Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Grad student review

I was reading IHE-recommended blogs and found "Gentleman's C," where Angry Professor wrote about a crying graduate student in an annual meeting to review the student's progress. As someone whose entire grad school cohort cried publicly at one time or another, I don't want to discuss crying grad students--how to deal with them, whether it is okay or not for them to cry, etc. I am a little biased in that regard. Instead, I want to respond to the annual progress review itself.

Before I begin, though, I have to admit that I personally have had bad experiences with these kinds of reviews back when I was a grad student, though I didn't cry during my actual review. And I have not heard good things from other students. Those of us who don't fit the traditional mold in our discipline, or who had a conflict with an instructor/supervisor, can find these kinds of reviews incredibly undermining and painful.

I do understand the rationale behind the review: check in with students, make sure there is a focus or direction for their research, and head off any problems or concerns with academic and professional advising/mentoring, coursework, and professional development. The leader of the review, usually a doctoral committee or doctoral chair, can provide some feedback to let students know where they stand. Yet, I would suggest that some basic groundrules should be in place before a good annual progress review can proceed.

Doctoral programs need to agree about the purpose of the review. I would argue that the purpose should NOT be any of the following:

  • To reinforce for the student the rules, values, and interests of the program. ("We do X research here, and you cannot deviate from that, no matter where your interests lie.") This approach is really about reifying the biases of faculty and imprinting them on the students. I have heard of meetings where students were told not to take classes with professor C, because "he doesn't do the kind of research" the doctoral program leaders liked. I believe that other than some basic tenets (ie., we believe in ethical research), students should be allowed to pursue diverse research methods, research topics, and approaches to teaching.

  • To provide a student with feedback from instructors or research supervisors. This kind of approach is inappropriate and unproductive, encourages student crying, and usually results from faculty who are afraid of conflict. Rather than confront a student directly at the time of the incident(s), these faculty save up their criticisms for an annual meeting that becomes a pile-on. Better for faculty to give feedback continuously and individually, which allows the student to change and grow. And the student will get it if they are getting the same feedback from a variety of sources.

  • To evaluate the student's progress on some standard time plan in the program and reprove the student for any failures. While programs should have a suggested plan for completion, these plans should be amended to address personal circumstances: illnesses, pregnancy, mental health issues, family struggles, etc. Further, student goals should be recognized, along with the rules of the graduate school (such as the time limit on degree completion), and individualized plans that reflect both of these realities should be the norm.

Instead, the meeting should:

  • Review and update a student's progress on his/her courses and academic plans, identifying any areas where s/he is falling behind and helping problem-solve any failures. Help the student clarify what s/he wants out of doctoral education, how that relates to the goals and objectives of the doctoral program, and how his or her plan can support both.
  • Give the student a voice in his/her own assessment. Relying only on the reflections of faculty who have taught or supervised the student can be misleading, because all of these people have their own agendas (e.g., the success of their research projects, less time spent mentoring, not being challenged by students, etc.). None of these agendas are necessarily bad, but they do not focus on the needs of the student. A good review should have a form or process that allows students to comment on where they have been, where they want to go, and how their work is helping them get there. One could argue that this helps socialize students for their eventual roles as professors. Just like in an annual review for faculty, students should be offered a chance to take responsibility for setting their goals, outlining their successes and failures, and identifying means to progress.
  • Give the student a chance to ask questions about the doctoral program and raise concerns about their experiences. Is the student getting the support he or she needs? Like I noted above, this is not the time for a student to raise concerns that should be raised directly with an instructor or supervisor. And yet, students are much more vulnerable than faculty members, and they may need a safe space to think through problems with advisors, supervisors, and instructors.

I don't think that these reviews should include more than 2 faculty members, because the student should not be overwhelmingly outnumbered.

The process of graduate education is challenging, but it can also be rewarding. While some students will cry no matter what faculty do, we can take some steps to make these reviews positive, effective, and a good learning experience.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Damn lesbians

Wow, I just had a former post become a column at Inside Higher Ed, and the comments posted by readers are so interesting! Several posters were disturbed by my nom de plume. "Why does the author have to mention her sexual orientation?" writes Feudi. "I don't care about the sexual orientation of the author," states Jim. What is that about? What is so upsetting about my self-naming? Does it distance me from the straight/male readers?

Another comment, authored by "Old White Guy," intones:

Students want to be inspired by example, not hear their teacher whining about being helpless and oppressed due to race, gender, sexual orientation, social class. Teach them goals, not limits.
How interesting that mentioning my sexual orientation, or Violet's mentioning the effects of oppression, is somehow whining that will find its way into our classes and demonstrate helplessness to our students. It is especially ironic when the point of my post was to assist others in obtaining tenure. Couldn't my story of getting tenured at a research institution inspire by example and maintain the goal of tenure?

Some of the comments remind me of taking graduate-level English courses in which we discussed reader-response theory. I am who they think I am, and they get to determine what I mean. Of course, it helps for the readers (or someone) to be (self-)critical about their responses to Lesboprof. (I assume that it did not occur to any of them that I have a blog by that name, and I have written under this pseudonym before for IHE. It would have been a little easier if IHE had provided a link to the blog, but what can you do?)

Violet and Philosophy Prof get my back on a number of points, and both read into the importance of my identifying my sexual orientation and its impact on the pursuit of tenure. They are correct that my sexual orientation has impacted my experiences on the job market and in different positions, my research agenda, and my relationships to people in the larger university. While I would love the university to be a true meritocracy, I don't think any of us actually believes that to be true. No tenure-track folks can afford to be under that delusion.

Speaking of the delusion of meritocracy, grumpy Frizbane is back and sorely disappointed--both in me and the state of academe. It is interesting that Friz' frustration dates back to his grad school dissertation defense, which sounds like it was more annoying than exhilarating. Personally, I look back fondly at my dissertation defense, which was certainly better than the grad school experience! While other students and I joked about passing through the final hoop of the defense, I enjoyed presenting my research findings, engaging in scholarly discussion about what I had written, and seeing how I could perform on my feet. Being called "Dr." by my committee members was a great moment in my life. Of course, I assume this makes me more of a sellout in Frizbane's eyes, which are firmly locked on the ideal world.

The purpose of my original post/column was to encourage those on the tenure track to find ways to fit the pursuit of tenure to their own interests, passions, and styles. I didn't do it the traditional way, and I was by no means a traditional candidate, and I was still successful. While I admit I wanted to be successful, that does not mean that I don't want to be a real scholar, as Frizbane seems to think. The column was my way to help other scholars be successful, too, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation!

Frizbane also wrote the following snarky little poem:
I’m a Lesbo and Prof, don’t you know?
And proud to just go with the flow...
So don’t be so obtuse,
It’s time you deduce
We’ve rejected your tired status quo.

Now I read Frizbane's real question as such: can I successfully play the game in some ways (i.e., go with the flow), challenge it in others, and still have the chutzpah and clarity to work to change the tenure/academic game once I have gotten the prize? I would answer, "Yes." I think that I can work within the system to change the system, helping scholars who might not ordinarily succeed get through the system and making the changes I think need to be made when I can, over time. Even if I am a damn, self-proclaiming academic lesbian.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fieldwork for summer

I am heading back into the field for research this summer, and I find myself getting a little anxious about it. In some ways, my research will take me to familiar "territory," in that I know people like the ones I will meet and interview. And yet, I am traveling to unfamiliar places where I will have to use a map to get around, stay in strange hotels, and spend a good deal of time alone. None of these are my favorite things...

It takes me back to my dissertation research, which was also a field project in a very unfamiliar setting. I was uncomfortable a lot of the time. I kept wanting to spend time with my friends, go home, or just NOT do the interviews. Sometimes I got physically ill before an interview. The interviews were never bad, just a little anxiety producing. And I am an extrovert! But there was something about being out of my element that just made the whole experience extremely difficult.

It did get easier in the next project. I did the interviews locally; no interview required an overnight stay in a strange town. I also did a number of interviews over the phone, which was great. I sat in my office and looked out my window while I listened to the participants' stories. (Once I actually got up and made a sandwich while an especially verbose interviewee waxed on and on... not great interviewing practice, but better than screaming!) And I probably benefited from the dissertation experience, which made me a little more comfortable in my own skin.

I think about those sociologists and anthropologists who spend years in a different culture, and I am amazed. I would have to travel in teams, or I would bring my family and friends with me to field sites. But the gf has a big job, and we can't afford for both of us to take these trips.

The good news this time is that the trips are going to be short--only a week at each setting--and only a few trips this summer. I am cramming in as many interviews as I can while still being lucid (lucidity being an important component of interview-based research!)... And I get to play with a new laptop and digital voice recorder, so that will be fun. You gotta love funded research. (I've never been funded before, so buying stuff and traveling on someone else's dime is a blast!)

I'll certainly be blogging from the field, so you can all see how the trips go... And perhaps you can make me feel a little less lonely.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Committee love

Adam Kotsko, a doctoral student at Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote a great column in Inside Higher Ed on the usefulness of participating in committee work for doctoral students. I completely agree with Kotsko's point. As a doctoral student, I found it very helpful to serve on committees. I participated on a search committee and the doctoral program committee, and I served as a doctoral student rep to the teaching support center on campus and the faculty meeting .

Each of these committees gave me great insights into the culture of higher education and the interests/purposes of each committee. Even though I was a doctoral student and fairly young, I thought that my input was useful; most of the time it was welcome, too! And I brought important information back to my home community, whether that was doctoral students or my department.

I got a lot of flak from other students who just saw my committee work as a waste of time, detracting from schoolwork and research. Yet, I learned very important skills from attending these meetings. I learned about the rigors of Roberts Rules of Order and the many ways in which people bastardize them, selectively emphasize different elements, and ignore them while pretending to follow them. I learned to read between the lines of what people say about their interests to hear what people actually mean. I learned the power of legal opinions with administrators (I have a long but wonderfully amusing story that I will tell sometime about this). I saw the dynamics of gender, race, and status and their effects on individuals' participation, and I has to wrestle with people's different perceptions of the role of student representatives.

As someone who knew I wanted to go into administration one day, participating in these meetings has helped me learn how to run meetings of my own. I know what works well (strong, organized facilitation) and what to avoid (meetings for the sake of meetings, with no clear agenda and a lot of endless speechifying).

I believe that committees have been given a bad name, especially committees at the university level, due to poor planning, unclear charge, or wasted effort because nothing is done with the work produced. However, a good committee can make a real difference in a program, a department, a college, and a university. And a great committee (yes, they do exist!!) can change the committee members, as well.

I think that Fritz, the snarky poster to the IHE column, is showing his grumpy butt. He has been playing the game a little too long. Some of us are still new enough to be enjoying the game, yet seasoned enough to want to play it well. And perhaps we can improve the stadium, the rulebook, the pay scale, the player support, and the refereeing while we are at it!

As someone who takes faculty governance seriously, I recognize that we cannot sustain any role in governance if we are not going to serve on committees. So, all we are saying... is give committees a chance!

Friday, May 18, 2007


Okay, I just watched the most recent episode of Heroes last night (I had tivo'd it)...

Best line ever: Jessica/Niki saying to the cop, Matt, "Didn't I throw you out of a window?"

I love this show. It is smart, and every show has a twist or turn that is shocking, surprising, or funny. The gf wouldn't be caught dead watching it, so it is late night fare for me. I can't wait for the last episode, although I will miss the show when it ends.

If you haven't seen it, watch it on the computer... All the episodes are online.

Sigh... Better get back to work!