Honoring Hilmes: “An Advisor is Forever” – Passing It On

May 19, 2015
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Post by Norma Coates, University of Western Ontario

This is the eleventh post in our “Honoring Hilmes”series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

“An advisor is forever,” Michele Hilmes said to me soon after I received my PhD. I probably responded with “bwah hah hah.” I had accepted a job at UW-Whitewater because of my family’s desire to stay in Madison. And, now it can be told, my separation anxiety. How would I survive in academia away from Madison and MCS, and away from Michele’s sage advice and calming presence? As it turns out, I found that perhaps you can go home again – home being your graduate school – but you should leave for a while first. Michele knew that, and probably did not think that mine was the best decision, no matter how much I rationalized it to her and to myself. She never said anything negative about it – not to my face. She smiled her inscrutable smile and, as she had through my dissertation writing, let me make my own mistakes. My dream of continuing to attend colloquiums and to run my work and ideas by Michele for her critique and suggestions – that is, to maintain our grad school advisee/advisor relationship – evaporated quickly as I dealt with a 4/4 teaching load, a two-hour round-trip commute, a toddler, and a department with no like-minded thinkers. More to the point, Michele could no longer give me that type of attention nor, I think, did she want to. Logistics and workload aside, I learned from Michele that advising is much more than reviewing chapter drafts.

Like Michele, I have too many advisees. I now understand the demands that all of her advisees, including (especially?) me, made on her time – time that is far more precious than grad students know until they, too, join the professoriate. I now understand the haunted look that greeted me when I knocked on her shut door to have one of my periodic meltdowns. (Michele says that she could predict them.) Advising is much more than picking out courses, reading and commenting upon work, and eventually writing letters of recommendation for your (and other) students. Advising is being willing to put aside your own writing to work on your advisees – even when you’re not willing. If she minded, she did not show it.

Michele taught me that advising is about the advisee, not the advisor. From her, I learned to try to not impose my vision of what the student should do or say, but to get the student to express her voice and her ideas. She also showed me building the advisee’s confidence and leading her to trust her instincts is as important as going through her work. Whenever I work with an advisee who has gone down a rabbit hole or who is too snarled up in a thicket of what she thinks she “should” do instead of what she wants to do, I remember Michele’s patience with a few of my dissertation detours. She waited for, and trusted, me to find my way out on my own, sometimes gently suggesting me toward a better path. A great advisor, like Michele, teaches the advisee to listen to, and more importantly trust, her own voice.

grad_tassel14_1777From Michele, I learned that an advisor is also a midwife at the birth of an academic career. She taught me that an advisor encourages her advisees to establish a professional profile early and often. An advisor does not hide from her graduate students at conferences, even if she wants to, but introduces them to others working in their area. An advisor finds opportunities for her advisees to provide research assistance for her projects, or to contribute to their writing. An advisor continues to take an interest, and even help promote, her advisees’ careers long after the dissertation is finished. And sometimes, the advisor will continue to socialize with the advisee, and even host them for a stay when they return to town.

Michele’s advice is always with me, in the ways I described above and in the form of questions as I write, think, and plan my scholarship. I pose similar questions to my advisees. Am I asking the right questions? Am I clear? Do I have enough evidence? What am I really trying to say? Is this historicized enough? Do I believe in what I am arguing? Why is this here? Am I making the right connections? And the biggest one of all, what would Michele think of this? After all, an advisor is forever.


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One Response to “ Honoring Hilmes: “An Advisor is Forever” – Passing It On ”

  1. […] Wang’s discussion of Michele’s work in amplifying the voices of women in Radio Studies, Norma Coates’ reflection on Michele as an academic advisor, and Danny Kimball’s nod to Michele’s contribution to new media history. Those with an […]