So…was it good for you?

A dear friend and I were having another of our wonderful chats today–as usual, much of it had to do with her poor luck on–when we ran into the topic of faculty feedback on graduate student work. My friend has been working for months on her minor field and finally gave it to her adviser recently. In a matter of days, the essay was returned, marked all to hell with critiques: what’s missing, what’s wrong, what’s unclear, etc. And while my friend will certainly take these comments to heart, the one thing that struck her was the utter lack of positive remarks. This was disappointing to my friend, having put so much of her life into the project. This has spurred me to reflect.

1) Hooray! to the adviser for returning the paper so quickly, which can be a rarity in graduate school.
2) Hooray! also to the adviser for providing helpful commentary–something else that’s all too rare.
3) Tsk-Tsk. to the adviser for not including some positive remarks. Surely the adviser knew that my friend had put a lot of time and energy into the paper. A pat on the back can go a long way to reassuring the fragile graduate student psyche. Most of us are one more Last Straw away from bailing to get in rich in Dot-Coms (what’s that? It’s all over? Well, damn…), and a friendly “Good show, chap” helps keep us in the game.
4) Hmmm… to myself. Do I do the same thing to my students? I’m afraid so: lots of criticisms, not much on the positive side. In my defense, none of my students put much work into their essays. Okay, fine: I’ll change my ways.
5) C’mon! to my friend. Yes, she put a lot of work into it. But we grad students have got to get a grip and do a little self-affirmation. Words of congratulations, if I’ve been correctly informed, are not all that forthcoming in this profession. So we’d better learn to pat ourselves on the back, lest the it go completely un-patted.

Gosh, I hope you liked this post.


I’ll be spending most of today working on a “review essay” for a graduate seminar. For those not in the know, a review essay is an essay that reviews some of the current literature on a given topic. I say “some” because it has become all-but-impossible to actually read everything that’s been written about any topic. So, you make some selections from an enormous corpus (respect the rhyme), ideally choosing the best of what’s around. But identifying what’s important is tricky. How to decide? rating? What gets the most reviews in relevant journals? Word of mouth? Nifty looking cover? It’s all of this, of course (yes, even the cover) and one other element: what the professor thinks is important. And here’s where it gets tricky, because you know that the professor has read (or at least heard of) a lot of the material out there, but you hesitate to ask, because you don’t want to appear lazy and stupid. And so you end up guessing a little and carefully probing the prof to get some ideas on what to read. In the end, it usually works out: you read and write about most of the “important” literature, with a few “huh?” books thrown in because (a) you don’t know better or (b) that nifty cover and title belied an irrelevant book.

The silliness of the review essay reflects a more general confusion in how we as historians (and yes, I consider myself a historian-sans-Phd) decide what deserves the attention of historiography. There are all manner of mechanisms for deciding what’s important–where a person teaches, who published the book, etc.–but these mechanisms are often a mystery to beginning (okay, mid-level) graduate students. And so the Suggestion of the Day for Graduate Programs: dedicate time and energy to teaching graduate students how to identify important books. It’s as critical–if not more in the early stages of graduate school–as research and methodology, but it’s too often left to bumbling and frightened graduate students to figure out on their own.