Talking to professors (and to each other)

In view of recent efforts at our department at TUWSNBN among postgraduate students to get together and discuss stuff, I am linking to this post from The Valve, which discusses a post on dissertating which appeared on Inside Higher Ed. The Valve person's concerns are about English departments but it seems to fit in with what is an ongoing concern for me right now.

As the only "humanities" student in my family, I get reports from my brother/sister about how often they meet up with their advisors. My brother, also a PhD candidate, works for his advisor, has co-authored various (apparently v exciting stuff on physics whatnots and math :-)) and gets funded to go off to conferences and talk about these things. His complaint is more along the lines of (following the article I refer to) "I need some time alone" in a very Greta Garbo-ish fashion rather than "let's discuss this point in my dissertation proposal further without me having my notes/pen/paper/points to talk about all ready". One of my sisters, an undergrad doing her third-year thesis in New Zealand, also interacts a lot more with other students (all in the same year, same field: "wildlife management") than I do with other students and faculty people who share similar research topics and methodologies.

One of the reasons may be that both my brother and sister are fairly specialised (especially my brother). So, there's a small group of similarly specialised people/faculty in the department to talk to. Also, neither of them are in an "interdisciplinary" department as I am. So, not only am I doing "International Relations" (heaps of topics, methodologies) but also interdisciplinary IR (though I can't see how IR can be non interdisciplinary). And, this interdisciplinarity differs, as I found out when I was in OOD earlier this year: TUWSNBN's interdisciplinary department has a big concentration of certain types of practitioners, OOD Uni had a different type of "majority" discipline, making interactions and conversations about where my methodological standpoint was/is more complicated. Often, as has often been discussed by E and me here, the rules and boundaries are difficult to figure out and work with. We get by (yes, I'm speaking for E too, again) but it's not easy and it doesn't really encourage me to go about to chat to Professors. Unlike Australia, where both the Unis I was in had "Student Unions" where there were places for beers/coffees and one could usually find various professors there, TUWSNBN does not have anything like that. For someone unused to visiting professors in their offices (when I was in high school, the only time you visited people in their offices was if you'd done something that transgressed the rules of the school. Not to "have a chat"), the practice that we have to plan a visit is rather nervewracking. Hence, little interaction among advisors and this particular student :-)

What is the solution then? I'm not sure. I know that, for myself, the few professors I know are always keen to listen and help with what I am trying to write and do. But, the experience of having to be "prepared" in some way before going to discuss things with them has meant I've not discussed my proposal as much as I should have. Again, going to someone's office or even making an appointment to meet up is serious stuff. It's stressful. But, I still need to make up a committee so I can defend my proposal by the end of the year. I guess it's time to start knocking on professors' doors. And, to make sure my ten point summary of my proposal and my pen and paper are all ready.


At 10/30/2005 8:09 AM, Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

As your colleague, in the same department, I'd like to say that my experience is kinda poles apart from yours. I've knocked on several doors just because I felt like having a chat and never felt held back by my (still mostly) half-baked ideas. In fact, I've even scheduled appointments for nothing in particular except the need to just chat...although, I must admit, most of these chats happened when I wandered past someone's office or met them by the benches or in the main office or the coffee place. So in this way, I continued to chat about my project/interests and the conversations helped formulate it better.

Just wondering why you feel like you have to have something definitive to talk about....not that it's perfect at that point, but the closest one gets, IMHO, is when one defends the dissertation. If it's already defined then you don't really need the Ph.D - at least that's how I feel.

If you ever want to chat about this you know where to find me.

On a different note, yes you should get that committee together and let me know when that defense is so I can plan. Good luck...and, even if it's redundant, if I can be of any help (other than writing the darn thing :-)!!!!) let me know.

At 10/30/2005 8:12 AM, Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

PS: "The Office" isn't a scary place, trust me. I get that it's not what you're used to but each place has its own culture. Or propose a meeting in the coffee place or somewhere off-campus....if your chair is who I think s/he is then I can vouch for his/her open door policy and beyond-complete support.

At 10/31/2005 1:55 AM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Ah, but that particular individual can be scary even when he's being helpful / friendly / laidback (is this a potential state for professors? Or the sort of attitude that exists only in theory?). I'm always sure that any stupid things I say (and they are legion, even when I'm prepared and carrying my little stack of notecards) will be forever remembered and filed away.

Yes, I realize that this is my hang-up, and not in any way related to reality. But I'm with Priya on this--I'm far too easily distracted to go in without a plan and still be coherent. Also, my own love of all things geeky make it really hard to stay on topic, and I hate feeling like I'm wasting someone's time.

Then again, I was accused of never setting foot in professors' offices recently--which is not true. I go in for meetings, properly scheduled and generally with a detailed agenda and specific questions in mind. It's the chatting bit I avoid. Maybe it's because for me casual conversation and IR are mutually exclusive concepts?

At 10/31/2005 6:03 AM, Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

E, five things/thoughts:

1) In all the time I've known you I've yet to hear you say something stupid - unfinished definitely (I won't wax poetic about how everything is in-progress) but that's pretty much the case for all of us.
2) I'm assuming, and I think this one is fairly safe, that professors too have much more to remember - there's more to their universe than the last nutty Ph.D :-)!
3) Accusing you of never stepping foot in a professor's office makes no sense - the first 2 years I saw you was primarily when you were "playing" GA in an office that was nothing if not busy. So if that was an accusation this person might have either not paid attention to what they wanted to say or it might be that you took him/her too literally? If it was me, I'd like to clarify that it wasn't an 'accusation' but a more general observation that wasn't specific to you + I didn't mean it as literally.
4) I gotta be facetious for a second - maybe you need to start thinking about IR in the context of films....that might make for mixing casual conversation with IR coz H5n1 or whatever that isn't quite part of the same domain :-). But leaving that aside, unfinished thoughts don't necessarily constitute casual conversation. As I see it, it means that you're relying on a more diverse epistemic community as you sharpen your project and thoughts...we aren't here for approval (okay although we need it to jump hoops but you know what I mean) or to please but to learn.
5) I wasn't talking about any particular individual when I wrote "The Office" but if we're both talking about the same person - and I did allude to him/her towards the end of that comment because I thought P might have been pointing in that direction - then you know I beg to differ. Goes back to what I said in #4 - we're not here (just) for approval but to learn....if one excludes certain spaces where that learning happens I do think we lose out. But I'm also willing to admit that perhaps the kind of learning and communion I value might not be what another person is here for...s/he might have a different vision of this experience in which there seems to be little place for this kind of informal interaction with someone who already has one of these Ph.D. thingys. So the question then that'd be interesting to explore is what kind of Ph.D environ are we each looking for - not the one we think we should look for but the one we'd genuinely like to be in.

To be honest, I'm still unable to grasp the reason for the hang-up. But I will say it's related to 'reality' - yuppers I'm being Weberian here.

At 10/31/2005 10:54 AM, Blogger Priya said...

Love these long comments. Let me elaborate:

I guess I could talk to professors if/when I want but, personally-speaking, I get distracted and rushed because professors usually have other students (naturally) waiting to talk to them. And, to clarify, I didn't mean the person yous seem to think I meant when I said it was difficult to talk to him/her. S/he is one of the easier ones to talk to but the whole "getting distracted" issue brought up by E is higher there even though I'm not a geek and don't know much about sci-fi stuff :-)

My post was meant more as a comment on how the institutional structure (yes, I'm using that word) differs in different sciences/contexts. Even in BigNameUni here, where I took a few classes, it was more "collegial" ie people got together to discuss long dead theorists and got excited about that. Also, it was easier to get in and talk to the professor though he was the Chair of his department and therefore quite busy.

For example, at OOD Uni we had lunches with professors, weekly "Cocktail hour" on Fridays and it helped there was a big kitchen where people would sit and have lunch. It was painful and annoying at times and I hated it most of the time but it forced me to talk about my work/research and also led to good arguments on non-IR stuff (usually about whether Catholicism sucks or various aspects of the EU). The department was arranged in such a way that most professors and students had offices in the same (scary, looked like a WWII bunker) building, there was a big kitchen, open to postgrads and faculty and weekly seminars which we had to attend. In the post, I wanted to point out the accessibility of professors and peers was/is/seems to be higher/lower depending on the institution/context one is in.

In my view, TUWSNBN doesn't really facilitate accessibility outside of "regular" office hours. And, again based on past experiences, conversations about theories/theorists or non-IR stuff are better in non-office settings, as far as I'm concerned.

As for stupid stuff, I've known E for years now and she is one of the smartest people I know. But, yes, she says stupid things sometimes. As do we all (some of us more than others :-)). It would be rather worrying if we didn't say stupid things since where is the laughter going to come from otherwise :-)

At 10/31/2005 11:46 AM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Okay, so we're divided on whether I say stupid things. And how often, apparently.

The accusation was about a specific set of offices, and my former employer was not in one of them. My chair is, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't notice if I didn't come to visit. And in a way, the person who made the claim was right--I don't hang out in various offices (we've discussed this before somewhere, I think) and I don't stop by on my way to other places. I've only once gone to lunch with a prof, and it was a semi-formal meal attached to a lecture. I managed to scare most of the table by talking about influenza (this was three years ago) and haven't done more than the lunch-and-paper presentations since. Again, my own hang-ups more than anyhting else.

No, GSpice, the accusation didn't come from you. And it was a totally casual, off-the-cuff statement that happened to fit with Priya's post. More of a symptom than a real problem, and funny since it came from the only prof at TUWSNBN that I ever see off-campus.

As far as which prof scares me and distracts Priya, I'm not sure the specifics matter that much--I can think of several (although GS and I were, at one point, referring to a specific person who is easily capable of identifying him/herself from the ensuing comments :)) people who fit that description. It really is about the culture, and the lack of institutional spaces where we can meet outside of official functions / classes and become comfortable with ourselves as potential scholars.

Maybe all we need is a kitchen. Or a study room that has a coffee maker and the potential to pull people in from the scattered offices and buildings of TUWSNBN. I know that in law school, all the offices were in the same wing of the building, and people tended to meet and talk in the lobby there--chairs, coffee, and a television meant that everyone wandered through at some point, and profs were eager to stop and talk about our cases and projects.

The only film I can think to talk about is 28 Days Later--which is a silly, silly movie and potentially IR in focus. Or The Constant Gardener. I'm not a big movie fan.

At 10/31/2005 12:16 PM, Anonymous serena said...

Coming from a mere BA degree holding graduate, I only have this to offer: the structure of a college/university dictates the interactions between faculty and staff.

I went to a mostly commuter-based university and the only way to "chat" with profs. was to catch them in office hours. Although one prof. and I did circumvent that rule by meeting at the First Amendment (a local bar--on campus) for wine and discussions of dead philosphers and new philosophies, etc.

At 10/31/2005 1:49 PM, Blogger Priya said...

Ah...dead philosophers. I remember a conversation in first year about whether any good philosophers were still alive. Or even if there were any living philosophers. Or, do you have to die to become one? :-)

Btw, I liked 28 days later...though I think they cheated by releasing the film twice (when it was on in the cinema). Bastards.

At 10/31/2005 1:57 PM, Anonymous serena said...

The debate about good philosphers is much like the debates about literary icons and poets I'm afraid. LOL I think death is a prerequisite.

At 10/31/2005 5:41 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dead philosophers? Like...Kant? (*cue waa-waa music*)

28 days later was amusing, but crap from an epidemiological perspective. There were no doctors left in England to figure out the possiblity of a fast-acting virus crossing the ocean?

Am thinking of taking up a collection for a coffeemaker. If we could just think of somewhere to put it.


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