Recently I showed a draft of a chapter I've been working on for my dissertation to my advisor. I've been working on it all summer. I gave up many beautiful days outside to study, write, and read scholarly books and articles that may as well be titled "I'm smarter than you, and here are all the footnotes and academic jargon to prove it" or "Even though this author MAY have only meant to tell a love story, I think this story is REALLY about Marxism/neoliberalism/capitalism/feminism/racism" or "How to Over-analyze a Novel in 50,000 Words or Less".
I really thought that this draft was a significant improvement over the previous drafts I wrote. I made a list of all the feedback I'd gotten from my committee, and I tried to incorporate that into this chapter. I tried to develop a stronger core argument. When I showed the draft to my advisor, I hoped that for the first time he would give me even just a little positive feedback. Even just one line of encouragement, like "I can see that you've put a lot of time and effort into this", would have been enough.
That didn't happen. He kept saying, "Okay, BUT...", "But you didn't even do this...", "The problem is..." and "I still don't understand..." I'd mentioned that my original draft was much longer, but that I'd edited it. He said, "Well, maybe you shouldn't have done that; maybe the original draft was better than this one is." He even rolled his eyes at one point.
I felt crushed. I tried to explain my dissertation's argument to him, but he kept saying that my claims weren't clear enough or that I wasn't making any specific claims at all. At first I tried to hold my own by responding to his criticism with my own ideas, but he kept questioning all of them, which made me feel like my ideas weren't as good as I thought they were.
I felt angry and frustrated, which is something that I've been feeling about this whole process for a long time. I looked down at the notebook I was holding, and I realized that I was gripping it so tightly that I almost gave myself paper cuts. I wanted to tell him that he was wrong and that my dissertation wasn't that bad. I wanted to prove to him that all the work I've been doing really did amount to something important. I wanted to scream and scream and scream that I was doing the best I could, damn it, but it was never good enough; it made me feel like I wasn't good enough.
When I talked to graduate students and lecturers about my situation last year, they advised me that at some point I need to stand up for my dissertation if I really believe in it, even if my advisor doesn't agree with it (although of course they didn't say that it's okay to scream at the advisor). But I feel like I can only challenge or defy my advisor to a certain extent. He, as well as the rest of the committee, are the ones who are going to sign off on my dissertation (or not). He has the power to make me leave the graduate program altogether, which is something that I'm terrified of. He's also the one with the PhD and the long list of credentials that I don't have yet. He's already an expert in the field that I'm still starting out in, so it's like fighting with someone who has a black belt in karate and the only thing you've ever been able to do is win a thumb-wrestling fight.
The other grad students and lecturers also told me about their difficulties with their advisors. One or two of them told me that they had to switch dissertation directors because they had so many problems with them (not an option for me, since my dissertation is on a specific topic that my advisor specializes in, unlike most of the other professors in my department). They also didn't always feel like they could stand up to them, because the professors had a lot more authority than they did.
At this point, all I can do (other than track down my professor's address and toilet-paper his yard) is revise my chapter. Again. I'm determined to finish this dissertation. I do NOT want my dream of becoming a professor and to be recognized as a "Dr." to be taken away from me. I don't want to let it go. I will NOT let go, unless they literally make me do it.
What about you? Do you ever feel like you can stand up to the people who have authority over your work? If not, why not? If so, how do you stand up to them?
Here's the video for Katy Perry's new song, "Roar". The video is kind of cheesy, but I like the song, especially the point she makes about how she finds her voice. I can definitely relate to THAT right now.
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