He doesn’t hold back his criticism

I was looking at one of my interviews with philosophy professors and was struck by this little explanation of why he had not picked someone as his dissertation supervisor (directeur in French):

– Normalement j’aurais dû faire ma thèse avec XYZ, car c’était lui qui m’avait le plus inspiré, mais je connaissais suffisamment XYZ pour savoir que je ne réussirais jamais à faire une thèse avec XYZ.

– C’est-à-dire ?

– C’est-à-dire que c’est quelqu’un dont la moindre remarque m’aurait blessé au profond, et comme c’est quelqu’un qui ne menage pas ses critiques, je pense que, euh, j’aurais pas pu, quoi. Bon, je vais pas raconter ça, parce que c’est un peu intime, mais c’était pas possible, quoi. Voilà.

In English, here’s how that comes out:

“Normally I should have done my thesis with XYZ, because he was the person who had inspired me the most. But I knew him well enough to be sure that I would never manage to do a thesis with him.”


“Meaning that he’s someone whose tiniest comment would have hurt me so deeply, and as he’s someone who doesn’t hold back his criticism, I think that, uh, I couldn’t do it. Well, I’m not going to tell you about that, because it’s sort of personal. But it wasn’t possible, eh? Voilà.”

The cruelty of criticism can shape an academic career,  we see. Personal acquaintance with academics can trigger revulsion. And pure intellectual commonality (“inspiration”) is no guarantee of human solidarity.

That’s what I learn from this little moment. That, and the sheer sense of blockage that can set in when academics stop to retell their lives. You’re reminded of moments of impossibility, of those structural dead ends that are as much subjective as institutional. “It wasn’t possible, eh?” he summed up. As if that was the whole story (even though he also told me he wasn’t going to tell me the whole story).

(On a more positive note, this interview does remind me of one piece of practical advice. If you are interviewing in French, and are otherwise at a loss for words, c’est-à-dire? — “meaning?” — is almost always a good way to get people to keep talking.)

Graduate mentoring and textually mediated intellectual passion

“After you take classes, you mostly stop having a relationship with the department, and your main relationship is with your committee,” a friend of mine said last year.

So the relationship with one’s advisors is the institutionalized moment of semi-autonomy from the institution, a moment in which one’s academic situation is governed by the contingencies of evolving personal and intellectual relations, and only more distantly by the bureaucratic requirements of the graduate program.

This can evoke all kinds of intricate psychosocial dynamics between student and advisors. Being in the middle of them, I can’t really speak from experience here, but let’s look at Janice Radway’s post facto description of her advising relationship, from a 2006 interview in the Minnesota Review with Jeff Williams:

“I first studied with Russ during my sophomore year. I had come out of a very middlebrow background and loved books and reading. I thought of myself as an English major, but didn’t aspire to a professional identity or position. I thought I was going to write as a journalist. In that sophomore year, I took Russ’s class on realism and naturalism, which met three days a week. He was working on The Unembarrassed Muse at that time and offered a special session that you could attend on Thursdays, where he would talk about the popular culture contemporaneous with literary realism and naturalism. I attended those sessions and was transfixed; I was not just transfixed by the subject matter but by his investment in the subject matter. I remember thinking, “This is a job, you can actually aspire to this as a job. You might think of yourself as a teacher, as a professor even.” It sounds silly and naïve, but that really was the moment when I thought about a different future.”
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