When you’re giving the advisor something new, give yourself some good P.R! I constantly edit out of my e-mails questions like, “do you think the organization is okay?” I want my advisor to notice problems on his or her own, I don’t want them to be looking for the bad stuff I pointed out. I mean, as a teacher, how could you not find something wrong with a student’s organization if they said, “I keep trying and trying to make the organization work, but I’m still not happy with it.” Of course you would think of ways the student could improve, even if you followed the paper’s argument easily.Try to say something positive, even if it’s just “I’m looking forward to talking with you about this draft.” Give them a good feeling going in, not a feeling of trepidation.
Now, it IS important to explain where you’re at with your draft. Be clear: “this is a first draft,” or, “this is Chapter 4, minus the concluding two sections.” Even better, tell them what you want to focus on: “I don’t want you to copy edit yet, I’m still working on the big picture.”
It seems to me that the time for expressing doubts–saying, “I think the chapter might suck in this way, but I don’t know what to do,” or, “I really wanted to say that Godzilla was the postmodern equivalent of Zeus, but I’m worried that my point is not clear”–is just after your advisor has given you comments on something. You can respond to the comments they’ve given in a “yes and” kind of way. I see what you’re saying about the thesis not being clear, and I’m wondering if I should delete section three altogether, or if it should just be connected better to the concerns of section 2. The “yes and” concept is great because by agreeing with your advisor, you tell them you value their opinion and want to take their advice. You’re relating your own concerns to theirs, and that helps them feel understood by you (always a nice feeling when trying to help someone). At the same time, your self-criticism has a context for them–you’re not just badmouthing your work before they’ve seen it. Rather, seeing your doubts and their criticism as two approaches to the same problem might help both of you to articulate the potential solutions more precisely.
My friend Louisa Edwards wrote an interesting guest post about researching as a novelist. Her post reminded me of my own, slowly-growing conviction that if you’re not interested in the book you are researching, it’s probably not relevant to your project.
Sometimes people get into a trap of trying to read everything important to their field. I have noticed, however, that no matter how important something is supposed to be, if it’s boring me while I’m trying to read it, I’m probably not going to end up using it for my project. I don’t mean boring because it’s badly written, I mean boring because the information is boring (to me).
For example, my committee strongly recommended that I read Aristotle’s Poetics, a reasonable suggestion since it is the most cited piece of poetry criticism of all time. It bored me (nearly) to tears, but I kept slogging through it because I was convinced the committee saw some amazing connection between Aristotle and my own work that I was missing. This happened in June. Then last week, I went to a poetry discussion group about Poetics. We had an interesting conversation, but nothing anyone said made me believe that Aristotle was going to be important to my project or theirs. And, my chair was there–and when I mentioned the committee’s recommendation that I read Aristotle, he could not remember anyone telling me that, and he seemed surprised that anyone would give me that suggestion!
So I guess my second piece of advice today is not to take too much to heart any reading advice by faculty or colleagues. Chances are, they are just throwing an idea out there without having really thought through its relevance to your project. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try their suggestions–you should. But if you’re bored, realize that you are bored for good reason and move on to something else.
My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”
The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.
She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.
When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%, not again!)
As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.
Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.
But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.
I’m reading an interview of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity. Fredrickson discussed some research by business consultant Marcial Losada. Losada studied sixty business teams during their annual strategy meetings. He tracked the statements made in the meetings as positive, negative, and neutral. He then tracked the performance of the different teams. He found that “three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point” that turns a medium-performing team into a high-performing one.
The first thing I thought about when I read this was a recent bad meeting I had. The meeting was so bad that it wasn’t until the next day that I realized major progress had been made on my dissertation. All the negative feedback was essentially about style. The core of my project–which had been on shaky ground–was finally acceptable. However, instead of anyone telling me that, they started telling me about minor things I was doing wrong. I can’t say I helped the positive vibe–I felt emotional to the point that it was difficult for me to have productive thoughts or defend myself.
Contrast that with a conversation I just had with my DSG (Dissertation Support Group). The first thing the future Doctor Anderson said after I told her about the meeting was, “wow, you sound like you’re handling a hard situtation really well.” I have long marveled at the chemistry and productivity of my DSG meetings, and now I realize that they are well beyond the 3 to 1 ratio of positivity. No matter how rough the material, we find ways to remind each other of the good work we’ve done.
But let’s go back to what I did right after this bad meeting. I was determined to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of it that I could. So after it was over, I went over my notes and wrote down every useful suggestion I could find about how to improve my dissertation. Then I categorized the suggestions into categories. This was already helpful–the meeting seemed more productive once it was on paper. Then I sent the summary to people involved. I asked them to check over my summary and make sure we were all on the same page. The summary was in neutral language (“need to improve close reading” as opposed to “close reading section is very bad”).
The 3 to 1 ratio has many applications. I know that I don’t give my students that much positive feedback on their papers. I would really like to try to do that. I’d like to talk to my family with that much positivity. I’d like to be that positive when I’m reflecting on or discussing my work.
Here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to send this blog post to my committee before my defense. And I’m going to ask that they help me make that conversation as productive as possible. I know too many stories of defenses that are not fun, anti-climactic, or boring. Defenses should be at best a celebration of what’s been achieved, and at least a productive conversation that helps students revise before graduation and/or publication.
I enjoyed reading Female Science Professor’s post on her student’s moods surrounding his defense.
On a side note, I find it amazing that FSP contacted her student every day. I’m sure part of that is the lab environment . . . but I would be overjoyed if any of my advisors contacted me occassionally to ask how I was doing.
I recently gave my introduction to my supervisor, hoping he’d allow me to graduate in May. He seemed positive in the e-mail he wrote to set up our meeting, so I was feeling good when I showed up to his office.
He proceeded to ask me some very hard questions–questions that magnified some of my biggest insecurities about my dissertation. I answered the questions hesitatingly, if at all.
So imagine my surprise when he wrapped up the meeting by telling me that the introduction was basically done–he didn’t want me to make any major revisions.
Another committee member told me today that hard questions are a sign that a dissertation defense is going well. She said that when there’s a sense that the dissertation is weak, people are very tentative, and don’t want to press the student too much. But when people are engaged by the work, they dive straight into hard questions that get right to core of the issues at stake.
Today, if you’re stumped, take it as a sign that you’ve got complex, interesting ideas–and don’t be scared.