On Academic Advice

This blog is about getting over Reeducation, which had several elements – one of which was the academic advice given advanced graduate students and assistant professors, advice I misunderstood because it didn’t really apply to me. In the same period I had a psychotherapist who, unbeknownst to me, was also an AA sponsor; in AA, as I learned after doing research on it when I discovered I was being taught a series of dark formulae, an important mantra is “don’t think you are different from anyone else.” I learned to feel guilty about what I am sure is actually a really normal thing to do, namely decide what advice fits your situation and what does not. Here, then, are my views on some standard academic advice.

Wrong advice #1: Do not put time into teaching and especially not into lower division courses; find ways to reduce time spent; it will not be appreciated and you will track yourself into teaching jobs, especially if you are a girl.

And I answer: When did I ever put excessive time into teaching? When I first started receiving this advice, I was putting in exactly the amount of time that was specifically prescribed, and everything was going well. But I was perceived to be putting in too much time because of the quality of the handouts and other materials I could prepare within that time. I also got scared: the advice was given in such passionate tones that even now I am nervous preparing classes because I feel at a deep level that I am writing my death warrant. If I am discovered doing this it will not be appreciated; I will track myself into teaching jobs; I will become known as a research slacker.

Managing the fear makes preparing and teaching classes slow. I dissociate and lose focus, have trouble making decisions, and spend most of my time battling the twin demons of fear and guilt.

Wrong advice #2: Avoid service.

And I answer: If you have no administrative support or negative administrative support and you avoid service, then the fact of things not having been done will come back as obstacles to what you need to get done; you will spend more time stepping around the service you did not do and managing the results of your not having done it than you would have spent doing it, and it will take far more time and energy than it would have done to step up to the plate be the administrative support you need in the first place.

I know that is disappointing to hear, and I know things should not be that way. But when they are, they are, and reality must be addressed.

Wrong advice #3: Have social life and recreational time but do not develop regular hobbies or have regular civic involvement. That occupies time that should go into research.

And I answer: No, it doesn’t. It’s time that will renew you as the person who can do research. Especially if you are working without administrative support and/or in an uncollegial environment, you really need an alternate work-like atmosphere where you can rebuild your sense of yourself as a professional person. After this healing experience you will be able to come home and write, as opposed to come home and wonder why a nice walk and so on do not do enough to help throw off the pain.

Wrong advice #4: Write before doing research, write really fast; write really bad first drafts with plans to come back an “fix” them later; realize that writing is pain and put timers on to make yourself do it.

And I answer: Having a PhD does not magically transform writing into torture. Nor do you forget how to write once the degree is conferred. These are two important misconceptions professors seem to have. I do not know where they acquired them, but these are highly irrational ideas. I know that now the proverbial wolf is at the door: if you do not write, you will not get tenure. But wasn’t that always the case? If you did not write, you would not get your degree; you would not pass your examinations; you would not pass your courses. If you got a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D in the Humanities, and you wrote these while working and taking courses as most of us did, then you may already know everything you need to know about how to plan projects and get things done. You might consider simply carrying on.

Misconception A: It seems to me that most academic advice assumes much less competence on the part of new Ph.Ds than most of the ones I have met – and I have met quite a few – really have. In that way it is condescending and infantilizing, and it projects into them a fractiousness and a state of unknowing that they do not possess. Actual questions they have are ignored while principles they already know by heart are tiresomely spelled out again and again as though they were not who they are.

Misconception B: Academic advice appears to assume that the advisee is a very green assistant professor in a very well run R1 environment. It is discouraging in that way because it asks most advisees to operate as though they were in environments they are not. It also asks them to assume that issues such as lack of administrative support, hostile or volatile workplaces, and so on, are simply epiphenomena of their own alleged “poor time management.” This call to misconstrue one’s situation and internalize as something else situations one did not create but must address and not ignore if one is to move ahead, is more destructive than I can even begin to describe.

Advice from me:

1. If you are one of those who relaxes by complaining and venting, and I know such people exist, find other new people outside your department to do it with. If you have a problem you actually want addressed, bring it to your department, but if you only want to bond by letting off steam, find other people in your situation. Explore the new area with them rather than asking older hands to act as tour guides and shoulders to cry on.

2. If, on the other hand, you are one of those who relaxes by getting problems solved and moving on, do not discuss these problems with peers unless you have a peer whose attitudes and goals truly resemble yours. You do not want to get involved with people who will bring you down! For advice seek out a friendly Full in your own department or another, who is not your assigned mentor and who does not currently have an administrative role. They will be able to contextualize things for you in useful ways. They will also project into you some of their calm, full professor energy instead of the desperate, assistant professor energy with which any peers you may have who are committed to suffering may wish to imbue you.




Filed under Banes, Da Whiteman, Resources, Theories, What Is A Scholar?

13 responses to “On Academic Advice

  1. Angry Professor

    Profacero, I think I love you.

  2. Z

    You’ve said that before. I love you, too. But I am particularly pleased that you in particular like this particular post.

  3. It makes a lot of sense to find advice that fits your needs, and to learn how to be discerning. It also can be very helpful to talk these things through with someone.

    On teaching: I have met a lot of new professors who spend more time than they need to to prepare class. Prime evidence of this: they consistently have more material prepared than they can possibly get through. At the same time, I notice that the grad students where I teach now do not spend too much time on teaching prep because they simply don’t have the time. Vaguely saying that someone is spending “too much time” is not useful. I spend about three hours preparing my weekly seminar on a good day. Other days I spend less time. It always seems to go well.

    I completely agree with you about having a hobby, creative outlet, or something else than academia to do.

    I find intriguing your point that writing is not always painful. It actually is not painful for me. However, I have met many people in academia who actively avoid writing. When someone tells me they don’t have the time to write, I will admit that my first suspicion is that they are avoiding it, but, I do recognize that, sometimes, that might not be the case. And, I appreciate hearing the sentiment that writing is not painful for everyone.

    It is true that many people start on the tenure track with the skills they need to be successful. However, I have met many, many people who do not. The skill set you need to get through grad school is distinct from that needed to balance the demands of the tenure track. Managing conflict and demands on one’s time is a prime example of this.

  4. Z

    My views are non standard! I’ve met a few PhDs who got on the TT lacking skillz, but more who didn’t make tenure due to being disheartened by some sort of work or life situation seriously beyond their control – and still more who didn’t because secretly, they wanted to do something else, anyway. This last group is like the people who quit graduate school – whom others said quit because they couldn’t hack it, but I say quit because they found something more attractive to do.

    On teaching, I think that overpreparedness is actually a symptom of underpreparation – they have not figured out what to cut. You have to go the extra mile and do that last step, which is the hardest.

    On writing, I think you get a lot more practice on this in the humanities than in the other disciplines, partly because of the kind of prose you read (you have to read lots of very literary prose, and this really helps all writing, regardless of field).

    “I have no time to write” is a bad sign, yes. Otherwise I think not writing has to do with loss of access to self or other issues which must be addressed as such.

    On managing conflict and demands on time – well, there are levels of both of these. Ridiculous workloads just aren’t manageable, and abusive / hostile / discriminatory workplaces aren’t just conflicts.

    I understand what you are saying but notice how it puts the entire burden on the graduate student / assistant professor. I don’t think that’s always a good analysis, although it is pleasant for us to think since it means everything is really all right.

  5. I wonder how much of both hating-to-write and the advice about writing fast and badly actually comes from/is aimed at people in social science or even hard sciences. Certainly Boice and Paul Silvia are both psychologists. William Germano, OTOH, is a historian, and he gives practical advice about, e.g., what a book proposal should look like, how to find out how long a journal takes to reach a decision, and so on, not advice about the writing process. Undergraduates often hate to write but that should be something you get over if you go to graduate school.

    I have known people in both literature and history who disliked research, who saw the dissertation as a hurdle to be jumped so that they could get a teaching job at the sort of school where they could publish a couple of articles from the dissertation and be done with research forever. One of these actually left and got a high school teaching credential, instead, which struck me as a much better idea. I don’t understand this attitude in graduate students and really not in professors, unless there has been some sort of traumatic experience that changed interest in research to fear and distress. And in that case it seems that advice ought to focus on dealing with the fear rather than on the research/writing. They might be related—advice to write a blog, for example, could aim to reduce fear of harsh rejection and get a person used to writing without anxiety—but the point is to get past whatever is getting in the way of enjoying what used to be interesting and enjoyable.

    But I realize that I don’t really know how my current graduate students feel about writing; perhaps I ought to find out. They seem to feel a great deal of anxiety, which is partly the standard grad school anxiety and partly due to systemic problems, not their time management (they are brilliant at time management; they have to be, because LRU can’t afford to give them a manageable number of freshmen in writing courses).

    • Z

      Boice is clearly writing for people who don’t like to write and don’t have a lot of practice at it. This is why I find him annoying. He’s just saying to write using the strategy of those 19th century novelists who were paid by the word and published first as serials. I do what he says when I’m writing administrative prose and things like that. But if you look at what the practices of actual writers are, you find a lot more variety and a lot less grimness.

      There are also a lot of people in literature and history who hate to write and got into the business to teach, yes. I don’t quite get this, either. Me, I was traumatized in part because my at my first job I was actually under attack for *not* having this attitude; I never really got over the shock. Then in that therapy, my research field was supposed to be proof that I was a sexual abuse victim, in which case I would have to go through some really destructive therapies; in order to prove I was not a sexual abuse victim and save myself from awful treatments for it, I gave up that research field. The third element in the trauma is grief over all the things I renounced.

      BUT there really are people who want to teach not write and I guess that’s one personality type. I’d like to write and do minimal teaching, like a 2-2 or 2-1 teaching load, with only majors and (good) graduate students, no service teaching. It’s the service teaching that is really hard for me.

      I wonder, too, what the graduate students feel about writing. I guess part of what I am ranting about in this whole blog is the reduction of writing problems to time management problems, when often I don’t think it is that.
      When I had all that trouble with that book, what I kept telling people was, “I don’t agree with what the editors want, how do I manage these editors, how much do I have to just write what they want to hear and how many of my actual research results can I include and still keep the contract?” and their answer was “Don’t procrastinate, manage your time.” This memory still irritates me.

  6. Anne Lamott is a creative writer who also advocates “shitty first drafts,” but she’s also a recovering alcoholic. I mean, some people really do have problems to overcome that interfere with their writing. Elizabeth George and Stephen King’s books about writing seem to assume either enjoyment or obsession on the part of would-be writers: their ideal audience longs to tell a story, but needs tutelage in craft (setting, characterization, pacing), so their books, like Germano’s, focus on nuts and bolts. (SK is another alcoholic but he seems to need to write in order to manage his demons.) Julia Cameron treats writing as a spiritual exercise. She does advocate writing quickly, but the point there is to turn off internal voices and learn to write fluently, comfortably, while getting in touch with one’s creativity. I find her approach helpful when I’m having trouble getting at what’s important about something I’m writing.

    • Z

      I’m not a fan of Julia Cameron. But all of these are creative writers, right? For fiction and poetry, I’m much more into the bad first draft, writing it fast so you have something to work with, etc. In fact, totally – for fiction I really should implement this advice more. I also think tutelage in craft books are good.

  7. Z: This is an excellent point:
    “I understand what you are saying but notice how it puts the entire burden on the graduate student / assistant professor. I don’t think that’s always a good analysis, although it is pleasant for us to think since it means everything is really all right.”

    I find myself listening to people’s needs and responding with “academic advice” that I have found useful and that I have seen being useful to others. I didn’t see myself as attempting to provide an analysis of what’s wrong in the academy. But, as you imply, analysis is implicit in advice.

    The academy is wrought with problems. Many academics are unhappy. These are two separate issues, that sometimes are connected and sometimes not. Life can be better for some academics w/o fixing the academy, but there are real limits.

    • Z

      Well, everyone needs tips and how-tos, and that’s why your blog is good – not everyone has advisors willing to share the info you do.

      What I’m ranting and raving at is the repetition of general principles that after a certain point wore me down to where I couldn’t work any more. I got this from birth from my father, a pontificating alcoholic; my dissertation director, a famous emotional abuser; and some others — you are destined to spend too much time on teaching and not to like to write, etc. — when it’s hardly true.

      I do not know what kind of teacher I would be if I hadn’t taken these verbal beatings but teaching, especially lower level teaching, isn’t my strongest suit and I don’t go through the kind of writing pain others do.

      All the advice about how to get through writing, I’ve realized over the past couple of days, would be *brilliant* for me to apply to *teaching.* It’s somehow assumed that it’s OK to have trouble writing, but not OK to have trouble teaching, but it’s the opposite for me.

      I am also ranting and raving about people who, in response to specific questions like, “how do I write a literature review?” don’t answer that but instead give instructions on how not to procrastinate, why to “just do it,” etc.

  8. Z

    Also Tanya, on “The academy is wrought with problems. Many academics are unhappy. These are two separate issues, that sometimes are connected and sometimes not.”

    Do you have any theories besides bad work situations etc. on why academics are unhappy? Does academia attract more unhappy people than other professions? I have theories that there are a lot of people who were unhappy junior high / high school, never get over this, and bring that to academia, but I don’t know. Definitely many do not know how to Get A Life.

  9. Z

    And: partly I come from an academic background and was the research type in college, so I had a big advantage on people who didn’t get academically serious until later – that is some of why I am impatient with the standard advice.

    I’m also impatient because I often had it repeated to me when I had a much more specific question, which was ignored.

    But mostly, I’m amazed at how much I am carrying on my shoulders my father’s stated attitudes, which are what I cite in this post.

  10. Z

    About graduate students not learning “how to manage conflict” – a common theme in all this advice – again I disagree. I’d say the more common issue, or the more hidden skill, has to do with *confronting* workplace abuse.

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