July 26, 2010

The passive-aggressive student

I'm working this year with several thoughtful, independent-minded grad students right now, and this afternoon I realized that I've been quite lucky the last few years in terms of my experiences with grad students (and I hope the converse as well!). Since that hasn't always been the case, I thought I'd put down my thoughts while there wasn't anyone I was advising to whom this applied: how can an advisor explain what's not working for a grad student beyond low grades?


I've been thinking specifically about two former grad students on whose committees I sat (not as advisor). (Some details have been obscured to protect the guilty.) In one case, I had already been a bit concerned because in one of my classes, the student had turned in a paper that didn't meet my standards, and the student struggled to revise in response to quite specific feedback. So we get to comps: the student's comprehensive exam essays were largely unresponsive to the questions, though the questions were worded broadly enough to give the student a chance to show off what she or he knew about the field and how he or she could think either synthetically or critically. We (the committee) gave the student a chance to revise: the revision was nonresponsive to our concerns. A second revision?  We hemmed, hawed, and passed the student (barely). Those of you who know grad school can probably figure out what happened next: the student crapped out in the thesis phase.

The other student was someone who seemed to waver between wanting to dive into reading parts of the field she or he was deeply interested in, on the one hand, and skimming by with only the required readings of other classes/topics, on the other hand. I know of at least a few faculty who said, roughly, "If you want to be a faculty member someday (the person's stated goal), you'll need to be well-read in your field, broadly understood." Time comes for the comprehensive exam and the person's weaknesses shine through: the references are to a very small handful of readings rather than to broad areas of the literature. Because many of our college's comps are closed-book, limited-time (three days of exams, each with one question and a half-day to type an answer), I don't expect students to remember dozens and dozens of names. But maybe I have a reasonable expectation that a doctoral student will know and talk about more than three pieces of the literature per day???!!!

Okay, so these students were over the line in terms of not meeting expectations, but it wasn't entirely clear until comps that they'd screw up so badly. Ultimately, it was their choice to screw up, but I wonder if their choice might have been different with different faculty behavior. And I think part of my role as a faculty member is not only to set expectations but identify problems earlier than we sometimes do. That's NOT good for the student or the program. For a few years I've been thinking about it as a "damnit, listen to the faculty" issue, but that's not fair or appropriate for several reasons. What if a faculty member is totally nuts in advice? And what about conscientious dissent on a matter of intellectual controversy? So there has to be a different way of explaining where a grad student is off the tracks.

Today, I'm thinking of it as a matter of being passive-aggressive: saying "yeah, yeah, I'm listening," and then not changing behavior at all or responding substantively to feedback on papers. There are lots of reasons for grad students to be passive-aggressive, from the power dynamics at a university to our collective experiences with impersonal institutions and supervisors who are unreasonable/unreasoning. But it's generally dysfunctional both for students and for professional environments. I have no problems with students who disagree with me and revise papers to strengthen their arguments. But someone who tinkers here and there and doesn't respond substantively to feedback? That gives me a rending-garments feeling: this isn't what I put time into advising for.

So the next time I face passive-aggressive behavior from a grad student, I'm inclined to say something like the following:

The last time we talked, I gave you some specific advice. In what you sent me recently, I don't see evidence of your response to the advice. That means I don't see evidence either of your changing something to address my advice because you agreed with it or your working to demonstrate I'm wrong if you didn't. I have no problems if you can persuade me through your intellectual work that my advice was wrong, but there was a reason why I gave you advice. I hope I don't have to cite chapter and verse from those who study academics to persuade you that the way a community of scholars works best is by conversation. Being largely nonresponsive to feedback on an intellectual matter is a very effective way of telling me that you don't want to be in that community, if you had wanted to send that message. But if you don't want to send that message, you need to engage in the type of conversation that being a grad student requires.

I haven't wanted to say that for several years, and I hope I never again feel that I'm facing a passive-aggressive grad student. But my opportunities for advising doctoral students is relatively limited, and I may be off my rocker. For those who have advised far more grad students than I, does this make sense?

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Posted in The academic life on July 26, 2010 2:34 PM | Submit