Thursday, February 21, 2008

Grad student anxiety

One of the things I've been contending with recently in my job is working with grad students. I find this really exciting. It is probably the aspect of my job about which I am most invigorated.

But I do have some serious impostor syndrome. Having just defended my own PhD in December 2005, it feels - no matter how much I reason with myself - a bit presumptuous of me to be gatekeeping for advanced students. Being the university examiner on that thesis defense a few weeks ago - which meant I was the "special" one, the one who asked the first and supposedly hardest questions - did my head in. I was nervous, for god's sake.

And then last week there was a thing with one of the grad students in my fourth-year class - another MFA student, a working artist with a highly theoretical bent. She wrote a critical response to a reading we'd done. Her response was simply an ungrounded, political rant that had very little to do with the reading. I was very worried about what to do about this, feeling that some of the ways I could call her on it would be perceived as too subjective. (Read: feeling freaked out about my authority over a grad student.) So I wrote extensive comments about the major inconsistencies in the arguments she was making, which were glaring, and gave her what for a grad student is a low mark - though I did also of course point to the really good things that were buried in there. I did say she should come and talk with me if she wanted to. I felt...well, just weird about it. Who am I to be giving grad students low marks?

Now, this student is on a three-person panel of grad students I've put together to make a presentation during some research-related events in a few weeks. She was going to be giving a paper. The day after I returned the critical response to her, she wrote me a long email in which she said that, because she is an MFA student, she doesn't actually feel comfortable presenting her written, theoretically engaged work, and asking if it was okay if she showed her video work instead. I said sure, whatever she wanted to do was fine - after all, this is for the students, and not for me. But I feel as if it was my response to her work that prompted her crisis in confidence. And, knowing the hell that it is to be a grad student, the constant feeling of intellectual inadequacy, I am quite struck by the fact that I am, possibly, complicit in that. How awful.

Now, it's true that I don't know for certain that it was my comments that prompted this change. But it is also true that she wrote to me about this about 24 hours after receiving my comments. That she had seemed quite excited about her presentation before this - and had sent me her paper, wanting me to read it. It seems this change of heart is more than coincidental.

I guess there's nothing I can do about this, really. Whether or not I am reading this one particular incident correctly, what is important is the recognition that what I say has a lot of weight, especially for grad students. I feel as if I'm moving in to occupy the space I remember that professors occupied when I and others were grad students. They loomed so large. Which is a really very strange recognition. It will take me some time to get used to that.


neophyte said...

This might be callous, but as a neophyte grad student myself, I think callous is okay with me.

If she's serious about being an artist, and if she's serious about engagement with theory through art, and if she's serious about obtaining her degree, this student should be able to take criticism. As yours, by all appearances, was thoughtful, thorough, and considerate, there is no reason she should not be able to cope with it. Part of the process of graduate education is learning to recognize one's own failings, to deal with them, correct them as necessary, and move on. This is the callous bit: even if criticism is vitriolic, unfounded, excessive, or what have you, you just have to fucking deal with it. Confidence has to come from within, not from some external source of validation. That's been one of the hardest things for me to learn, but I'm learning it, and god damn, but is it ever a valuable lesson. If your student's skin is really that thin, thickening it can only be a good service to her. It would be a disservice, in fact, to coddle her. So do try not to blame yourself for her crisis of confidence.

That said: you are not an impostor. You've been through the degree mill; you have something to offer from that experience, however recent it may have been. Think of yourself as an ally, not an antagonist -- your work is helping these students, and where it may, from an institutional perspective, look like "gate-keeping," much of it isn't. Providing thoughtful feedback on your students' work isn't gate-keeping; it's teaching. It's your job.

And as far as I can tell, you do that job exceedingly well, with a great deal of thought. Your students should cherish you for that; if they don't, that's their mistake.

(Also, I should say that while I haven't been commenting lately, I have been reading -- and sending mental hug after mental hug. And now more hugs!)

Psychgrad said...

To be honest, It's good to hear that professors have these thoughts/concerns. Some academics seem to tear apart students' work to convey the message that reaching a doctoral level of success can only be achieved by the very elite of students.

I agree with neophyte's statement: "part of the process of graduate education is learning to recognize one's own failings, to deal with them, correct them as necessary, and move on". Yes - negative feedback can be crushing. But why go to graduate school if you don't want to improve your skills? Realistically, at some point, you're going to have to deal with criticism. I think that it would be unethical for professor to not provide the information they feel is necessary for the student to improve.

Maude Lebowski said...

ditto to both neophyte and psychgrad. it is your responsibility as a professor to do what you did. yeah, i'm sure she's disappointed, but whenever i've gotten harsh feedback, it's always made me up my game. sure, i need lots of hand holding, but i also understand that if my work needs improvement (or, as has happened, just plain sucks),then i look to my advisors to tell me so *and* to help me get it to where it needs to be. so you did the right thing--both in saying what needed to be said and in giving her the lesson of criticism, so to speak.

that being said, if you're really worried that your comments stifled her confidence, you could encourage her to give her paper rather than the video presentation. let her know that yeah, this one project went roughly, and re-extend your offer to read her presentation paper to help give her confidence. if you think there's something valuable there, let her know and help her understand that in order to do the work she wants to do (or says she wants to do), this is par for the course and this is all part of the process of learning and becoming a better scholar/artist.

Hilaire said...

Yup, I know it's important to give real, constructive feedback, absolutely. It just comes down to exactly the terms Neophyte uses - I get perceived, potentially, as an antagonist...when I really do want to be an ally. I really do. And I think I do position myself that way. It's that old thing of not feeling in control of the reception others have of you.

I'll definitely be okay with this, it's just such a strange position to be in at first!

sexy said...