Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The academic circle of life continues

ETA: Thanks for all your helpful suggestions in the comments, everybody! I'm going to take Dr. Crazy's advice first of all, and tell the *director* to send my contact info on to the student, and let him take it from there.

I've been asked to be an outside reader on a dissertation committee (at my university, but a different departement -- the only humanities departement with a Ph.D. program). The dissertation is on a medieval English subject, though way out of my part of the period*, but I thought I might as well say yes for the following reasons:

  1. I'm the outside reader, so really, my opinion comes last in the hierarchies of opinion, which means I have the easiest job. And anyway, he's not going to have something written until 2008, so there's plenty of time to plan ahead.
  2. I'll learn something.**
  3. Such requests will come up rarely enough that it's not like this one will open up the flood gates.
  4. Dude! I was finishing my own dissertation a mere 4 1/2 years ago and now I'm advising/reading one! How cool is that?! That also means I probably the only one on the committee with a clear memory of what it's like to be a dissertator. I think my best role in this case is to be the sympathetic junior faculty member who can offer concrete advice on the *process*, rather than the content. In fact, I think that's how I can be of the most value to this student, since his topic is fairly far out of my expertise.
So here's a couple of questions for you all: I haven't met the student yet, since he's in another department (his diss director knows me and asked me to be on the committee) -- should I e-mail him and invite him for a coffee on campus just to chat about his topic and his interests in it or something low-key like that? And also: my outside reader didn't really do anything -- it was a pro forma role in my case -- and I know really the chief advising is the director's job, which is fine, since I know very little about this student's subject, but can the outside reader actually be useful for something? (For example, I was thinking maybe I'd be good for giving him a taste of whether or not he was reaching an audience of medievalists broader than those who specialize in his area. Plus, like I said, I might be a more sympathetic ear about the process.) What do you think?

*Let's just say that the student's topic is as distant in time from the subject of my forthcoming book as we are from my book's topic. In case y'all haven't noticed, the Middle Ages is huge!
**Yes, I know, I ranked managing my workload over learning something. So sue me -- I have a job to do and managing my time means I do it better.


Anonymous said...

My outside reader was very helpful in making me aware of how the broader historical community would be benefited by my research. While he didn't necessarily impact my dissertation per se, he gave some great comments on what to do with my research post-dissertation and some people to talk to in the future. Because of his comments, I have felt much more comfortable submitting proposals at non-music conferences -- and been much more comfortable when presenting in such venues. He gave me the vocabulary to use when talking to those outside my specialty area and gave me an example of how those in his discipline thought about my topic. I thought he was great.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Here the biggest role the outsider plays is to make sure everyone follows the rules (and there's a form to fill out indicating the dissertation was given to the committee in time, everyone was present, etc.)

Usually the outside member provides an alternate perspective and asks the questions that need to be asked because everyone in the area assumed them and perhaps glossed over a bit.

Whether you meet the student in advance is your choice, if you have the time. I usually like to give the student a file of my notes while reading it, separate from whatever comes up at the defense. I consider them thoughts for when publishing rather than revisions to pass. I do address the passing issue in the defense, but try to leave the extreme pickiness to the major members at that time.

Dr. Crazy said...

As for the logistical question about how to engage with the student, I think what I would do is I would invite the primary advisor to give the student my contact information so that we could meet. The reason that I would do this is because some advisors would rather have outside readers hang back until the diss is closer to completion and such an approach allows for that; also, I think that the student should really be the one to approach you and not the other way around - ultimately, that's part of becoming a professional, and so I think that having the student make first contact sets a good (and non-infantilizing) tone.

My outside reader gave me INVALUABLE comments toward revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, but I didn't get comments from her until the defense. I'm not sure whether that's the norm or a norm, but I was happy with the role that she played.

Ancarett said...

Yay for the opportunity (and I agree with you that the Middle Ages is huge -- it really irks me that people in my department would like me to condense my two semesters of survey for the topic into one!).

I would ask the advisor if maybe the three of you could meet up for coffee together, at some point. That would break the ice, allow the student to get to know you and vice versa, and then you could make the decision whether this is a relationship you want to pursue with regular check-ups (meet for coffee once a quarter, invite the student to a few seminars in your part of campus, etc.) or just wait until the dissertation's in progress.

medieval woman said...

Yay! That's a great, non-stressful, non-time consuming professional activity. And I think you've articulated what your contribution will be in a great way. I'll echo Dr. C's idea of letting the student make the "first move" so to speak. Just e-mailing and saying that you've agreed to be on his committee, sounds like an interesting project, etc, etc, and saying that if he ever wants to discuss anything, yada, yada, yada...

Such fun!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think I met my outside reader (Professor in Classics and Dean) once socially. We never communicated (I dissertated long-distance and I pushed the deadline ... I'm embarrassed now at how little time I really gave my committee), but he sent me a really nice note when it was all over telling me he really liked the diss and that he wished he'd had an opportunity to have me in his classes.

OTOH, had I been resident and not writing the whole bloody thing in three months (mostly), I suspect we'd have worked more closely. I really should have bugged him more on my translations, but apparently, they were fine.

Flavia said...

What fun! I don't have any advice (my dept didn't do outside readers, although one's diss committee included, from the first, someone in the department but who worked on a different period)--but I've read that of others with interest, in part because I've just been asked to be the second reader for an MA thesis (now in the prospectus stage), on Chaucer.

That's obviously a much, much lower-stakes enterprise than what you're doing, but I had some of the same reaction: "ooh! how cool!" And then--"but I'm totally unqualified to give field-specific advice!" (Since we only have one medievalist, and since I do know the CT well, and especially since the thesis involves religious heterodoxy--I guess I'm the next most logical person. Which is pretty scary.)

I look forward to hearing more about this as time goes on.

alex said...

This is alexhope, That's a great, non-stressful, non-time consuming professional activity. And I think you've articulated what your contribution will be in a great way. I'll echo Dr. C's idea of letting the student make the "first move" so to speak.