Thursday, January 12, 2006

Silence is definitely NOT golden

I don't intend to spend this post moaning about the job search. Suffice it that silence during the job search is in many ways worse than a rejection letter.

But what I want to write about is something entirely different. I was just rereading Mixed Bag on The PhD Explosion. Odd, I left a comment there before, but don't remember all of the post from my first reading. But it got me thinking. She writes in part about feedback from others.

I'm going to come out with something that is almost embarassing for me to relate. I spent five years of my not so young life writing a dissertation, over 62,000 of my words. Because my committee had been scattered to the winds (only two of the four members of my committee were within 1000 miles of my home institution), my chair advised and the others agreed that my defense be waived. So it was. But here's the crux: The sum total of all the comments I received from my committee would fit on a single typed page of text!

In fact, two committee members essentially said nothing related to the content of my dissertation; one basically indicated that comments would be forthcoming, that I would receive suggestions for changes that I should bear in mind if I wanted to publish any of it (it's been nearly a year since the committee first read the completed draft, and more than six months since I filed the diss with everyone's signatures on it, so I doubt those are ever coming); and the fourth member of my committee, ironically the "outside reader" was the only one with substantive comments, albethey brief.

What am I to make of that? Let's get this straight. I respect and admire all four of my committee members. I enjoyed and gained from my interactions with each, over the years I worked with them. My committee was truly interdisciplinary, each one with their own, mostly non-overlapping expertise. My topic crossed the domains of all four of them, and it's certain that no one of them "got" all of the dissertation. But... couldn't they come up with something to say? Okay, they had more to say when I sent them some preliminary chapters, but again, the most substantive came from the "outside reader."

When I wrote the first 100 pages, I sent it along for comments. At that point Dr. C wrote to me that I would make few friends with those chapters in their present state, that I should put all the theoretical stuff aside, do something substantial, then get back to them. Ouch! So, I did put it aside. I wrote little for the next year. In the end I probably edited out at least half of that original stuff, and rewrote much of what remained. In the end, I did do something substantial. I don't believe they would have signed off on it, if they didn't believe so as well.

Don't let it be thought I didn't earn this PhD. Well, think what you like. I have no doubts. But I tell you, it's damn lonely to have so little feedback. Is my topic really that obscure, that remote from what others have done or thought about? I'm not sure I can accept that. Was my committee that uninterested in what I wrote? Were they just so busy that all they could muster was a read through and a signature? Do they really have that much confidence in me and my work that they considered their comments to be superfluous? (How many academics do you know who think their remarks are superfluous?) Did they think I'd be too sensitive to their criticism? (That never stopped them before.)

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. But I sure wish I had more than silence to reflect on.


Skylar said...

Oh, dear. This is an interesting post. Thanks for sharing it.

Just my opinion here, but I wonder if the "silence" about your job hunt has created a sensitivity to "silence", in general?

Not to diminish the feeling and thrust of your post or the relevance of what you shared, but I think "silence" may have more power in the emotions you are experiencing right now due to the current state of affairs of your life.

I am reminded of my friend who received her PhD in computer science 10 years ago and the journey we spent getting there. I say "we" because I was there every step of the way as were a couple of other friends! :)

Her journey had been longer than many of her colleagues who entered the program when she did (5 years), and her committee even changed along the way. Her chair was hopeful she would finish and move on. Confidence was something he had in her, for sure, but he was ready for the finish line.

I remember her defense and thought as I read your post that many candidates would be thankful for a waived defense. Not that great or lengthy work was required afterward it, but that anxiety was present preparing for it and during it.

There is something about "comments" to anything we do which are affirming. We know we were heard or noticed. When we don't get that we are left feeling hungry and empty sometimes.

I am keeping my fingers crossed for you - that the perfect job will soon present itself and the waiting will seem fully worthwhile to you. The waiting is a journey, too. While you are in this process maybe you can determine what the lesson is here and in so doing eventually be thankful for the time you had while the right position was finding its way to your door. Good luck. :)

ArticulateDad said...

Perhaps I have a heightened sensitivity to silence. Perhaps it is the circumstance. But does anybody thrive in silence? Sure solitude can be redeeming and refreshing.

I remember years ago reading a book (actually it is one of the few books I chose NOT to finish) about solitude (I think that lone word was the title also). It was a rather self-indulgent romp, about a year spent by herself in a cabin in the woods, or something. It didn't seem to say much besides, "gee, it's nice to be alone for a while."

But, She didn't just revel in it. She wrote a book about it. That is, she didn't really want to be alone. She wanted to share her solitude with others. A nice oxymoron.

I can't imagine that even that author would have been overwhelmed with delight to get nothing but silence from her prospective publishers. [SIGH] Maybe I'll go somewhere and be quiet for a while.

Thanks for your comment, and most especially for your encouragement and well-wishing. Your presence is felt like a calming, warm breeze on the porch in early morning in the spring.

skylar said...

Was the book 50 Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach? I enjoyed it as I have other of Grumbach's work. :))

If this is the book, it was the lack of verbal communication which allowed Grumbach to amplify her inner life and focus on writing, painting, nature, music. It was meant to be an experience of learning more about the inner life - the personal experience of "self" in contrast to life amidst the distraction of the outer world and others.

I don't agree that writing is contradictory to solitude - whether one shares the written word with others at a later date or not. In my opinion, writing conveys the writer's journey through whatever the subject or experience.

I agree that no living thing thrives in neglect, but I don't always see silence (or solitude) as neglect. The deaf can thrive. And, in the abundance of self, even in solitude, we can thrive whether or not we are in the immediate focus of another.

I didn't intend to debate. My post was meant to encourage you. I hope your future is full and happy. Good luck.

ArticulateDad said...

Definitely a different book. I'm not familiar with Grumbach's work. As I recall the title of the book I referred to was only one word long, and most likely Solitude but that appears to be a rather popular word in titles, so I'm not sure I will be able to locate it.

I didn't take your comments as criticism. I guess it's just my grouchiness showing through in the written word. ;)

It's not that solitude nor the silence of reflection are contrary to sharing, nor that writing is in opposition to such quiet reflection. Surely not. There is a place for all types of experience, and they all enrich us.

The silence I speak of here is different, though. It is the noticeable, awkward silence of a one-sided conversation, it is a clouded mirror that no longer reflects, the dropping out of cell-phone communication at the point of mutual understanding. In short, it is a silence that invades a world of sound, like an overgrown thistle in a field of irises.

BrightStar said...

I would definitely be frustrated by that degree of silence. Perhaps one way to go is to write some smaller verion(s) of the dissertation into articles to get reactions from reviewers, as that will be the opposite of silence, but is that not feeling like a good option right now? or maybe you have already done this?

(that said, I think the silence on the part of the faculty is inexcusable)

ArticulateDad said...

Good thought. I am working on turning several chapters (and subsequent follow up) into articles. At least that's what I do, when I'm not completely useless. I hadn't thought directly about it in terms of comments, but that's a good thought.

I have given a couple lectures on my dissertation research, which have been well-received, so I think there is an audience for the work I've done.

The trouble I've had is really figuring out what's the next step, now that I finished the diss. (Okay it's been 10 months, you'd think I'd have settled that question by now... but being a father takes time and energy as well, especially since I stayed home with the boys from June-October).

I think it's probably a common feeling for recent PhDs to be wondering where to go from here. I'd venture this even more so for the more interdisciplinary of us. I've actually applied for jobs in two subdisciplines of my home field, and a few posts in two closely related fields that seemed to well-encompass my area.

It's in a way the same problem I had looking for a graduate school. I knew what I wanted to study, but didn't know where it best fit. I'm definitely more established in my home discipline than I was then. But it's still a matter of fit.

BrightStar said...

At least that's what I do, when I'm not completely useless.

*sigh* I hear you on this.

Good idea about giving talks as a place to get interactions around your ideas.

I think it's probably a common feeling for recent PhDs to be wondering where to go from here.

I would agree. I ended up choosing my next big project by looking at an issue relevant to the context where I am currently working, which also addresses a research topic I had been thinking about for years but not done anything with... but is it related to my dissertation topic? Not so much. So that's a pain and complicated on a lot of levels.

I am also interdisciplinary, in a way, and I have found it difficult to find a home. I mean, yeah, I have a job, but how do I know if it "fits"? What I have decided, and I don't know if I am right, but the department where you're hired is basically constraining you only in terms of what you teach. Other than that, you have the academic freedom to do research close to, but not exactly in, that area. I think. I'm not sure, though, because I fear what will happen come external reviewing for tenure, as my research is fringe-ish in the field where I teach and slightly more mainstream (although not entirely!) in another field.

It does help, for me, to see these struggles as more universal and not problems specifically located in my life. Does it help you?

What other ideas do you have for finding community around your work other than talks and submitting articles?

The PhD Explosion said...

I know nothing of the job hunt yet, so I can't say anything helpful about it. But what I wanted to say was that I have silence too - masses of it.

You see, I don't really have any advisors. One just doesn't reply to my emails, the other has taken indefinite leave from academia. So I'm running around my department talking to anyone who has time for me; as you can see sometimes it's good, sometimes (most times) it's not so good because no one understands my project from the inside out the way the indefinite leave professor did. I feel abandoned and cheated.

One thing I've learned from reading loads of blogs is that I'm not alone in this situation, and there are others in worse situations than me. You got your PhD, I'll get mine, and screw anyone who is too far up their own arse to comment.

ArticulateDad said...

The PhD Explosion said...

I feel abandoned and cheated.

I understand the feeling. It's natural to feel that way. But... unhelpful. I don't know the circumstances of your advisor's "indefinite leave," but it's tough, in the midst of our necessary self-absorption in writing the diss, to recognize that most of the world doesn't revolve around us.

Even when my dad was dying of cancer, I'd sometimes take it personally. "Why is this happening to me... now?" Of course, it wasn't happening to me (not directly). Besides, the cancer (whatever it is) wasn't looking for someone's life and someone's family to make miserable. It was just feeding.

A lesson to be learned for us, assuming we do land faculty posts, is to remember our graduate students. If at all possible, we should give them our all, or not take them on in the first place. But that's for us to learn not to teach.

You got your PhD, I'll get mine

Yes, you will finish. It's all on you. It's funny, reading over these articles on what they didn't teach you in grad school. Their description of the prospectus bears no resemblance to my experience.

Thinking back, it was a lonely path, shouting out in all directions for a guide. But, in the end, I was able to choose a path of my own. An old friend of mine would often quote:

It matters not how straight the gate, how wracked with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

[I know the quote is perhaps not exact, but that's how I remember it, and I like the shipwreck imagery of "wracked" that goes along with "captain"]

At the end of the day, it is your work. Get advice, indeed. Seek it out, and not only within your department. Write to people whose articles you've found inspiring or useful. In my experience, many of them will ignore you as well. But there's always that one or two who take you on, and correspond.

Remember, you're not alone!

Anonymous said...

One on my dissertation committee told me to drop 100 pages with no explanation at all and, so far as I could ever tell, never said another word about it to me or anyone else and never looked at it again. I still think that the dropped 100 pages was the best section. If I remember correctly, when I defended, he asked questions that didn't have much to do with the dissertation. Journal editors are a bit like that, too--you're lucky if you get any response from them at all other than rejection letters. Prize the responses you do get, though. Perhaps your dissertation was so clear and complete that no one had any questions to ask?