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How Dissertation Advising Has Made Me a Better Teacher

Jennifer Trimble

Stanford University

One of the forms of teaching I do the most is advising doctoral dissertation students. Its long-term and one-on-one aspects make certain dynamics of teaching and learning especially visible.  This is also the form of teaching in which I experienced my most galvanizing failure. 

I learned how to advise dissertation writers the hard way, by failing with an early student.  (I will refer to this student as “they/them” in order to preserve privacy.)  This student finished coursework, reached the writing stage, and won a terrific residential fellowship.  Excellent, I thought; this student is all set.  Meanwhile, I had a year’s sabbatical and a book to write, and I proceeded to focus on that.  What I did not do was stay in regular contact with the student.  I assumed they would be in touch whenever they had writing to show me or needed help with something. 

This, it turns out, is not a good way to advise dissertation writers.  By the time I saw any writing, the student had gone far off the rails, writing long digressions that shifted the focus far away from the project’s central issues, and producing chapter drafts that did not address the project’s core questions.  To the student’s credit, they subsequently revised and restructured those drafts with renewed focus on the project’s larger goals, finished the dissertation and earned a PhD.  But, because of my negligence, the student wasted a lot of effort and time along the way. 

I learned from this experience that maintaining regular contact is essential, and since then I have done things very differently.  Most importantly, I talk with dissertation writers every two weeks about how the work is going.  These conversations are structured as a habit; they are not conditional on first finishing a chapter or other milestone.  This is because I want to hear about process as much as results.  I aim to advise on research obstacles or writer’s block as well as the quality of individual analyses or chapter drafts. 

Why is it so important to talk regularly with dissertation writers?  Most tangibly, this strategy helps students finish their dissertations in a timely way.  More deeply, these conversations exemplify three steps fundamental to any teaching: start from where your students actually are, determine where they need to go next, and help them get there.  But at the heart of these conversations is a very human dimension of presence.  It matters that someone consistently cares about a dissertation writer’s efforts, sees the potential in still unformed ideas, talks through problems as well as successes, remains present while they do a difficult and life-changing thing.  Ultimately, these conversations illuminate the very human dimensions of learning and teaching.

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On Being Calmly Wrong: Learning from Teaching Mistakes

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