of more. But that may change with time.