Saturday, February 6, 2010

The discreet charm of the professoriate

I'm feeling all right now, but I wasn't like this for most of the day.  I turned in a hugely expanded draft of the final diss chapter to my supervisor yesterday, and then went to see a colleague defend hir research prospectus; zi is about to go off to research, and I don't know when I'll get to catch up with hir in person for a while.  After an impressive defense, we adjourned to a bar for a while, and then to another colleague's apartment for (more) drinking and dancing.  It was a fabulous night, but I was pretty hungover this morning.  Those little glasses of wine were deceptively intoxicating.

I got another taste of my committee's unusual politics when I gave my supervisor the draft.  Long story short, my supervisor is well versed in most aspects of my work, but zi is pretty much ignorant of a crucial area of study in my research.  (By hir own admission, I would add.)  The second name on my diss committee is much better informed in this latter area, so zi is the one who would know better than anyone else on my committee if I'm bullshitting or getting it right in this field.  But this advisor is almost absurdly overbooked with committees: zi is the supervisor for so many of my colleagues that I've lost track, whereas my supervisor has only me.  There are many good reasons for this, and they require a post of their own someday, so for now let's just say that the more popular one is pretty much awesome.

As one familiar with such scenarios might expect, this leads to a small amount of tension between the professors, since in many ways the number of supervised students equates with power within the department.  I do my best to be sensitive to my supervisor's emotional needs in this way, which more than anything else requires that, whenever I have a question to ask or a draft to read that (...Koshary fumbles for a pseudonym...) Dr. Awesome is best equipped to do, I go through the motions of asking Dr. Chair first.  (I know, I'm horrible with pseudonyms.  I dabble in fiction writing from time to time, and I hate coming up with characters' names there as well.)  Once Dr. Chair is satisfied that hir position in my personal pantheon has been respected and acknowledged, zi is happy to say, "Why don't you see what Awesome thinks of that?"  I've made the occasional error in this regard, and the resulting brouhahas have made me very aware of the nature of the power dynamic I have to negotiate.

So I give Chair the draft, explain in general what I've updated, and zi tells me that zi'll try to get to it this weekend so that we can discuss at hir office hours (which are early in the week), but that some fiddly bureaucratic stuff has to be done as well and it might not happen on schedule.  As I've noted before, I'm already more than a week behind schedule to get the diss out to the committee and organize a defense date.  Chair no doubt recognizes the look of horror that flashed across my face, and told me zi would try hir best to get the thing read promptly.  Then zi says, "Have you given a copy to Awesome as well?"

Well, duh, of course I haven't.  I haven't touched a match to a keg of dynamite lately, either.

"Well, since Awesome knows so much more about [whatever] than I do, perhaps it would be good to run this by hir as well.  Zi may not have time to read it, of course, but ask."

Now, I will admit to you readers that I have occasionally gone to Awesome surreptitiously to get something done when I knew it would be quick and easily hidden from Chair.  It didn't occur to me to do the same here because, like I said, Awesome has lots of students and is very busy all the time.  Zi and I get along well, but because I am classified as Chair's student, Awesome doesn't have to fret over everything with me to the same degree.  I just assumed that Awesome would say, "Just worry about what Chair thinks, and I'll chime in when zi asks me to.  In the meantime, I'll read the diss when you give me the diss.  I ain't no damn book editor, punk."  Or words to that effect.

But, since Chair told me so explicitly, I printed out another copy and buttonholed Awesome so zi would know exactly why I was giving hir this draft now.  I quickly (frantically?) explained that Chair wanted Awesome for back-up, and Awesome -- who, like me, has experienced first-hand why it's a bad idea to make Chair feel other than a special individual snowflake -- immediately tried to punt.  "Well, Koshary, I'll read it, although it may take ten days before I can get to it.  But Chair is the chair; what zi says goes."

Like I didn't know this already!  "I know that, but zi specifically asked for your input here."

Awesome (who began to see that the punting effort had failed): "Well, in that case, I'll read it, and if Chair wants me to play that role, then I can play that role.  But I'll give you my full critique, so you know what to fix."

Aack!  "But wouldn't it be easier to do all of that at the defense?  I mean, I know there are always critiques to be made, and no dissertation is perfect, but..."

Awesome would have none of it.  "Well, there are always critiques, yes, and I understand why you're in such a rush to get it finished, but part of my job is to make sure the diss is as good as it can be.  Wouldn't you rather deal with that before the defense than after?"  Point made.

Then Awesome hit me with another good point: "If you want me to tell you if the chapter is passable, I'd have to read all of them to say.  Now, the last chapters you showed me, they were drafts, not passable."  I nearly started to cry, until I remembered that Awesome hadn't seen any of the revised drafts I've been working on since October.  Stay calm, Koshary.

"So, would you like me to print out a draft of the whole thing and give you that, for context?  I could have it ready for you on Monday!"  Was that a note of pleading in my voice just then?

Awesome (who realizes too late that zi's dealing with another half-crazed doctoral student): "Oh no no no, that won't be necessary.  I'll read this chapter and get back to you."

"Are you sure?  I mean, whatever works best for you.  I could do it..."

Awesome (plainly attempting to flee): "No, don't worry, I'll read the chapter."

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that my mania made me approach Awesome again right after my colleague's defense.  (Yeah, Awesome is hir chair, too.)  I had to confirm that zi didn't need the other diss chapters right away, and zi said, "No, this chapter will do for now.  Don't be anxious!"

DON'T BE ANXIOUS!?  Seriously, after all these years of these profs making me a fucking basket-case, this is when they think to reassure me that I shouldn't be anxious?  I'd have a drink to calm down, if my head weren't still a little fuzzy from last night's activities.


  1. Your penultimate sentence captures my favorite Discreet Charm: a perfectly lovely, generous, kind senior professor's ability to say, with absolutely no sense of the irony of hir own words, "Oh, my, you look so tired!" or "I hope you're having a relaxing term!" or "Don't be so hard on yourself" while at the very same time handing one a giant pile of tasks, which one may or may not have asked for. Sigh.

    It's weirdly cute. Once you get past the urge to beat them repeatedly over the head with the pile of tasks.

  2. And as a bonus nugget, I'm unable to distinguish whether that pile of tasks is actually necessary, or just a beating over the head. One could argue either way. I definitely see Awesome's point in wanting to iron out problems before the defense, but it still felt slightly punitive.

  3. Unfortunately, I tried to comment on this post yesterday and the internets eated it.

    Anyway, you've posted a follow-up, but I think my comment still applies--which was that your tricky dance to keep both committee members seems to be working out pretty well! I had a somewhat similar situation, only I had co-chairs...and I did that kind of dance for 4 years, but mine worked out less well than what your careful treading seems to have yielded. After 4 years of no conflict, I made a tactical error (a very minor one, but that wasn't important at the time) and one of my chairs dumped me in a fairly big huff. It sucked. So I'm glad your peeps seem to be acting like grown-ups, and that Awesome seems to have an understanding of how things should work for you but can do so with some degree of care so as not to upset your director.

    Of course, their dealings with you and one another can still make you feel crazy, and that is a totally legitimate feeling on your part.

  4. Thanks, Catty! Believe me, if it's going well now, that's only because I've already had a small taste of what happens if I'm not super-careful. Besides, I'm the only grad student that Chair has at the moment; it would be grimly amusing to see hir drop hir sole student over a bruised ego. If I ever screw up that badly, I probably should rethink my career anyway.

    It's almost intoxicatingly good to hear from someone that I seem to be doing things well, too. Awesome and Chair only say things like that to me when they seem to fear that I'm on the verge of self-mutilation.