Lallygagging and learning to learn as a teacher of PhD students

My advisor, Randy Crane at UCLA, has a special gift with PhD students. He was somebody who suggested to me early on that you, as a teacher, have different affinities with students, and as a general rule I think this is true, but with some exceptions. David Sloane, as an exception, is good with students at every level: great with undergraduates, good with master’s students, wonderful with PhD students, and terrific with young scholars.

I struggled for years with undergraduates. I like them a lot, but I have been thinking about cities and justice for so damn long it’s hard for me to control my language and keep it approachable. I find them asking questions like “What’s pluralism?” Gaahhhhhhh that is something that they shouldn’t have to ask. I do better with undergraduates now than ever before, now that I have crafted classes that really reflect what I think is important and that I can be passionate about.

I’ve always gotten on master’s students, I suppose because I spent a number of years doing what they want to do professionally.

Young scholars I think generally see me as a bit of an Uncle Galahad Threepwood character, only tubby, which is fine by me. Galahad had many fine qualities as a older friend. In that world, I never have to do much, only encourage people to use their time well, try to have fun, try not to worry in an environment where it is impossible not to because of the neoliberal evils of the contemporary corporate mania in higher education. (It has so far not occurred to people that corporations are already better at being corporations than those of us who were never designed to be them, and it’s probably a losing strategy to imitate them when one is not a corporation. But what do I know?)

PhD students are a bit of a mystery to me. How do you teach research, particularly in an interdisciplinary environment? There is an alchemy in all teaching, an art of understanding what a student is struggling towards and how best to support them in getting there, and that becomes doubly difficult with PhD students simply because they are struggling to develop a project that is theirs and doesn’t exist yet. In a disciplinary environment, it’s possible to judge how well students have fundamentals down. As I am found of saying to students, for an interdisciplinary PhD, people have to “build the house you are going to live in.” It’s hard to know how to help them do that: you don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know where they are going, not really, not yet. It’s a process of combining theory and methods that work to define a way of looking at problems, and while there are archetypes, each student has to roll his own. And then the process of defining a research project, the first project, heats up, and that’s hard, too. Helping students structure their own work–learning to set their own parameters–is mystifying to me. How does it happen? I’m always surprised when I myself get anything done.

Randy was much more likely to just to say ‘no, you aren’t doing that’ to me than I have proven to be with my own students, and it’s not because I think my own mentors have been wrong to say no (I was a horrible student and protege I wouldn’t wish on anybody, and mentors usually had ample good reasons for saying no to my various wild hairs.) Come to think of it, David is, too, much more likely to say no than I am.

It can be a very good and important thing to say no: one of my problems as a teacher for PhD students is that I can see lots of possibilities for subjects, and those possibilities may or may not be worth doing just because nobody has done them before. I tend, however, to fear making both Type 1 and Type 2 errors than my mentors have been. Is it maleness that grants them this confidence or their experience? Perhaps both, or neither. Either way, I struggle.

Part of it is, simply, that my tendency to ignore limits is profitable at times. Don’t know how to analyze something? Invent the method. Find the thing. You find things that people think aren’t findable when you don’t consider no as an aswer.

Do the rest of you out there mentoring PhD students understand where researchable ideas come from? For me, it’s reading and walking around and reading and walking around and reading and writing, throwing writing away, and reading and walking around and on and on. Read, rinse, and repeat. I don’t know how scholars who do not read manage to do anything, but they exist. I’ve seen them. And they flourish like the green bay tree.

Then there are the scholars whose approach to mentoring PhD students is along the lines of “I’m so awesome, they will learn simply by being around me via my reflected glory.” And…honestly, sometimes that actually freaking works. How? The hell if I know. If I ever got to point I started believing my own press releases like that, I’d need to quit and go watch sheep in Nepal or become a shut-in or something. Gah. But it does totally work for some, I swear. I think it’s because those types usually are surrounded by people willing to fill in around the cracks, and while the student is worshipping at the feet of the star, the good citizens are there, telling them to work on their structure, fix their definitions, read more…teaching them nuts and bolts. I am not being negative here: inspiration is a part of leadership and leadership is part of teaching, just as much as helping somebody learn to copyedit their own writing. Great committees are teams, with people supplying different things that help a young scholar get where they need to go.

I would never have graduated from UCLA without Lois Takahashi and Abel Valenzuela, and neither served on my committees. They were cheerleaders, friends, consiglieri.

Everybody has to learn to focus, dig deep, and set limits. I am not much of a limit-setter, on myself and anybody else, and I have relied on mentors to do some of that for me. As a result, my attempts to be firm with others usually sounds something like this:

Now, in the academy, one absolutely needs lollygagging, and the game is hardly simple.

But getting something done is, often, a miracle.