Years ago, as part of a teacher-training workshop, I was asked to recall the most memorable comment I had ever received from a teacher. A trenchant criticism immediately came to mind: In my junior year of college, a teaching assistant in a course on 20th-century British literature wrote in the margin of my paper on T.S. Eliot, "You retail clichés that you've bought at wholesale, but why should your reader have to pay more for them than you did?"
That comment stung, but it jolted me out of smug writerly complacency—and it goads me still, more than 30 years later.
Most other participants in the workshop also remembered negative comments from their teachers. Only a few recalled positive remarks. Well-aimed criticism can stick like a burr, and for that reason alone, it has great power to teach. Nevertheless, as teachers, we learn early that we can't rely on the negative alone. There's a reason "Look for something positive to say" has become an old saw in learning how to grade papers. It's entrenched wisdom because it's entirely correct. Well-placed compliments provide the proverbial spoonful of sugar.
Graduate students, too, need that sugar—they have a bigger sweet tooth than undergraduates in some ways. I once gave one of my dissertation chapters to a visiting professor I had become friendly with, and he returned it with margins overflowing with criticism. My first impulse was to put the manuscript aside, where I would never see it again. I knew I had to read it, though, so I did. It took all of my patience to get through his comments.
That professor remains a friend, and when I asked him years later why he hadn't leavened his criticism with any praise, he was surprised. "I thought you understood that I liked it," he said, pointing to his thorough engagement with my ideas. I did understand that—intellectually, at least—but I still couldn't bear to return to his comments to read them a second time. They needed balance.
That need for balance extends to the relationship between advisers and their graduate students, but it's not always easy to find. The adviser-student connection blends the professional and the personal, and the search for balance within it can become fraught.
In master's programs, and especially at the doctoral level, graduate students depend on their advisers more than on anyone else in their careers. Students do more work for their adviser's eyes than for anyone else's, and the adviser's approval is the key to the door that leads to the next place, whether full-time employment or more school.
For those reasons and many others, graduate students spend a lot of time watching and thinking about their advisers. Even when they don't sit down with us all that often, we're on their minds. They gossip about us. They read our writing and may even be inspired by it. And they follow our every move. I know a professor who quotes from books during his lectures with the same flourish that was employed by his adviser, who had borrowed it from his adviser, who may have borrowed it from his.
So an adviser's criticism of a graduate student's work can pierce deeper than the tiny hooks on a burr. Criticism from someone so important can wound, and it can impair a student's progress. And the adviser may not know it.
I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize students. How can they get better if we don't criticize them? "Don't be judgmental" has turned into popular advice, but it irks me whenever I hear it. How can anyone navigate the world without making judgments? Professors are embedded in a culture of evaluation: We make judgments for a living (not only of student writing and public speaking, but also of book and article manuscripts, tenure and promotion files, grant proposals, and on and on).
We may make certain comments that hurt, but it's impossible to know which comments will hurt which students—until we get to know them. What's the best way to do that?
A good answer comes from outside our profession. A recent article in Sports Illustrated described the relationship between Tony Parker, the star point guard for the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, and his coach, Gregg Popovich. The coach ripped into Parker relentlessly when he joined the team, yet not long ago Parker signed a long-term contract extension that will keep him on the receiving end of his coach's criticisms for years to come.
Popovich's teaching presumably makes Parker a better player, but what allows the coach to ride his player so hard? Modern professional basketball is filled with stories of star players who flex their box-office muscle and get their coaches fired by threatening some version of "him or me."
The Spurs' coach long ago sought and found his balance with Parker. Breaking bread lies at the center of their relationship. Coach and player share 15 to 20 dinners a season. "You can't get on a player and ignore him until the next time he plays a game," said Popovich, "or all of a sudden he's chattel." Popovich and Parker may have become friends after more than a decade together, but that's not the point. Each understands that their personal time together strengthens their shared professional goals.
Graduate students work for themselves and not a coach, but the sports analogy is useful nevertheless. It was with Popovich's teaching in mind that I've lately instituted a rotating lunch schedule with my dissertation students. I now try to eat lunch with one of them each week when school is in session. We don't go anyplace fancy (because it's not about the food), and I always pay (because it's not about the money, either).
The agenda depends on the student. Work, of course, figures in the conversation. With one student, we might talk about a chapter in progress. With another, the subject might be a larger discussion of potential career paths. But we also talk about lots of topics that have nothing to do with school: travel, books, children, politics (though here I'm especially careful), or sports.
I've learned, though, that what we talk about is not the most important thing. What matters is that we spend time together as people rather than as academics. We already spend a lot of time relating professionally, in what amounts to an exchange economy (in which they provide scholarship and I give them credit). The lunches broaden our shared foundation.
Because the adviser-student relationship inextricably combines the professional and the personal, I'm finally suggesting that a graduate student will be a better scholar or scientist if her adviser sits down with her now and then and simply says, "How's it going?" or "What's up with you?" If we do that, then there's much less chance that our criticism will come flying around a corner like a grenade. It will have less chance to wound—because it won't feel impersonal—and much more chance to correct and motivate instead.
By treating my graduate students as people and letting them see me as a person, I try to balance my professional demands on them. By paying attention to their personal side, I can best cultivate their professional work. Thanks, Coach Popovich, for making that clear to me.
Next month, a corollary and a caveat: Why you shouldn't let your advisees get too close.