Calling All Professors

What are your very best techniques for convincing graduate students that:

a) their theses and dissertations should have a well defined scope: they should be narrow enough, and then deep;
b) their committees should include the people in the department whose expertise most closely matches their topic;
c) each project they undertake can only address one portion of their heart’s desire;
d) their life work is their life work, not this particular thesis or dissertation (which should, nevertheless, be one part of their life work);
e) they will surely have chosen their topics based on personal tastes and proclivities, but their project should still be an academic project – meaning that its design should take academic needs and standards, and not just personal intellectual interests, into consideration?

I need some new techniques, for I have exhausted mine.


19 thoughts on “Calling All Professors

  1. This is probably one of those comments that I have failed to express all the dots from A to Z however, I will give it a stab.

    It sounds all so patriarchal. It is as if individuals no longer have an understanding that their individual contribution contributes to the whole, the whole academia. Instead, their individual becomes the center of all that is important therefore all that must be important for the whole, and if not important for the whole, then they should be privy to break away from the whole and be a whole all on their own without a bat of an eye.

    I think the man tried the island bit before, yet human folly and hubris cause us to repeat history flaws and all.

    Where is the balance?

  2. CM – actually I think this hits it on the head, in a poetic sort of way …

    “Instead, their individual becomes the center of all that is important therefore all that must be important for the whole, and if not important for the whole, then they should be privy to break away from the whole and be a whole all on their own without a bat of an eye.”

    (I did thrash them, by the way, and yes, it was a bad day.)

    What these people have done is first, focus so much on requirements and second guessing the professors, that in the classes they took, they never developed their own ideas and voices. That means there were certain skills they did not develop either.

    Then they went on to their exams, where once again they focused on getting the right answer, playing on the sympathies of the right committee member, and things like this.

    Now they have theses and dissertations to write and do not have voices, because fear caused them to have their voiceboxes removed during graduate school.

    BUT at the same time they want, insist, on doing creative projects that they do not have the means to do and I do not have the expertise to direct, and which do not fit the degree requirements or serve any purpose except non-professional self-expression … the sort of thing they could get by writing a blog, for instance.

    So yes, it is very weird: they have erased themselves, not felt quite good enough to participate in the whole except to parrot it, but then on the other hand, the selves they alienate now want to dominate.

    I am sure all of this has something to do with the way in which academia insists upon obedience. Perhaps extreme insistence upon this produces narcissists and egomaniacs, or something, too much insecurity which is then compensated for by grandiosity?

  3. oooooo am i glad to hear that…i’d hate to think these words were without purpose simply because of the skin they’re in…thanks as always for the input

  4. The professor I am working with is what I secretly call the “git it done” type. I have not reached a conclusion why that phrase bothers me but it does and I am not quite sure what criteria I use to put people in that category but I find that I do. There is something lacking in the “git it done” mentality. It is so America, so corporate, and capitalistic. I actually think the “git it done” is what drowns out the creativity produced by the warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies things such as honor bound and duty with personal integrity. Actually the “git it done” is the completion, end of story, as in doing one’s job but without the “duty” aspect of it. “What is the minimum I must do to pass? To get an A? Will this be on the test? What does this have to do with the cost of tea?” Just the facts. That creativity does not belong on the assembly line remove it now. Perhaps the ones born after the assembly line cannot recognize anything but what is on the assembly line.

    I am feeling something old school British and moral (not religious but good for the human soul) but covered in creativity with substance nagging at me as a possible example. You know Anthony Trollope was accused of writing novels in a “git it done” kind of way to feed his family. Yet, now if one examines Trollope he has some wonderfully rich novels, often feminist, often falling under the radar screen. But I think that was his genius, he could “git it done” and maintain his creativity (acknowledged by his contemporaries or not). Where as now the “git it done” is so much so that it is all just watered down acts, motions, robotic repetitions that produce nothing that we have not seen or heard before, and if it does, it is something that only speaks to a very few. Hardly anything one could label genius.

  5. Never underestimate the importance of “git it done.” You’re an academic, and you’re in a community. The more you “git done”, the more you contribute to the conversation.

    The danger with disdaining “git it done” is that you disconnect yourself from the community. It’s the equivalent of being at a party but half an hour behind in the conversation.

  6. I

    Simon, generally speaking that’s true, but it is also part of the standard advice we all know. It is, for instance, how we passed our courses our first freshman term. It is a rule of thumb taught in the introduction to methods course in the first semester of every graduate program. Later on it is often a platitude spouted to cover impotence or ignorance.

    More subtle, interesting, and useful pieces of advice tend to be, get it started, or, when appropriate, enjoy the process.

    On the other platitude you cite, about how everyone needs to speak at all times in the ‘conversation’ which is research/publication, I am not at all convinced that is true. I think we would all be better off if some people were quieter some of the time, and if meditation were valued to the degree that chaotic and superficial ultra-production is.

    In this weblog, I am interested in liberating myself from the handcuffs of these platitudes, so that I can produce better and more genuine work.


    I think my stuck people are stuck precisely because they are giving themselves precisely this “get it done, you are part of a conversation, do not fall behind” talk. I have been, too.

    Both of my stuck people are in fact stuck on basic academic issues, as in, what is the purpose of their current project, and, do they actually have the skills and resources to do what they insist upon doing, in the time they have?
    It is not that they do not understand why they should finish, which is what your comment addresses.

    They are also letting themselves get in the way of their work. That is: they are putting their neuroses into it, and not their strengths. This places a huge stumbling block in their path. It is horrible to watch but I have not found the way to show them what they are doing, or how to roll that rock out of the way. That motivated the post.

    I have noticed that people who did not know what they are doing, or what they were talking about, often just said “get it done” because they do not know the answers to the more specific, practical and intellectual questions the doer (me) had in the process of, precisely, getting things done.

    As with my first book contract. I was the first person in my department to have a contract with a good university press. I had signed the contract promising revisions I did not believe in (I knew the manuscript needed to go in another direction) because I thought this was my only chance at this amazing opportunity, and probably the press knew more than I did. I wanted to know, how much leeway do I have to actually negotiate with this editor? Must I write to the title the press has given, for purposes of marketing, but which does not actually describe the project? How much can I politely and safely negotiate? What is the process here, how is it done? The answer I got was, “Shut up, stop wondering, do what they told you in the first place and get it done.” This was something my colleagues were saying to assert power and cover ignorance. The point was that what they had told me in the first place, and I had accepted, was not working in practice. It was confusing precisely because I am so very much the “get it done” type, and I was used to simply forging on ahead, doing that “good enough” job, realizing that the next article would be more sophisticated than the current one, and so on.


    SO, SIMON: the next time you have a specific question about how to do some aspect of a project your are working on, or are discouraged or unsure, or are trying to roll a stone out of your way, you may not want to ask me. I may only throw your rough advice back at you – get it done – and you will see how it feels not to have your question recognized, and to be condescended to. I repeat: that very standard advice is appropriate where it is appropriate, and not when it is not.

  7. Professor Z, did you end up making those changes to your book to “get it done,” or did you negotiate with the editor and refuse to make the changes to the title & the rest?

  8. Undine, it is worse than that! I never finished that book. It was a long, involved story. I tried and tried to ‘get it done’, but did not allow myself to see that in fact, I needed to do something different, at least at that time, with that project.

    Right now, I can see doing it, as the press wanted it done. I can see exactly how I could have made it work. I had this series of intertwined impediments back then, whose net I couldn’t break, which I don’t have a problem revealing, but which would be a long list that I do not *yet* fully understand.
    What I would have needed:

    – much more information on how those contracts, including the rolling deadlines, really work (the revisions were more than 6 months’ work, but I kept trying to get them done in 6 months, as per the rolling deadlines)

    – much more information on how much you can negotiate content (I did not figure that out until years later)

    – greater awareness that I was uncomfortable with the revisions and especially the press’ title (it took years to realize I did not believe in the project, which is all right for an article, at a stretch, but not for a whole book … and I am only now coming to the realization that it might have been myself, not the project, I did not believe in)

    These things would also have helped:

    – less ambivalent support from family: they wanted it done so badly, but also did not believe I could do it, were overinvolved in a weird way that I could not shake; I got a lot of exhortations but not a lot of support

    – less undermining weirdness to be happening at work during the same era

    – for my infamous Reeducator not to keep telling me I was overachieving and it was inappropriate, and not to keep saying that my research interests were symptoms of childhood sexual abuse which I should be confronting rather than moving ahead with life (FYI I *really* doubt that is a correct assessment of my research interests or the reasons for them)
    I am still trying to figure it out. The most important things would have been the first two I cited: much better information on how these things actually work. In another mode I would have figured out how to get this information, and behaved more like an adult.

    A huge part of the frozenness I experienced had to do with ‘reeducation’ – I was being psychically devastated by an incompetent (and I think unnecessary) shrink, and I did not know it, although I knew something was terribly off. This made it impossible to see the book situation clearly. In that context, my ‘get it done’ mentality (and that *would* have been the best idea, as implementing it would have *led* to negotiation, I am sure) turned into a huge weapon against myself, and led to major block.

  9. It sounds as though there were a lot of factors (and people) conspiring against that project at that particular time. When and if the time is right for the project or some permutation of it, it sounds as though you now have a good perspective on it.

  10. Gracias Undine – and yes.

    The funny thing is that I also had won a Fulbright at that time, which I gave up for the sake of the book. The alternative was to give up the book for the sake of the Fulbright, and given all of the factors conspiring against the book, I knew that was the answer … but it was Unwise, because Books are More Important, and I thought I should just Get It Done. I ended up losing both.

    Anyway, what I said in part of the comment to your blog that got lost was, I needed a blog back then – the commentators would have given me the perspective I needed! And – it is one of the reasons I like reading the cool blogs of newer faculty, like yours. You are all so much less confused, it seems, than we were back then. It is heartening.

  11. Much later: Simon, who commented above, said in another thread that he read my response here and could not make sense of it. Then he repeated his original point.

    But I still say, his original point is at the level of 2+2 = 4 . It is something we already know. The repetition of precisely that instruction, that obligation, is unhelpful to people who have run into a snag. It distracts them (us) from looking at the snag itself and unraveling it. Most of the time, do actually say what he recommends. But what does one say when that does not work?, was the question here.

    ANYWAY, I came back to this thread because I stayed home from a Mardi Gras ball this evening to drink miso soup and converse with a friend about the various academic jobs we have had. It was very interesting.

    He said that the reason he liked the jobs that he liked was that they were about production: either you did or you didn’t. He disliked the jobs he disliked because they were not really about production, but about kissing up.

    I felt the shock of recognition. And realized: what I dislike navigating are the schizoid situations which are officially about production, but are really about kissing up.

    A student said: “I liked your class because you are a real person.” A colleague said: “I like you because you work like a professional.” I like that kind of student and that kind of colleague.

    However: the reason I react to the “just get it done” sentence is, I would so like it for it to apply in all situations. I repeat, I would very much like this.

    I have found, however, that it does not, and that in those instances, the things that “just get it done” does not cover, must be addressed.

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