When Good Professors Make Bad Mentors

Red ink triggers PTSD flashbacks for many graduate students.

Allow me to tell you a personal anecdote, one that I buried deep within my soul because it pains me to recall it.

During my first quarter of pursuing a PhD in cultural anthropology, I received the following from one of my professors (broken up into palatable sections but otherwise taken verbatim from the actual email):

“Dear Lee,

I was very surprised by your comment as we left class today — ‘was I offended by your questions?’ — and realized afterwards that you had totally misunderstood my email asking you to rework your questions.

My email had nothing to do with your comments on my book, it had to do with my long efforts as the prof, over the whole quarter, to get you to pose the kinds of questions that are most appropriate for a graduate seminar.
Questions that just ask something about the topic at hand at not the best questions. They direct attention away from what the seminar is trying to understand.

The grad seminar is directed at understanding a particular set of methods, theories, and concepts, best exemplified by the chosen readings. So, the questions students pose should be directed internally, toward the readings, toward previous readings, or toward the intellectual engagement with the topic at hand generally. They should not be questions about anything at all that comes to mind from doing the reading.

Do you understand this? I have tried again and again over the quarter to make this point to you — by intervening repeatedly to say ‘but we can’t
answer that question from our materials’. I was trying to make a crucial pedagogical point but, judging from your questions, below, I did not get through. Do you think you understand now what I have been trying to convey
all quarter?

Professor X”

Immediately after reading this email, I wrote a letter of resignation to the chair of my department. Yes, I will admit and concede to a certain ignorance on my part about the seminar process, especially given that it was my first quarter and I was not yet accustomed to reading an average of 600 pages of dense literature per week. However, it was never my intention to be perpetually digressing or tangential in that class – I was trying to make the works assigned to me comprehensible for my own sensibilities.

The bottom line is that this professor’s passive-aggressive pedagogical approach failed to change my seminar habits. Instead, it made me want to quit altogether, a mere two months into my program. Moreover, this professor was fully tenured and highly reputable in the field of anthropology. The sentiments made me believe that my pursuing this PhD would waste everyone’s time for the next few years.

I kept the letter of resignation in my desk, but I ended up never submitting it, largely out of the fear of going back into the working world. After all, it was 2009, the sub-prime mortgage crisis just happened, and there was no bailout in sight for people like me. I was completed trapped.

It was not until my second quarter that I worked with truly engaging professors who, despite their own personal struggles and angst towards the ivory tower, engaged directly with my interests, connected with me out in the “real world,” and treated me with the utmost courtesy and respect. Because of these professors, I shredded my letter and moved on from that terrible first experience.

If you’ve come to this point in this post and you’ve got a similar story to share, we at Academica would love to hear it. If you do share it here, however, please do so while maintaining the utmost anonymity. Academica wants to start constructive conversations on improving relationships between established and budding scholars, and that conversation starts with you.

It does gets better,
Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica

Side note: The most ludicrous part is that this professor’s email was driven by a facetious statement I made just to clear the air between us. Apparently, despite the fancy pedigrees, the full tenure, and the numerous publications that probably less than 100 people have ever willingly read, the professor failed to quite grasp my tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

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