Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tough Love

I first met BES in the Fall of 2007. She was a transfer student, and so hadn't encountered many faculty in our department. I met her because she went to a colleague of mine looking for an Honors Thesis Adviser. He was one of the few teachers that she'd encountered in our department, at that point. She told him what she was thinking, and he said, "Seriously? I am not the person you want. The person you want, if you really want to do what you propose, is Dr. Crazy." So he introduced me to her. And I was suspicious and in no way inclined to say yes to advising her without... well, without knowing her. But I met her, and we talked, and I felt, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, that we were Kindred Spirits, and well, so there is how our alliance was forged.

In the intervening time she's taken two courses with me, and we've spent a year and a half working on her senior thesis. Mentor Colleague of mine (who's seriously worked here longer than I've been alive and who's fabulous and who was my mentor toward tenure) has tried to poach her, but BES refuses to be poached. As I told her today, though, I so don't feel like it's a competition because I feel like Mentor Colleague is actually MY professor, and thus she and I are under the same umbrella. Anyway.

When BES first came to me, she indicated that she wanted to do a thesis that would prepare her for grad school in English. I gave her then, and I've given her many since, a speech about how that was a RISKY proposition. [Insert the diatribe about grad school in English here] But when I signed on, that was the project I signed on for: prepare this student for grad school at a school that doesn't really prepare students for that. And dude, if she wants it? It's hers. Yes, I've tried to dissuade her from the dream, because I feel like I should, but she is SO bright and SO capable. I really do believe she can maybe do it, or I'd not have agreed to this thesis project.

But so the road hasn't been easy. For me or for her. For her? Because I've been a real motherfucker to her. I've given her comments that are NOT comments for undergrads. I've not coddled her. I've not made her feel good, or even ok, about lame work. I've not even excused the lameness out of a sense of niceness or whatever. I've been a total hard-ass. In regard to the thesis, that is.

And she, well, she's not been easy either, in that she's done the classic shit of avoiding me, of resenting me, of refusing to do what her adviser tells her to do. Not out of conviction but out of laziness and rebellion. She's lost her shit and sobbed, she's thrown tantrums, she's pitched a fit. She's sulked and sighed. All of those things when she knew from the first day that I'm the Ill-Equipped Professor who barely has a napkin, let alone kleenex.

But I LOVE BES. She's seriously, like, my friend. I mean, it's weird as I'm like a professor-friend, but for real, she's not just some undergrad to me. She's somebody whom I'd figure as a peep.

So I forced her to give me a complete draft of her thesis this past week (after she'd been actively avoiding me for two weeks, in the way of anxious dissertators). And I spent at least 2 hours commenting on it by hand, with three different colors of ink. When I finished, I knew that I had to email her before she saw it or she would totally lose her mind in angst. So I emailed her yesterday, saying "BES, you're at a crossroads, and you can either choose A (finish the shit up and do nothing ambitious) or B (work your ass off and do work you never thought you could plus make the theory make sense to normal folks). I made it very clear that I was cool with both, and that I'd mentor her through either, happily. I made the point that this was HER project and that it really isn't mine. So she thought for approx. 24 hours.

Then she came to pick up the draft with all of the comments. And she lost her shit.

Luckily, Mentor Colleague comforted her for a few before I was out of class, and then as I came back to my office, I found her. I saw the look on her face and hugged her, she cried, I nearly cried, I talked her off the ledge, at a certain point I said, "Do you have a lighter? Because if you do I have cigarettes and I'll provide some for you," and then we went and smoked and she calmed down, and then we went back to my office and had a two-hour long confab, that was part meeting and part just hanging out and in which it was agreed that she'd come to my place on Friday (for thesis work, yes, but mainly for dinner, and wine) and I'd help her hash the shit of her thesis out. The thing is, and the thing that she didn't seem to get, is her thesis is already fucking passed. She's amazing. It's just -- her thesis isn't what I know she wants it to be. I'm committed to helping her to make that, if it's still what she wants.

So there are lots of things, related to this cathartic meeting with BES.

Things she was surprised about:
  • I never had a preconceived notion about what this thesis would be. I never had an idea in my head about what her thesis "was." I was always about helping her to get as far as she could go. And still am.
  • I wrote a shittier senior thesis than she's written already. Seriously. My standards for her have nothing to do with what I did as a student.
  • I really do see how totally far she's come. I'm proud of her - already.
  • I really don't think that this thesis is my business. I think that it's her work. I want to facilitate that work, sure, but I have absolutely no personal investment in it.
Things I've been surprised about:
  • I have a gift for giving people as much or as little feedback, at the appropriate times, as they need to do their best work.
  • I'm good at pushing a student past what they think are their limits, and bringing them over the threshold into a new way of thinking and a new way of seeing.
  • I'm really good at giving students ownership over their own work - for as stressed as BES is, she sees how much she's become her own scholar through this - and so do I.
All that being said? Thank freaking god I'm not responsible for a bunch of grad students writing their dissertations. I have absolutely no interest in that. I do not care fuckall about spreading my academic seed. I care about teaching. I care about helping my students to find their own voices and to find their own highest level. None of that involves being at a research university with grad students. My students aren't an accomplishment of mine, nor do I wish that they would be. FB laments that he can't have "real" grad students and that he can't advise good PhD types where he is (althought it's an actual research place). Nah, I'd rather have a random thesis student every now and again, and be able to get that person to a place to which they never dreamed of going. And to invite that student over for wine and cigarettes and theory. That's my scene. Totally.


AAYOR said...

I want to come over for wine and cigarettes and theory, too.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dude, Aayor, the next time you're in my neck of the woods you can TOTALLY come by for wine and cigs and theory. Dude, that's all that's going at my place :) (Just get the grandparents to take care of those sweet, sweet boys and you're golden!)

AAYOR said...

July, Sept, or October. Not sure yet! But we will definitely make it happen this time!

Science Dinosaur said...

You sound exactly like my undergraduate advisor, except my advisor was a dude, a biologist, and did not try to sway me from biology graduate school (though sometimes I wish he had). I thought you might like to know that he and I are still very good friends (we call each other just to chat) and are still collaborating on work.

I don't know if I'll stick with academia in the long run, but people like you (and him) give me hope, not for academics, but for the world.

Thank you.

Artemis said...

I am so jealous of your student. I have never had that kind of mentorship. And I worry about profs like your FB who dream about having different kinds of students. I've never been sure if I haven't received the kind of mentorship that you describe because I'm not worth it or if the profs have just decided that they can't be bothered because they think I'm not worth it. Anyhow, it sounds like your BES will either be really prepared for grad school or a bit spoiled. And spoiled isn't bad b/c then you know what it is that you can expect and demand from the profs, right?

Rose said...

Very cool. In your telling, BES reminds me of my favorite ever thesis student, Jane K. It was a privilege to be her teacher. And I totally agree with you about "having" Ph.D. students vs. the occasional brilliant honors thesis student.

Anonymous said...

my dissertation process needs more wine.

Arbitrista said...

You might not want to have grad students, but it sounds like you'd make a spectacular advisor.

Susan said...

I don't know why advising dissertators would be any different -- when I do it I'm always about trying to get them to figure out the best way to do THEIR project.

But seriously, BES sounds amazing, and I think she's incredibly lucky to have you as an advisor.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, here's the thing: I think I can be this sort of mentor precisely because it's really above and beyond what my job requires me to do. It's sort of like how I felt about blogging pre-tenure. It was nice to have a space in which to think about the academy that was not a line on a cv or performance review. That's how doing this kind of work with undergrads feels at my institution. Like it's this extra thing that I choose - not something that's part of the job. I can't imagine that I'd like the intensity of doing this with multiple students at different stages, or that I wouldn't ultimately resent this sort of thing if it were something that "counted."

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with Arbitrista and Susan -- what you're doing sounds like good advising/mentoring for people at any stage. I am not a fan of dissertation advisors who try to "spread their academic seed."

That said, I am ambivalent about wanting to work with PhD students -- part of me does, because I really enjoy working with students in that capacity (aspiring to the kind of advising that you've done with BES, which is similar to the advising I received as a grad student. And I don't think this is necessarily how Artemis worded it, as wanting different types of students, but rather wanting to work with them in a different way ).

And another part thinks it's *exhausting* to do that all the time. . .So, I also see your perspective of wanting to do it occasionally and not have it be a requirement.

Kate said...

I don't smoke or drink, and I STILL want to come over for smoking and drinking and theory too.

Seriously, this is a fantastic story. It's useful to see how you talked her down and how you're her ally and friend even while her professor. Bravo!

Micheal Blyth said...

Wow...glad to see that there are professors who will invest that much time in undergrads.

By the by...have you seen the recent kerfluffle on the BFF professor at Rate Your Students? Don't let them get a hold of this blog entry...it's exactly what they despise.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, they hate me over at RYS, and while I haven't looked at that post (I don't visit over there regularly) it's entirely possible that they were calling me out without naming names (as they've done in the past). Whatevs. I figure if I'm what they hate, I may well be doing something right.