Post-Dissertation Support

Every summer, a friend and I lead a writing workshop for faculty at a college near Baltimore, helping their teaching-focused faculty develop journal articles, convert dissertations into books, and write grant proposals. Along the way, I’ve learned an infinitesimal amount of chemistry, enough nursing practice to be better able to advocate for myself in the hospital, and a lot about the daily churn of early-faculty life.

This workshop is held off-campus at a local event center, a 19th Century mansion converted to a B&B and wedding center. We meet in a converted carriage house, quiet enough to get work done but with sufficient wireless coverage to keep us in the moment. And for six years, it’s gotten great reviews—an oasis of protected time and space in the midst of chaos.

One of the comments this year was particularly striking to me. “I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this was for me. We all need editors & revision help. After graduate school this is very hard to find.” Last year, we had a focus group lunch for participants who’d been to more than one prior iteration of the writing retreat; one of the comments there was “You get paid to do this, so we don’t feel guilty about asking you for help. It’s a lot harder to ask one of my colleagues, because they’re already way too busy and this is just another burden.”

Once you’ve gotten your PhD, your dissertation committee will vanish; perhaps not in spirit, but in day-to-day support. And you’ll be left to develop your own intellectual network with whom you can exchange both nascent ideas and near-finished documents. It’s a form of peer review that goes unspoken, but it’s essential to your productivity and to your mental health.

Oddly, most departments have no formal mechanism for sharing syllabi under development; for sharing faculty scholarship under development; for sharing insights learned from conference travel. The department meeting is a logistical swamp of data demands and policy updates and deadlines, almost never an opportunity for intellectual growth. It’s easy to go through daily life without really knowing what your most immediate colleagues are up to.

If there’s a center for teaching and learning on your campus, they may be able to help facilitate these informal but vital connections. The particular workshop I co-lead is put on by an office of sponsored research. It may be that the department is not the only (or the best) venue for intellectual growth and support.

Sectarian Violence

The comedian Emo Phillips performed a routine (click that link) that has been voted the greatest religious joke ever written.

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

When you go for your job interview, you will face exactly this risk. PhD in psychology? That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Developmental psychology or social psychology? Great! Social psychology in a quantitative or qualitative approach? Terrific!! Quantitative social psychology with a focus on identity or deviance? Oh… thanks for coming by.

And you can’t be Switzerland and claim neutrality, because then everybody will mistrust you. If you’re not allied, you can’t join any club. So you have to put yourself out there and fly your flag, knowing that it will draw fire from any passing members of other tribes.

The Genius of Bureaucracy

I’ve been working at a faculty development retreat all week, and the stories at lunch are always the best part. And one of the things that struck me was the number of great ideas that have been turned into bloodless procedure. Yes, it’s brilliant to name the learning outcomes that your course will promote… and easy to turn that into yet another set of bland bullet points to be checked off by your department chair. Yes, it’s crucial to have peer review of your scholarly life before you’re promoted… and easy to turn that into a burdensome recipe of the sequence of documents in your dossier. One person described a four-year journey to get a coffee maker in the grad student lounge. If you imagine even thirty or forty hours spent across ten people and four years, that’s a gross undervalue of your time, a dollar an hour or less: how about instead if everybody chips in five bucks and someone goes to Bed Bath and Beyond for a $30 Mr. Coffee?

Almost everything that an organization does was once brave and bold and out of line, and has been tamed and straightened and sequenced to suck all of the courage out of it. The genius of bureaucracy is to make genius into bureaucracy.

How many coordinating meetings do we go to? How many task forces and cross-campus initiatives do we support? What happened to letting smart people work together in a classroom and see what happens? When we make standardized products, we develop standardized procedure. When we take risks, miracles happen.

Scholars Behaving Badly

A dissertation advisor has a lot of different roles. S/he is the content guide, the networking guide, the methodological guide, the institutional-logistics guide. But an unspoken role of the dissertation chair is to just be a decent, intelligent, empathetic person. And boy, the fails pile up.

  • The dissertation chair who, upon learning that his successful PhD student wants a career at a teaching-focused institution rather than another major R1 lab, basically quits advising and washes his hands of any further mentorship in their professional circles.
  • The dissertation chair who shows up 40 minutes late for the defense, because he thought it would be cute to go out and buy little congratulatory brandy glasses but didn’t have the wherewithal to either get it done in advance or the decency to inform anyone else that he wouldn’t be on time.
  • The dissertation chair who schedules a trip that conflicts with his student’s already scheduled defense, and so has to lead the questioning from afar via Skype.
  • The scattered lab manager who couldn’t organize a two-car parade, but who claims lead authorship on every paper that the planning and foresight of his post-docs makes possible.

That’s just the ones that have come up in my conversations recently. Imagine how many others there might be. And there are good stories, too: I know two grad advisors who held monthly dinners for all of their grad students, talking not about the research but about scholarly and career success. THOSE are the ones you want to work with.

We need the equivalent of Rate My Professors just for doctoral faculty and research advisors, so that individual tales can be more broadly public. In the absence of that, let me at least reassure you that, although you’re going through it for the first time and it FEELS uniquely bad, you aren’t alone. There really IS an element of hazing to the PhD journey, in which the ills visited upon one generation become the “rituals and traditions” of the next.

Some traditions aren’t worth upholding. Please, be the person who does well by your students. And if you’re a doctoral student or pending post-doc, listen carefully to the hallway conversations from your more advanced peers.

Free Agent, Redux

Okay, in my last post, I talked about the ways in which we don’t support one another strongly enough in higher ed. Let’s talk about the other side, the ways in which higher ed has strongly defended the role of tenure. Tenure is intended to be a protection of intellectual freedom, the ability to say risky things with less risk.

And often, that’s true.

But here’s an empirical study by three business and economics faculty at top-tier research schools: Brogaard, Jonathan and Engelberg, Joseph and Van Wesep, Edward Dickersin. “Why Do We Tenure? Analysis of a Long Standing Risk-Based Explanation.” (May 18, 2016). Available at SSRN:

Abstract: Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

We’ve long heard the stereotype of “dead wood,” the tenured professor safely home who just kicks back. As Steven Kerr wrote forty years ago in “On the Folly of Rewarding A, while Hoping for B,” you get what you reward. The most fundamental reward systems of higher ed stop with Associate Professor. Sure, you might get promoted to full some day, with a moderate increase in pay, but really, that’s a marginal. Associate Professor is such a cush gig that, in raw career terms, why bother?

One of my colleagues talks about only having seven of the fifteen people in her department that she can count on to do any service work at all. One who lives fifty miles from campus and refuses to come to work except Tuesday through Thursday. Others who insist on their “ownership” of the course they’ve taught for twenty years and haven’t updated for fifteen. We complain bitterly about unmotivated students, and shrug at unmotivated colleagues.

So, you want the protection of tenure? Deserve it. Make those Associate years the chance to do audacious things, to protect and advocate for your NTT colleagues, to lift your grad students to greatness. Don’t leave your most productive years behind in your 30s and glide until 73. Use your power for good.

Free Agent

I just saw Michael Moore’s movie Where to Invade Next with some friends on Saturday night. It’s a terrific movie, as he usually delivers, though not I think as powerful as Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine. But one of the ideas that he hopes to “colonize” for America is control on our culture of overwork. He talked with an Italian couple who each have approximately eight weeks of paid leave per year, between vacation and public holidays. He talked with Italian factory owners who support that model of labor sanity, and manage to remain profitable within it. And he discussed another nation (I don’t remember whether it was France or Germany) in which workers are not expected to be available by phone or e-mail after working hours or on weekends.

I wholeheartedly support this concept. Our grandfathers fought in the streets for forty-hour weeks; we should honor their spirits and their goals.

But we don’t, and so salaried workers in every field regularly put in ten and twenty and more unpaid hours of work (!!!!) every week, struggle to hold a single day for themselves and their families rather than two. Honest, let’s think about this. If you’re salaried, you’re expected to essentially WORK FOR FREE for the equivalent of a quarter or more of your paid time. Sorry, that’s just nuts.

When I was a kid, my dad was in the machinist’s union at his factory. I come from union stock. I come from an era where labor was protected, and we kind of fended for ourselves as consumers. Now those roles have utterly reversed. We are demanding and easily led consumers, sucking up low-cost goods produced everywhere. And in return for that, we have made the too-often-unspoken bargain to leave ourselves to the wolves as producers. We all have those two roles, you know… we make, and we consume. And we privilege which to protect.

I’m thinking of this in respect to faculty life. The model of workforce protection we most often claim is individual, through the mode of tenure and intellectual freedom. I can say what I want, and if I do it with sufficient quality to be peer reviewed, my employer can’t retaliate against me. Awesome. Yay for that. But we do a terrible job in higher ed of looking out for one another. We abuse our graduate students, we have a massive and poorly paid contingent workforce. We academics are trained to see ourselves as free agents, working in isolation and responsible only to the grail of intellectual truth. So it’s every man (and occasionally woman) for himself out there in the academic labor world.

And when those isolated, lone scholars become administrators, do they suddenly become more community-minded? If they do, they’re swimming upstream against all of their training, against the culture that surrounds them. There are very few forces that lead us to common good in higher ed, and tons that lead us to scattered self-interest.

Inevitable Setbacks in the Equally Inevitable Victory

After the 2005 London subway bombings, there was a vast and immediate response by the English, which spread almost worldwide within days.

We are not afraid.


We can hold onto anger and fear.

Or we can recognize that it won’t be long until those who hate become irrelevant.

We are at one point on our long voyage together. The voyage continues, undeterred.

With love to friends in Orlando and around the world.


Impostor Syndrome

Every so often, people ask me if there are other terms I’d add now that the book’s been completed. Based on conversations I’ve had in the past few days, I’d say yes. Here’s one… In this case, one that might be the largest concept underlying the book, one that appears in other words throughout.

Impostor Syndrome. Well, you are an impostor, aren’t you? You clearly haven’t mastered everything in your discipline—there will always be someone waiting with a recent piece of research you don’t know about, a concept you don’t know, an important thinker you haven’t encountered. And teaching? Come on, who the hell ever let you get up in front of a classroom? You’re barely staying a chapter ahead of all these nineteen-year-olds, just wingin’ it and hopin’ for the best.

We have this notion of knowledge as sort of game-show fodder, where every moment might bring us an opportunity to hear the big wrong-answer buzzer and be sent away in shame. Especially for those who haven’t come from a princely upbringing and thus don’t have a native sense of ourselves as royals, we scuttle around within the castle, attempting simultaneously to show ourselves as worthy and to not show ourselves at all, to hide safely in the servant’s quarters.

I remember preparing for my dissertation defense, and thinking of half a hundred objections to the quality or the very conception of my research. In my imagination, they were all voiced by the same person, a self-important man who was indeed very smart but imagined himself to be an order of magnitude smarter than that, the personification of the word pedantic. (It all turned out fine, and I fooled the crowd once again.)

And you might think that you’d get past this, that twenty or thirty years inside is enough to become a naturalized citizen of the kingdom. I can assure you that it is not. Just as the identity of Vermonter is reserved for those with ancestors in the cemetery, the identity of scholar is reserved for those who bear it in their protein pairs. The rest of us are spies, forgers, double agents, practicing our accents and memorizing our backstories.

There is nothing objective about being a scholar, or a writer, or an artist. There is no 2016 PhD Finals, during which we and a competitor can be faced with paired challenges and demonstrate ourselves to be undeniably better than the rest. There is no QED at the end of the proof. We are, by nature, unfinished projects, unready for viewing.

I heard a radio interview with a restaurateur who had been wildly successful for over a dozen years, running a Hollywood hotspot where deals were done and beautiful people were seen. And he said that for the entirety of his time in the business, at the end of the day, he locked the door behind him, patted it lovingly, and said, “Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow.” And that’s the life of the scholar: no matter how much success we’ve had, for no matter how long, we have to put on our amulet, recite our incantation, and do the work that will keep us safely undercover for one more day.

Home Cultures

A friend of mine just sent a link to a very nice piece at the new York Times, by a writer with whom I’m not familiar, Annie Liontas. She was discussing the ways in which some families have artists within them; other families introduce their kids to fine art and fine writing; and others have no access to that, leaving the kids to discover “literature” or “serious music” or “fine dining” on their own. Or, as Liontas argues, by being exposed directly to it through education rather than at home.

Although there were a great many things to be thankful for in my childhood, and my parents gave me everything they could, there was no literary inheritance to speak of. My father was a Greek immigrant to America, a welder who came to own his own business. I am among the first in my family to graduate from college. As a result, I’ve often felt myself left behind — untutored, fraudulent. But the truth is that anyone who makes a life of writing eventually finds her inheritance of culture. Mine just came a little later, like Saunders’s, through that great equalizer, education.

I’ve had my own teachers who’ve introduced me to fine writers. But I was also surrounded by books and magazines all the time as a kid, though no one would have mistaken them for being literary. Good Housekeeping, Hot Rod, Field and Stream, Reader’s Digest, Boy’s Life. Romance novels that my mother read, science fiction pulps that I acquired, used, by the boxful. The World Book Encyclopedia. And I learned to swim in the world of words; not in the carefully-laned racing pool, but in the open lake, with the weeds and old tires.

I was surrounded by music. Mostly not very interesting music, Lawrence Welk and church hymns and easy-listening or top-40 radio. The radio or the record player were always on. But I learned to understand why music mattered, that both listening to it and producing it had an immersive quality like little else.

And I was surrounded by stories. When my folks weren’t home, I watched a ton of television, and I learned how characters interacted, how they expressed their motives and desires through their words and deeds. I learned how to throw in a funny comment to lighten a tense drama, how a facial expression conveyed emotion. And I learned how to tell stories myself.

I think these origins account for why I’ve always been impatient with so much of academic writing. We consciously shed ourselves of wit and pace, of rhetorical repetition, of the responsibility to help our readers have an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. We mistake “high culture” for culture writ large, and forget that watching Cheers or listening to Iggy Azalea or reading Cosmo are themselves immersive, formative, aesthetic experiences that we carry forward into the work that we do. Immersion in “great art” has its power; immersion in any art at all has another.

I’m not a pure populist, willing to be so relativistic as to equate Justin Bieber and Dave Brubeck. But I’m also, frankly, bored by an awful lot of supposedly serious work, so precious that it can’t get out of its own way and just tell the damn story.

Words Unspoken in My Home

I recently spent a few days with a friend about to send her eldest son off to college. And as she talked about their plans for the summer and fall, I realized that there were just a lot of things we take for granted as white-collar professionals that many of our students would never experience. In particular, I was struck by some words that would never have been uttered by my parents.

Let’s think about which of these schools would be a good fit for you.

I know the tuition is high, but I’m sure they have financial aid.

I’ll take a week in March and we can go visit some schools.

Let me talk with the registrar and see if I can get this straightened out.

You should see who the faculty are in your department; you might be able to do some research with them.

They have a summer orientation week in July for incoming freshmen; you’ll enjoy that.

We’ll get you a new laptop before you go.

These aren’t surprising words; millions of parents are saying something similar right now. But millions of other parents can’t take a week from work to do campus visits; don’t have the understanding of college structures that would allow them to intervene; wouldn’t know how to evaluate one school or one program against another.

Cultural capital accrues across generations, and lots of our students, as bright and eager as they may be, are starting without much in the account. It’s up to us on the inside to help them start to accumulate their early balance.