Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Good Irony of Bad Guidance

"Our chief goal in life is to find someone to help us find

Today, I had my last meeting with my former dissertation advisor. It was high time for me to officially (and respectfully) tell her that I have not only received a fellowship to complete my dissertation abroad (without her help), but that I'm working with another faculty member who gives me concrete responses, supports my intellectual and creative work, and does not send me in a month-long emotional tailspin every time we meet. Of course, I didn't say it this way. Instead, I said that I'm working well with my new chair. I told her that I am in good hands and that I'm feeling "confident and productive about my project". What I didn't say is that this is because my new advisor doesn't rip me to shreds every time I walk into his office, or tell me that I'm incapable of ever mastering the Arabic language, or ever question my loyalty to him and his work, or, best of all, ever remind me that if I want to ever have children, that I better hurry up, but that I can't rush my dissertation, because it's definitely going to take me another 5 years to finish and by then I'll be past child-bearing age...


Overall, the meeting went well, although I must say that it was both difficult and painfully liberating to finally dissolve the relationship that held me for 5 years. Oddly, I realized that I am still dealing with a case of Stockholm Syndrome--I'm perhaps giving more credit than is due to the person who abused me the most, because somehow I see her interest in me as a foundation for many of my successes. I wouldn't be half the scholar I am today if it wasn't for modeling my endeavors after her. Perhaps it's my optimism. I can't help but always turn the most rotten of lemons into sweet lemonade. I'm completely certain that if I didn't do this, I would be living under a bridge by now. Although, honestly, it is tempting sometimes to fantasize about living an irresponsible and unremarkable life of self-absorbtion, marked only by total emotional instability.

Over the course of the last 5 years, there have been several near-breaking points for me. Every time I tried expressing my thoughts and fears to my advisor, she uncomfortably squirmed in her chair and looked at me like I was insane. While she demanded true authenticity of me as a scholar, apparently feelings aren't something that exist in the land of the scholarly. These moments often left me wondering if maybe she was once like me when she started the process of the PhD, and if I was being groomed to ultimately become a woman like her.

Ironically, however, once upon a time, I thought I wanted to be this woman. It's a version of myself that I thought I was becoming. I was going to be the woman academic with the large office library in her home, who had both the financial ability and intellectual freedom to never be too far from her family. The PhD seemed to make sense for me because of my genuine thirst for knowledge coupled with my vision of being able to raise a family while staying true to my own passion. In fact, I still see it very clearly, only I see my own life as considerably less dogmatic, if not entirely juicy and organic...and goddess forbid--fun! In the next 20 years, I'll be writing books, raising babies, and possibly teaching college if not working as a intellectual consultant somewhere. But I won't be so egoistically consumed with my external successes. Rather, I'll always be in the process of becoming, and so my externality will always be an expression of the good things evolving from within.

I still don't think it's entirely impossible to be the woman academic with the books, the babies, and the soup simmering in the kitchen, but I will say that my last academic advisor, despite the life that she has, did a fantastic job of dashing my dreams. Instead of saying, "Look kiddo, academic life is hard and grueling, but if I can do it, so can you", she constantly threatened my tenuous success--and highly mortgaged--future with her own insecurities: "You're not good enough, you're not strong enough, you're not smart enough, it's a shame you got a late start on languages, you will never succeed or surpass me....because you lack the discipline and drive."

The irony, of course, is that in my quest for a supportive female mentor and role model, I discovered more about myself in my contrast to her than in our similarities or in our supposedly overlapping research interests. For starters, I discovered that my heart can't possibly be broken any more than it already has been, that my spirit is still capable of remaining strong despite its atomization, and that my future is now more viable and lovely than ever. I have found that I may never be able to speak the 7 languages that she does, or even successfully alienate a room of 50 people in one fell swoop, and I think I'm ok with this. I've also found that I'm more of a teacher and mentor than she'll ever be, and that's cool, too.

In this process, I've learned that no matter what I do, I can only go as far as my commitment will take me, and the teachers who will ultimately be credited for offering assistance to me along the way will come in the most bizarre, unexpected, if not strangely disguised forms.

Off to the Middle East in 12 days.



la rebelde said...

Your post reminds me that sometimes our best teachers can also be the ones who don't know how to teach. We can learn from our advisors how to be good mentors...and how NOT to be good mentors. Or what kind of mentor we want to be or what kind we really don't. Congrats on your fellowship!

Anonymous said...

Yes, very telling & knowing here N. And this: 'You're not good enough, you're not strong enough, you're not smart enough, it's a shame you got a late start on languages, you will never succeed or surpass me....because you lack the discipline and drive." Is complete rot. Academia is shot though with half wits, has beens, never were's and dolts of every flavor & degree. It is only though youth is this slightly redeemed on occasion! Again, good luck on the trip & research, and check in from time to time too! Cheers & Good Luck!, 'VJ'

A Unique Alias said...

It's all about having fun. If you're not having fun, or investing in fun, then you're either doing it wrong or your perspective is skewed.

So here's hoping you have a ton of fun through your hard work :-)

Anonymous said...

It's funny isn't it, how some of us are given an overwhelming number of examples of "how not to be" and find that the real creative process begins in building ourselves seemingly from scratch?? My heart is sad for your your previous instructor as she sounds like she has pursued success for the purpose of overcoming her own demons of insecurity, yet never really advanced far enough past them to build up others. The last thing she probably wants is more "competition", but what a sad way to go about life! Namaste, I'm so proud of your for removing yourself from that unhealthy situation and not letting it rob you of much deserved joy, success and satisfaction! oxo, S

Brian said...

I'm going to sidestep the depth of response for a second, and just channel Stuart Smalley.

Repeat after me:
I'm good enough,
I'm smart enough,
And doggone it:
People like me.

Because you are,
you are,
and for damn sure:
we most certainly do.

Plus, what everybody else said. ;)

Lucy said...

Reminds me of certain horror stories I've heard from young (i.e., mid-thirties/early forties) female attorneys about the generation of women that came before them. That earlier generation had to fight so hard to get where they were that they had a hard time extending a hand to the rising generation - because doggonit, THEY had to sacrifice family, free time, dignity, etc. etc. to "make it," and therefore all women should have to go through exactly the same trials. It's a weird thing because you would expect that the older generation would appreciate that they blazed a trail and made it possible for women to have greater opportunities, but no - it doesn't seem to work that way at all.

Anonymous said...

Found in the Financial Times, Weekend Ed., May 12/13:

"Academic careers, it is often observed, are based on pointing out flaws in the work of one's closest colleagues-or failing that, in the personalities of those colleagues."

Exactly. They never want or desire to deal with real competition. Much better that these conflicting ideas & new upstarts be 'strangled in their cribs' than they be bothered to reassess their well known prejudices & time worn theories. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'

Anonymous said...

thank you for this post, and congrats on making the move to a kinder, gentler advising situation.... I feel so much recognition reading this, I have one professor who sent me into the same emotional tailspins.... why is it, as Sparklesanon said, that some women do this to one another? Thanks for sharing your experience... and I wish you safe, productive travels on your trip!