This Academic Life
DefensesHad a PhD student successfully defend her dissertation proposal today. This was the third student whose chair I am who has defended this year; one of my colleagues remarked that was "cornering the market on PhD students," which seemed to betray a little resentment. It's not my fault that many of the PhD students seem to be interested in the kind of work that I do, is it? And I'll have a few more committees in the next couple of years, as we are now getting students who are specifically coming here to work with me. This is both kind of flattering and kind of daunting: flattering because I tend to think of grad students as better barometers of interesting work than most senior faculty members [there's that old joke about how knowledge accumulates: incoming students bring some with them and those who depart take none with them, so knowledge builds up…grad students haven't been "socialized" enough to reshape their sense of what's interesting yet, so in my experience they are more willing to listen to wacky ideas and more marginal/subversive/radical approaches], but daunting because suddenly I find myself in a position of authority that is somewhat uncomfortable for me.

Why is this position uncomfortable? If my idea of teaching was to produce lots of Mini-Mes [typographical note -- "Mini-Mes" is the plural of "Mini-Me"; "Mini-Me's" would be a possessive, not a plural. yes, I'm anal about apostrophes] I'd just take the flattery and run with it. But it makes me a little anxious to have PhD students who want to learn from me, since I'm not entirely sure that I have much to teach them that they couldn't figure out on their own anyway. And I'm rather mortified that someone will take what I say and simply accept it, instead of wrestling with it. I have sometimes refused to give classes -- even classes of PhD students -- the typologies and classifications of theories with which I am working, for fear that they would take it as gospel. At the same time, though, I do want to assist students who are interested in the same kind of approach that I am, and to help them get their projects underway. The hard thing is to try to promote this while not creating disciples. And it has to be me who takes steps to prevent this; I think that the default state of a student-faculty relationship is that the student ends up taking on what the faculty-member transmits. So I take pains to puncture my own authority from time to time.

One thing that I have learned through the process of having students defend proposals is the importance of a deliberate and strategic use of language. I often get the feeling that people evaluate proposals by simply looking for a few of their preferred terms or authors, and if those are there and if they are being used in the expected way than the proposal is okay. Problems arise when things are being used in an unfamiliar way -- such as when a student uses a term like "the nation" to refer not to an already-formed and stabilized entity, but to a category of practice that is instantiated not in broad "official" discourses but is rather inscribed in everyday activities. Several times during the defense today it was apparent that people were largely speaking past one another and using the very same words to do so. So here's the dilemma: should one make a strong statement to try to prevent misunderstanding, or should one simply accept the ambiguity and get the certification that allows one to proceed? A reference to theorist X might make some people happy, but if my understanding of theorist X is radically different than yours, is the inclusion of the reference worth it?

Knowledge politics is so bizarre.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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