Advice, Feedback, and Where to Get It

August 30, 2011
By | 4 Comments

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.


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4 Responses to “ Advice, Feedback, and Where to Get It ”

  1. Derek Kompare on August 30, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Great idea for a column, and great charge to get the ball rolling.

    The good news these days is that there ever-growing sources of academic advice. The bad news is that academic advice is almost never “one size fits all.” Every moment and ritual (excellent use of this term, Jonathan) is wrapped up in many layers of contingency, specific to that place, that event, those relationships.

    However, one piece of advice I hope is general enough to apply broadly is to put on different hats at different times. This becomes not only easier but nigh unavoidable the further one’s career goes, but it’s an essential step in understanding bigger pictures. Most grad students’ first new hat is the one marked “Instructor.” Having to prepare materials, lead discussions, and grade student work is a critical understanding of a different perspective. And from there it just expands (not replaces; expands. Once you’ve worn a hat, you can’t quite get rid of it). Wonder how conferences choose papers? Get on the program committee. Wonder how journals or books are edited? Review manuscripts. Wonder what really goes on in job searches? Serve on a committee. And on and on.

    The thing is as well that there’s always things you don’t know, and things even people you’d think would know, don’t know! By that point hopefully you’ve figured out that a substantial chunk of what we do is improvise, though knowing when to lead rather than follow is (again) something you may need (drumroll) advice about. Of course it all changes when you change jobs and locations. At that point, you’ll definitely start a new hat collection.

    All that said, here’s another piece of advice. Conspiracies, whispering campaigns, and cutthroat academic politics make sexy stories at the conference bar. Almost all of the time, however, events perceived as such are much more than likely the results of much more mundane circumstances: miscommunication, different priorities, and (most likely) sheer exhaustion. Almost all of the time.

    • Jason Mittell on August 30, 2011 at 3:33 PM

      Great advice, Derek, with one caveat: want to know what a department chair does? Well, sometimes ignorance is bliss…

  2. Jason Mittell on August 30, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    I agree with Derek that information is so much more available now than 10 years ago, with social networking and blogs enabling forms of communication across rank, discipline & role than ever before. So one key source of advice is asking your network, whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or what have you. I love when academic acquaintances post questions that I can offer a quick answer to, and then read the range of other replies – which usually highlight the differences that each perspective comes from. But there’s comfort in knowing that there’s no one magic way to do things, and that your mileage will vary depending on where you’re driving from. I’m sure a lot of people think that some questions are dumb, but I guarantee that there are more people who’d like to know the answers to it.

  3. Kristina Busse on August 31, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    In my years as non-official, informal advisor, the one advice I seem to give more than any other is to de-ritualize as many things as possible.

    Every hoop we pass seems insurmountable from one side and near negligible from the other (unless we’re excessively narcissist, we usually look for the next big hoop rather than revel in our momentary accomplishments). But there seems to be a systemic need to make the hoops seem larger than they are–be it because those in charge remember how big it seemed to them and how hard it was to overcome, or be it because there’s a vested interest in gatekeeping…

    So my mantra tends to be “Don’t panic!” and “You can do it!” Most everyone who gets to a certain stage has the intellectual abilities to move forward. Many worry themselves into paralysis, and psychological self-doubt becomes its own impediment.