Friday, May 26, 2017

Blaming the victim?

In the previous 2 blog posts, I discussed some sobering figures on the graduate experience, and how this is probably (partially) related to the lack of advisor evaluation (and training?). And then I read this column from "A growing phobia". The author, with "30-plus years as faculty member" experience, proposes his (I assume a white man wrote this) solution to a student's fear of interacting with their advisor:  
"But if you are the student, understand that these meetings benefit you, and that it is your responsibility — not your supervisor's — to set them up. You need to be able to organize your thoughts, rethink experiments, present experimental results and interpretations and consider your next steps. These skills will make supervisor meetings less frightening and more useful."
So no mention of how the advisor can help the graduate student with the underlying causes of this fear? Because there are some clues scattered throughout the blog post:

  • "The supervisor, with the best of intentions, provides constructive criticism"
  • "remarking on the slow progress of one PhD student's research project at our second review meeting"
  • "Three months later, I repeated my concerns"
  • " I was too busy to notice for another six months."
  • "I was horrified when my suggestion elicited tears."
  • "Ideally, your supervisor will be empathetic until you can acclimatize to feedback and criticism"
Maybe I am reading too much into these comments, but look at the accompanying artwork: towering, stern male figure vs cowering grad student. The student does not fear the criticism per se, but the supervisor.

And how can we (supervisors, advisors, professors) create an environment that does not create this fear? This recent article reports on a survey done in an undergrad setting, but the conclusions are equally applicable to graduate advising, I think. Some of the facilitators are difficult to change or impractical ("Professor has good personality", "Professor gives their phone number"), and some of the suggested facilitators are behaviours that are difficult to quantify or change, such as encouraging, caring, inviting and open, willing or eager to help. But some suggestions are very practical and, if grad student interactions are important to you, relatively easy to implement (I added the bold to certain words):

  • "Professor uses and answers email"
  • "Professor has many and flexible office hours"
  • "Professor has accessible office hours"
And doing these things would show the student that you care. When you are too busy to notice the absence of one of your own students for six months, maybe it is no wonder that a student does not feel important or valuable.

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