Professors & Dissertating

Since I enrolled as a doctoral student 4 years ago, I’ve been part of various conversations with other Ph.D. students in my program and elsewhere that have to do with dissertating obstacles in general but keep circling back somehow to how professors and doctoral students relate to each other. That is, how the mentor/mentee relationship works as well as how faculty and students who do not work together interact with each other. The conversation in this vein varies from being specific to an institution (including horror stories about certain professors ranging from plagiarism to harassment to discrimination that make me wonder why these people haven’t been kicked out of their institutions as yet) to a different, more general level of abstraction to talk about interacting with professors in general.

[Side note: these conversations tend to increase in frequency as more doctoral students I know enter the stage when prospectuses (or is the correct word ‘prospecti’?) must be written and dissertation committees must be assembled. I do enjoy the bonding experience that takes place when Ph.D. elders pass on the wisdom of their experiences in a given environment but am also aware that this advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt since the configuration in which each student finds himself/herself is unique in its own particular way. Hmm how redundant was that statement?!]

I get the feeling that I’m being inexplicitly, mostly in passive-aggressive ways, pronounced as the ‘black sheep’ when it comes to my interactions with faculty members in some Ph.D. student networks/circles. Or, the bad comrade, as it were. Why?

Apparently I’m betraying some (unwritten) code of ethics of which I’m unaware by spending the bulk of my time on-campus (which is in any case rare since I now live about a 3 hours train-ride away from the institution at which I’m enrolled) or at conferences in conversations with professors (aka – according to the circles in which I’m the black sheep or, at best, distant relative, of the family – those who already have Ph.Ds and have been put on this planet for the sole purpose of converting us to think the way they do or to make our lives miserable somehow). To be honest, I hadn’t noticed this till it was pointed out to me. I’m not at all convinced that this is a problem. Granted that I should probably make an effort to talk to other students other than the ones I regularly discuss stuff and generally keep in touch with. But what I fail to understand is the notion of the doctoral experience in which faculty members are only meant to be engaged in conversation with if one is taking a class with them, bumps into them in the hallways or departmental hub/office, at conferences for the duration that a panel is officially in-session, at workshops if supplemented by free food afterwards, or in purely instrumental ways (signing off on independent study forms, just before defending one’s prospectus or dissertation, during a prospectus or dissertation defense, etc.). I just don’t think that faculty should be ‘othered’ (in the conventional use of the term…damn relational theory for making me more linguistically anal than I was…and even that iteration doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean?) right out of the journey such that their presence is deemed necessary only when an important hurdle needs to be jumped.

What I’m trying to say, but probably failing miserably at, is that I don’t agree with the notion of thinking of the faculty as an entity to be avoided or as the evil on the other side of the fence making your life miserable whose only use is to approve the dissertation once its finished. [If that is the situation in which you find yourself then I suggest changing committee members or institutions as the case may be or trying to engineer a situation in which your needs and expectations can be met.]

What has sustained me to a large extent through this process is talking to faculty members (whether or not we share the same intellectual commitments but, like others, I usually end up in continued exchanges with individuals where there is some kind of overlap to be found), both at my institution and elsewhere, about my project throughout the process thus far. I like being pushed to think with greater precision and clarity and articulate a sounder argument by folks who seem to know their way about this process and the ones after this (job searches, tenure, publishing, surviving academia) – this is something I find severely lacking in those circles where I am the black sheep. I also enjoy simply the exhilaration that I derive from a thoughtful conversation about ideas…post-panel conference conversations with a good mix of Ph.D. candidates and faculty with similar-yet-different commitments who respect each other are good examples of this kind of talk. This is not to say that I don’t value talking to my peers – there are some colleagues/friends on whom I rely extensively and am grateful for their critiques of my work, the opportunity to read books and articles of mutual interest with, to talk with more generally about ideas and theories, as well as for support through the long, seemingly unending journey that is a Ph.D. But I don’t agree with the strategy of avoiding faculty till one has finished drafts of a prospectus or a dissertation or whatever project one is working on. That makes no sense to me.

So I’m going to continue sending all my green-points, convoluted thoughts, and chapter drafts to my chair, other committee members, and other folks I consider part of my (hopefully ever-growing) epistemic community. These are people for whom I have immense respect. I value their support and am encouraged by it. Their critiques and suggestions help me think of ways to sharpen my argument and make it more precise. And even if this was not the case, the satisfaction of a meaningful conversation would be inspiration enough. As I stated earlier, these are all things that the networks in which I’m considered the black sheep fail to provide.

So my apologies to those circles in which I’m considered a bad comrade. Count me in every single time you want to talk about your ideas or mine or that of some butt-kicking, mind-blowing philosopher (Nietzsche comes to mind; I’m trying to get through Heidegger at the moment so please join me if you feel so inclined and we can talk about “Being and Time” together) but please don’t expect me to participate in endless whining sessions sans any constructive action that can lead to a solution of those problems because I have neither the energy nor the capacity nor the patience. This does not mean that I won’t be there for you as a fellow-colleague; I’ve just made a decision to avoid interactions that don’t go beyond whining so as long as you are also willing to find ways to overcome the predicament you’re in please feel free to knock on my door, inbox, what have you.

I have to add that I don’t particularly relish the thought of being seen as the aberration in some cases. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that label to go away. Nor am I particularly interested if it means sitting out all the fun and thinking of faculty as evil. All I’d like to say to these folks who do think faculty have no role in the process of dissertating: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

And on that note, I better make a move or else I’ll be late for a meeting with one of my dissertation committee members.

Ciao for now!


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