Now, before I can begin, I should note that I've not got a warm and fuzzy friendship sort of relationship with my diss director. I do think that he's grown to respect me, but we're in no way close. He wasn't the sort who organized panels with his grad students for conferences, and he's never come to hear me give a paper when he's been someplace where I've been giving one. We've never shared a meal together. We don't "keep in touch" other than the emails that I send him to update him on my activities. As far as I can tell, he's not terribly interested in me. I think he's happy I've done ok, but I am nowhere near the apple of his teaching eye (if anybody is). At least this is my perception.
I note that this is my perception because I think "perception" plays a big role in how we work with our chosen dissertation directors, and those perceptions can either enable or hinder the process of dissertating. So here's the thing: I knew that I would work well with somebody who wasn't terribly nurturing (in a "oh, this sentence you wrote is so lovely!" sort of a way) and in fact that I'd probably do better with a person who was a bit of a meanie (or whom I could construct as such, for actually, in real life, my diss director - Director from this point forward - is a lovely man). See, I don't do terribly well with a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff. Blame it on my Tough Love Variety of mother, blame it on my absent biological father, whatever. I'm sure we could psychoanalyze my choice of Director the live-long day. But the point is, I did have a good sense of what sort of personality would mesh with my work habits, which require a bit of feeling like I've got a really high standard that I must meet and a dash of deep guilt about not meeting my potential. How did I know that Director could produce this?
Well, I think I was certain when I received a seminar paper back from him with his comments, a paper on which I received an A but the comments for which made me cry. I'm a cry-baby and I suck with criticism. That said, his criticisms? They were *specific* and *extensive* and *right*. The comments were not all negative, but the negatives *stung* because they demonstrated that he saw through my attempts to dazzle and confuse. They hit where it hurt most, and yet were also constructive. To be honest, the constructive bits hurt most because I saw where I could have done so much better. Anybody who makes me feel all that with one page of typed comments? Yeah, that's a person for whom I can go above and beyond in the work that I do. And that was why I chose my field of specialty (I was wavering between 2 or 3 adjacent ones) and why I asked him to direct my dissertation.
Now, as you might imagine, Director has a strong personality. He is not the director for everyone. (Indeed, nearly everyone in my cohort couldn't believe that I had chosen him to direct me, for he's a bit terrifying with the brilliance and everything.) But I knew that I'd push myself for him. And I needed a director who would serve in that capacity. And Director did serve in that capacity (and indeed, continues to do so as a a figure that I now produce in my imagination) brilliantly.
Now, the course of my dissertation did not run entirely smoothly. For a full year Director was on sabbatical and half of that time was in Europe and not available to meet and barely available to read anything. (Actually, I can't remember whether he read anything during that period. I feel like he may not have done.) And then there was the full year that I was not in residence and we conducted all of our business but for one meeting long-distance - the last year of the dissertation, when I wrote 2/3 of it and when I revised the whole shebang three times. And before the second of the three revisions, we had a show-down in which he threatened to drop me as his advisee (though I believe that was a calculated thing on his part now, and it resulted in a tearful apology on my part and all was well). So I'm not saying that everything was all sunshine and roses. I don't think the dissertation process is generally that for most people. It's a grueling thing to undertake, and that means lots of stress and some conflict may come with the territory.
But, throughout all of it, I knew he wanted me to finish. I knew he wanted me not only to finish but also to do the best work of which I was capable. I trusted his judgment about my work, and the reason that I trusted that judgment was because he was such a careful reader of my work, even if he wasn't the most hands-on of presences throughout the process. And, in truth, I think he might have been as hands-off as he was because I work really well independently. (At one point I remember him saying to me that he didn't need to give me a schedule or put any more pressure on me because he knew I already put infinitely more pressure on myself. And it was true: I already had a schedule devised, and I was very... well, I was a bit of a nag with him about keeping me on task, if that makes any sense. So one thing that occurs to me now, years out of the process, is that his approach to me as an advisee may not have been solely about who he is as a person but about what he knew I needed from a dissertation director. Not the same thing. But at the time, I thought he was just a bit cruel :) I needed him to be a monster, and, well, he was one, whether by my invention or by his own inclination or perhaps a bit of both.)
But so, ok. So I finished. And with what I think was the best dissertation I could have written. And that dissertation was good enough for it to be translatable into a publishable book manuscript even with me on a 4/4 load. And so I'd say there had to have been some good mentorship for that to have happened. I also think that what good mentorship I got did have something to do with me and the fact that I knew what I needed from a mentor. So let's get on to the practical part of this post.
What did I bring to the table?
- I knew what kind of guidance I'd need from the primary person on my committee. I knew what sort of person I could do the best work for, and I chose that sort of person. I did not choose a person based on field alone, but rather thought about the choice of field and choice of director - and later choice of topic - as all of one piece. I think that really helped me.
- I'm very self-directed and self-motivated, and I chose a person to work with who would inspire those qualities in me, sometimes with positive reinforcement and sometimes with tactics that at the time seemed harsh but for which I am now grateful (especially as it's those moments that I remember when I read some reader's report that's less than kind, and I realize that I can handle that with ease).
- I was very direct throughout the process about what I needed. This would not have been possible, though, if I didn't feel comfortable with my director and how he'd respond to such directness.
- From the beginning, he was incredibly clear about his expectations. He did not mince words. He didn't try to save my feelings. And sure, that wasn't always easy, but I always knew what I was supposed to be doing.
- He was very clear about how he was going to facilitate the process. He saw everything that I wrote first. He was in close contact with the other members of my committee, and when part of the whole was ready, he directed me to send it to them. I also get the impression that he then communicated with them about what kinds of comments they should give to the draft, for when I got comments, they were not in contradiction to his, but rather addressed things that he did not spend as much time on. So, for example, Director's comments were always global in nature - about the broad sweep of ideas and argument and the theory- second reader's comments were always rooted mostly in pragmatic concerns about writing as well as about sources that I should consult - and when the outside reader came in, those comments were directed toward "revisions for the book." This is not to say that there weren't tensions between sets of comments at times - there were - but at the same time, those tensions were not difficult to resolve, and it was always clear which comments carried the most weight.
- He was the director that I needed him to be. He played the heavy when necessary; he was kind when necessary. The point always, though, was to facilitate me getting the thing done and done well. It was never about him.