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Okay, so then this happened . . .

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Long story, but the gist is that my dissertation committee, revolving door with members leaving The University of the Usual for other jobs, met with me yesterday for my proposal defense, and one of the people there forgot (as did my director) that she had recused herself after comps (not a scholar in my field, really), so one of my REAL committee member was not invited to the defense.  I teach and serve on committees aplenty; I get that stuff happens. However, this particular "oops" led to a deep confusion, of course, and also to a proposal defense that became dominated by the person who wasn't sure why she was there.

Okay, so here's where the culture of my first higher-education experiences comes into play. I am a somewhat non-traditional student -- age, years teaching, and life experience. The makings of this student are for another post, but the outcome of my proposal defense (which is going to be okay; ABD on its way with a few changes to the research topic abstract) is deeply connected to how I was "brought up" in academia. I was taught not to question, and continuing not to do so is my bad. I assumed (add cliché here) that the change in my committee was a political move I should not question and that two PhD-bearing, experienced professors would not make a mistake so BIG. Always challenge something "hinky" is what I learned. The climate and culture of graduate studies has changed since my first era in college, and I have to adapt.

I teach at a community college and am delighted to do so. My students are for the most part bright and respectful. Nonetheless, if I make a mistake with a due date or any manner of class business, they will point it out to me. I am glad that they do.

I have a great deal to learn from them.


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I'm not sure if there's a question in here somewhere, or this is just a general post (venting, perhaps?), but something stood out to me very strongly as being quite different in your situation. 

In my experience, meetings such as this (with your committee) would be planned by the student, and it would be the student who sent out the invitations/materials/set up the time when the committee could meet. With that said, how would someone who you know had recused yourself from the committee get an invite, and someone you knew was supposed to be on your committee not be there?

Was your committee chair the one that set up the meeting and invited people?

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Yup, at my university, the director arranges everything, and the this director plus the self-recused person forgot the specifics of the situation. To be fair, they are overloaded with committee work, and I am not angry. And there is no question in my post because I have no question about this issue; my goal is just to encourage grad students who might be of my vintage and academic-historical context to be more productively assertive than we may have been "brought up" to be. Just thought this would be a place where people could relate. If I am wrong, please let me know.


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I think this was a good post to write and although like Eigen, I was also confused at first that there wasn't a question (I'm just so used to everything being a question), but then reading it a second time, my interpretation was that you are just encouraging students to be assertive and raise questions if we think something is "off" instead of assuming the professors are always right.

I think this is a good point to bring up because it's not just students of your "vintage". I do some work with international student orientation and one of the big ideas is the academic culture in North America is different from other countries. So we also notice that some students from outside of North America are also very hesitant to raise questions when something is wrong. 

And finally, I do know of a situation where due to a committee mixup like this, the "extra" committee member that wasn't supposed to be there dominated the discussion and it lead to a bad result for the student. Now, I don't know if the result would have been any different if the "extra" person was not there, but no one likes surprises on an exam date! I think it's important for students to advocate for themselves and remember that professors can and do make mistakes and not be afraid to ask questions (in an appropriately polite/respectful way) when something seems off. You mention that you thought there might have been some politics happening and while I do think grad students should not get themselves involved in department politics, it's still okay to ask questions about it or discuss why the person is added to your committee when they should not have been etc. (I just wouldn't go and be part of the politics myself!)

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my goal is just to encourage grad students who might be of my vintage and academic-historical context to be more productively assertive than we may have been "brought up" to be.

Yep, this is a very good lesson. More generally, you are the one who is most up to date on what should be happening with your degree, and you are the one who should care the most. Your advisors might be the best intentioned people in the world, but they have a hundred other things on their minds and mistakes do happen. It's always good to be on top of things that matter--not only if you're older and not only when it comes to exams. This is excellent advice for everyone. 

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Thanks for the response, and thanks for sharing- I completely agree with the message. I think far to often we're trained to rely on our mentors/rely on authority, and the transition from that to taking control of our studies can be rough- and quite honestly, a bit scary. 

It extends from being the person most knowledgeable about your degree and what should be happening there to being the one most knowledgable about your actual research- by the time you're defending, you are likely to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the niche you've carved out for yourself, and taking ownership of that can be a really difficult step to take. 

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My thanks to all! The extension to international students is something I did not consider. What a great point! Many of my friends in this program were from countries outside North America and found the transition daunting.

Taking ownership is indeed a tough implementation. I am learning, and the responses here have helped.

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I understood what you were saying, and I think your post is helpful. I also appreciate its honesty and humility. 

In general, I have noticed that people who are reticent to speak up are often treated with less consideration than those who express themselves vociferously. I'm not talking about grad students who continually rattle on in class with their abstruse comments--the profs know that even a quiet person can ask a question that gets to the heart of the matter or can make an insightful comment in simple language and quieter voice. I'm speaking about professional and social situations that occur in academia. Those that speak up about, say, establishing deadlines, or who check up on whether or not an adviser has gotten a link to upload a reference letter, are able to get what they want. Those that are prone to be hesitant are obviously never totally ignored, but more hiccups do seem to happen in their progress toward graduation. 

In social settings, professors seems to like those who speak up, as well. Part of this is due to the fact that deep down inside they don't want to be shown the over-respect that they continually receive. They're human. They want to connect in normal ways, and so when in a social situation a student is able to carry on a conversation with a little verve, that student will stick out in their minds. Sometimes, at the MLA, I'll see a prof I don't normally talk to while on campus--simply because they're specialists in an area different from my own--but in a crowded room filled with strangers, they'll walk over to me, or I'll bump into them, and we behave as if we're buddies. They look relieved at seeing a familiar face, and our institutional connection seems to be reason enough for us to behave more familiarly with one another, than when we're on campus. The point is that I start behaving less like a student and more like a colleague with the aim of treating them like someone I would normally talk in such a setting. They appreciate it. Back on campus, we nod or talk to one another more frequently and with more familiarity. 

But it's difficult to develop that assertiveness combined with respect because it can come off as arrogance. I'm working on fellowship essays, and the feedback I keep getting from readers is that I need to adopt a tone of mastery, or more precisely, a confident tone with language that suggests that my project will make a major contribution. I don't think so highly of myself in my every day life. (I mean, I  do like myself but I just care about doing good work now, not envisioning how badass the future book manuscript will be, because you never know with these things.) But I finally understood that given the numerous essays the fellowship committee will read, a good project expressed with a loud, confident voice will stick out much much more than an understated good project. We have such small windows of opportunities to pitch ourselves and our projects, that a higher volume (though still calibrated to be pleasant) is needed to make things happen for us.

And it's important for going on the market, too. Obviously, a good project and articles (and all the rest) are important, but our professional persona is equally as important. Presenting oneself confidently and clearly, as if one is just as capable as the older generation of scholars who will be evaluating us, is crucial.

I'm glad that things worked out for you, despite the screw-up that was clearly not your fault. 

Congratulations on become ABD. I just became ABD too!

And please excuse any typos. It's 5:20AM over here.   

Edited by Aztecson23
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