Advice, Feedback, and Where to Get It
This post is about advice and feedback, where academics get it from, and where we could give it and get it (there’s an imperative in that last part – please use the comments section). I write it during preliminary exam defense season here at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and thus I am currently all too aware of the highly ritualized set pieces during which we officially give advice, such as defenses for grad students, third year and tenure reviews for junior faculty, and peer reviews for everyone. However, whether in spite or because of these highly ritualized moments, many other moments where advice or feedback are required go unmarked. Surely many of us remember the fear of preparing to deliver our first conference paper, worrying that it would be ripped apart, hoping that it would be the talk of the conference, yet afterwards not really knowing how it went. Anyone who has been on the job market – a longer, more abstrusely painful experience of hiring than even Mark Burnett or Simon Cowell could dream up – knows the frustration of often never knowing whether one is doing the right things or not. And even when we do get advice and feedback in the ritualized moments I list above, the requisite academic thick skin covering deep neuroses may lead us to wonder both whether the evaluation is more indicative of the evaluator’s own problems, and whether deeper criticisms remain unspoken.
When we decided to start this column, School/Work, one of the key motivating factors was the belief that we need more spaces to give and share advice. Personally, I’d like to see conferences create more room for meta discussions about the profession and our place(s) in it, but currently many don’t, or don’t enough, and not everyone can attend every conference. Which seemingly leaves the Web as a wonderful place.
Yet how do we trust the advice? Last year, I decided to run a series on my blog about the media studies academic job market, followed up this year by a briefer series on applying for PhDs in media studies. I did so partly as a reaction to the academic job wiki, which, while sometimes very helpful for telling you what layer of Limbo, Hell, or Nirvana your job application is likely in, is also full of horrible advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Lots of ABDs guessing about how search committees work + skyrocketing levels of angst and disappointment + anonymity = a nightmare. And it’s turned feral several times. But where does one go if not to the wiki?
At one level, the wiki serves as a damning judgment on how poor many graduate programs, advisors, and/or mentors are at giving proper advice and feedback (and at how pathetically slow and non-communicative our hiring practices are, of course!). A lot of the pontification I read on the wiki and in other places is plain wrong, but it’s there because the writers haven’t been told any better and are left guessing. My department has a weekly colloquium, and we can easily use that time to give small tips, dedicate more time to larger issues, or simply bring things up in the happy hour that follows. But that’s a rare structure, and so a lot of folk are getting very little advice, if any. Similarly, junior faculty are often left at the mercy of slapdash mentoring, and in my experience, the most mentoring often comes from other junior faculty, who are themselves simply guessing. And advice is often restricted to moving a person on to the next level within the given system (so, mentors will tell you how to get tenure at Uni X, but not how to get out of Uni X; and advisors will tell you how to graduate but not always what to do next).
So what are we to do about this (beyond letting the wonderful Jonathan Sterne do it all for us)? Clearly, I feel that using blogs as a way to offer some advice is helpful. But it seems that we’re only scratching the surface, and that so much more could be done. How to do it? We have a good readership here at Antenna, so I’m hoping to draw out some ideas.