Friday, June 12, 2015

Teaching without teaching

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.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

From my PhD mentor, I learned how to be an adult. From my post-doc mentor, I learned how to be a scientist. From my first faculty chair, I learned how to be a colleague.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

And I should've added, from my undergraduate mentors, I learned how to be an aggressive smart-ass.

Flavia said...


Okay, but how? That's the second half of the mystery, I think: how such knowledge or ways of being in the world get communicated.

Servetus said...

Great post. It was similar to me. When it came down to it (I met the last four people on my list), I chose someone who I thought would let me think my own thoughts over someone who wanted to micro-manage me. In the end, I argued something completely in contradiction to the narratives my doctoral adviser had made his career on, with his support. It made a lot of difference. OTOH I didn't realize that once I became a professional I wouldn't have such support from anyone in my intellectual life.

Flavia said...


Yes--an advisor who allows you to be independent is a beautiful thing. I'm sorry you haven't found it elsewhere, though. In my case, I didn't actually have much support from my advisor (I mean that merely descriptively, and it's an assessment she herself has made), but that too had its upside. Like you, I couldn't have borne being micromanaged, and I was also concerned that I might not "hear" the critiques of someone with a less direct style.

But for those of us who are used to thinking of ourselves as quite independent from our advisors (and maybe everyone does think that), it can be a bit of a surprise--and a pleasure--to recognize the ways they really did shape us.

Servetus said...

Yes. There's a lot there, but I think his inherent, quiet kindness and his great liberality (of viewpoint, but not just that) were important for me.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

When I was an undergrad, I watched how others behaved. When I was a grad student, I needed to be upbraided. When I was a post-doc and assistant professor, I was thirsty for it.

Flavia said...


Efficiently described. And true!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

What you're talking about here, I think, is teaching the creative process. That is different for everybody, so I don't think it can necessarily be "taught." But a good adviser can, like yours, encourage students to step out on a limb once in a while, so long as they've built a firm foundation elsewhere.

I do this with my MA students by having them read books where I think the author took a real gamble, either with claims or methodology or narrative structure. "Does this work for you? Why/why not?" They get to see not only my method but everyone else's.

Flavia said...


I guess, though the term "creativity" always makes me itch! It's somehow both too vague and too limited. (But that may be my own idiosyncrasy.) I'd like to include everything from how to think and how to have ideas to more technical matters of craft and style and organization.

But I agree that exposure to other methods and styles is a good way to go. It's a tough thing: students are still mastering the norms and looking for templates (this is true of M.A. students, at least, but I think of doctoral students as well), and they do need to master those--but ideally we want them to be able to go beyond them and do riskier things, too!

Janice said...

I'm all for finding a advisor who's a good complement to you. Expertise can be acquired outside the direct advising relationship. You can learn to parse and apply Foucault by working for a while with another scholar but you can't learn how to manage your process and get the damned thing done with someone who doesn't mesh with you on a practical level.

I started grad school assigned to a prof who was not a good fit (this is what you get when your intended advisor takes on another administrative task). I switched mid-way through my M.A. to work with another prof who I'd enjoyed as a course instructor. We meshed well and I insisted on sticking with him during my doctorate. This necessitated switching topics in order to find a project that would suit the faculty's idea of his expertise (and excuse me working with another, more senior prof). I didn't regret that at all!

Libby said...

This feels like the companion piece to the post you wrote recently about things we learn (sometimes without realizing it) from our grad students.

I wrote a dissertation with my advisor's methodology. Scrapping that and writing a book with a different approach has been both the best and hardest work I've done. Sometimes I feel like I'm going back through grad school again. I'm not done yet, so I'm not sure how this will turn out, but I think the best case scenario is that I retain all of the things she taught me but still shed her strong influence.