Don’t Be Nice

I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but I was watching Tony Robbins on Oprah a couple weeks ago.

I know.  Stay with me here.

And although I think that Tony Robbins is really gross, and especially when he starts going on about what women “need” to do I want to throw up in my mouth a little, nevertheless, dammit if the damned episode didn’t just stick with me and niggle at me ever since.

What he talked about was how women are trained and expected to be “nice.”  Especially with their friends.  If a friend says, “I think I blew that audition because I didn’t have time to prepare,” the “proper” female friend response will be “oh, no, I’m sure you did fine…”  We are Nice.  Reassuring.  This we call, “being supportive.”

But, Tony Robbins asked,  what are you doing when you’re being quote-unquote nice and quote-unquote supportive?  Are you really being a friend?  Are you telling the truth?  To continue my made-up example above, if your friend says “I think I blew that audition because I didn’t have time to prepare,” should you really say, if you  want to support your friend’s dreams, “Oh I’m sure you did fine”?  Or, should you say, “Yeah, it’s hard to audition when you don’t prepare. That may not have been your best performance.  Do you have a plan for the next one?”

I naturally completely bristled at Tony Robbins presuming to tell women how to act.

But the fact is, this is EXACTLY why I list the “nice” advisor as the top worst advisor in my list of worst advisors.  The last thing you want is a nice advisor, if by nice they’re all, “hey, that idea’s great,” and “wow your chapter’s terrific” and “you’re brilliant, you’ll get a job” and “you have nothing to worry about.”

‘Cause that’s bullshit, pure and simple.

That’s not friendship or support or adequate advising.  That’s abnegating responsibility.  That’s laziness.  And it’s falsehood.

Everyone should be worried.

Here at the Professor Is In I do get clients who are struggling with abusive and outrageous advisors.  But far, far more often I get clients who are slowly, gradually, painfully confronting the devastation  wrought by the nice advisor.  At least with an abusive advisor you know there’s a problem. The harm of the nice advisor lies in letting you believe there is no problem, that everything is fine.  So you cruise on, turning in your chapters and defending your diss, and sending out letters….. until one day, you realize, at the hands of the brutality of a completely cold and unyielding job market:   Everything is not fine.  You are not brilliant.  You should have been worried.

I was working with a client a few days after watching the Tony Robbins episode.  She told me, “I had an interview scheduled with a great college in my town about a year ago, but when I drove out on the freeway to get there, I got mixed up and turned the wrong way.  I couldn’t get turned around in time to make the interview.  By the time I got there, I was a half hour late, and I’d missed the interview.”  She said, “they’re advertising again right now.  I want to apply, but I wonder if I blew it with them last time.”

I felt myself start to say, “oh, I’m sure you still have a chance…”  But then I stopped myself.  Did I believe that?  No, I did not.  Truthfully, I think she blew it.  So was I helping her by saying otherwise?  No, I was not.   Had she come to me to make her feel good about herself?  No, she had not.  She came to me to hear the truth.  So, I paused a moment and said instead, “Yeah, I think you blew it.  I don’t think a search committee will be likely to give you consideration when you flaked on an interview with them a year before.”

And I realized that, in Ph.D. advising at least, nice is evil.

I got this comment on the blog last week, from someone who signed herself “Nice Lady Advisor”:

I wish you would write a follow-up post on the “nice advisor” problem, addressed to us nice advisors. I aspire to your level of effective bluntness, but I often find myself choking up and couching my criticisms in such “constructive” terms that my advisees can miss the underlying hard truths.

Many times I long to say, “This writing sample is boring and shallow, and nobody is going to give you a job/fellowship based on it.” But don’t want to be toxic or undermining, so instead I say, “Use active verbs to make your writing more vivid! Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and evidence to support a claim! Frame your argument and claims as a response to arguments and claims in the current literature – refer to scholars X and Y!” And my advisees think their work is basically okay, when it’s not.

All advisors, but particularly nice lady advisors,  beware this impulse to water down your critique.  The truth, if it is really the truth, and not some passive-aggressive expression of your own private twisted agenda, is never toxic or undermining.  It is empowering.

I say it again:  The Truth Is Empowering.

You empower your students when you tell them the truth.  Even when the truth is kind of bad and disappointing.

No, you can’t just criticize (“this writing sample is boring and shallow”).  You must criticize and then TEACH:  “this writing sample is boring and shallow because it repeats an empty assertion multiple times without developing it with additional evidence and argumentation.  To make it work for you you’ll need to revise it to move crisply through an organization that lays out a question, then describes bodies of scholarship on the question, then advances an argument, then proves the argument with evidence, and then offers a conclusion.  I can help you sketch the outline for that now.  Then go away and do it, and send me back the revision.”

Yes, they may resent you.  No, they may not do what you say.  It is not comfortable.  It may involve strife.  But that is your job, as an advisor.  To show them what they’re doing poorly and TEACH them how to do it better.

If you want to go home and be nice to your cat or your friends, that’s fine.  But don’t be nice to your advisees.



Don’t Be Nice — 22 Comments

  1. I seem always to find myself in partial disagreement w. these columns….
    Let me confine my disagreement to advising undergraduate students on their prose. Yes, it’s important to tell them precisely what’s wrong — style, usage, grammar, syntax, logic, the whole bit — but it’s also useful to say something encouraging. Sure, give the student a C-, but do give some advice that isn’t negative, e.g. ‘Read X’s prose to see what really good prose is like, and I bet yours will improve,’ or ‘Read the good example of an xyz paper that I posted on Blackboard, and try to model your next paper on that one,’ or — what I find myself doing most of the time — ‘Your comments in class are really good. You need to get your writing up to the level of your participation.’ — In short, be honest, yes, but not so bluntly and negatively honest that you destroy the student’s ego and will to improve. Give the student a little something…that’s what teaching is about.

    • But this post and site aren’t geared toward undergraduate advising… They are geared towards professionalizing PhD candidates, and PhD advisors. With that audience in mind, would you disagree? On what? If there is a substantive alternate argument, grad students would benefit from knowing what it is. If not, this advice seems a rare and useful barometer of advisors and their utility.

  2. I soooo respect this post. I have worked in the applied arts field for over 20 years now (at all levels, including creative director and owning my own studio), and have taught as an adjunct intermittently since 1999. Since I’ve dealt clients and ‘artistic’ employees for so long, I have long developed thick skin in terms of critiques. Whenever I show concepts, or give presentations, I invariably tell people to tell me the truth because I can react better, and produce better with it. I tell them explicitly that I take constructive criticism exceptionally well.

    Went back to get my MFA a few years ago with the intent of teaching graphic/interactive design full-time at the university level. I have since sought out advice from people I know in the industry whom I respect and asked them to critique my portfolio and my writing (especially my writing!) to see if there is something there that I am missing. I give the same spiel… I take constructive criticism exceptionally well. Unfortunately, I have never received anything more than the token “Use passive verbs throughout” or “try using XYZ action words.” What I want (and likely very much need) is for people to tell me what works and what misses… not how to sound more appealing in HR-speak. While I have multitudes of experience in the corporate world, I am cognitive of the fact that academia is a different beast, and therefore need as much *honest* guidance as possible.

    • Well, for a start, Gregory, you mean ‘cognisant,’ not ‘cognitive,’ in your final sentence. The system that drives this email wants me to spell it ‘cognizant,’ but both spellings are correct. In your second sentence, you mean ‘dealt with.’ I hope you consider this criticism ‘constructive.’ I don’t know you, but I appreciate your desire for a truthful critique.
      — Janet

  3. My advisor is kind of a genius. Her standard line is, “You are brilliant. Please add 30 pages by Monday. Oh, and that conference you don’t want to go to? I’d like them to know about your wonderful work. Abstract is due tomorrow, so please do hustle. I’ll read a draft if you get it to me by 5.” I always find myself doing what she asks.

  4. Janet, I think your comment about teaching undergraduate writing points to an underlying problem: PhD students who send their advisors high school-level prose.
    Please, PhD candidates – send writing to your advisors that employs topic sentences and correct syntax, advances a clear and logical argument, and engages with relevant secondary sources. Help us focus on your argumentation and use of evidence, not on the mechanics of your clauses, sentences and paragraphs.

    Karen, I love your template “tough love” response and I’m going to try it the next time I’m faced with one of these papers.

  5. I wish my advisor was less “nice” to me in grad school. I could have handled some tough love and criticism. I think my advisor chose “being nice” because he was too busy to actually teach me how to improve my writing. So rather than be truthful about my terrible prose, logic, argumentation, etc., he simply said bland, “nice” things to get me out of there!

  6. I waiver back and forth about my advisor. He was (and still is) the nicest person in the department. I may be growing more jaded the further out of grad school I get, but I would rather have someone who’d get Jillian Michaels on my ass than someone who is nice to me.

  7. As I’ve communicated to you via email, I have a combination of the “nice/self-involved and therefore indifferent”, and the “nice but burnt out/doesn’t give a shit” in my academic life. This means that I find myself surprised by feedback I get external to my department, because, internally, I keep getting told “this work is fine, it’s publishable, etc.”, so the advisor doesn’t have to either read it again or spend time on me. This seems a common problem in departments with highly ambitious faculty. I find myself bitter because in my own teaching I actually prepare for class and take the time to give painstaking comments to the students, on papers most of them never retrieve. But I can hardly get my own faculty to even read my papers.

    OTOH, I’ve seen it so much worse than I have it. A huge* department not that far from my own (around 150 active students in the department) has students who are so unsupervised that I’d say only about 10% (at most) are actually making productive progress towards their degrees and not going insane, and the rest are producing crap work and are bitter…

    Okay, I’m rambling.

    *huge compared to my own, that’s for sure

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  9. Just want to drop a line to say/chime in that a major issue here isn’t simply niceness. It is being truthful and keeping priorities straight. The kind of being nice Karen points out with the friends puffing each other up example is not merely “trying to be nice.” It is lying. And it is not a white lie when people’s careers are on the line. We grad students (I’m finishing a PhD right now) don’t just figure it out later on our own. If you, doctoral advisers, are not direct about what needs to be done to survive in this total warzone of a market, we will not do it. To me, being truthful is being kind, which is a different thing than being nice.

    Allow me to add that I have an adviser that has made the kind of correcting comments about my writing that Janet Gold has above, toward Gregory, but they were frankly totally annoying and useless to me compared with the major, major guidance I needed on the bigger issues on my dissertation, like the ideas. Like what I was trying to accomplish. Like how my work was shaking up the field, or if it wasn’t, how to regroup to frigging bring it so someone else gives a damn about my research. Like how to be a badass so I can finish up and get a job. Line-editing is not advising.

    • I totally agree with your comment that line-editing is not advising. I am writing my dissertation now, and it is so frustrating to get a couple line edits when what I really want is critique about the trajectory of my argument and the soundness of my evidence. Of course, if my prose is in some way a train wreck, that should be pointed out. But, to date, the only substantive comments that I have received about my work are those that I get from presenting at conferences. It has been from these interactions that I have been able to be more confident in my field and in the trajectory of my work. My adviser is basically non-existent and actually complained to me the other day that there are four of us who all want to finish our degrees at the same time (the horror!). I might add, that two of them have been in the program for over a decade, so I should hope they would want to defend soon.

  10. In my grad department there was one faculty member who was known for phoning her advisees out of the blue at all hours of the day or night and saying things like, “Listen, I’m on page 13 of your chapter and what the HELL do you mean when you say [insert verbatim quote from chapter]?!?!?.” Obviously, her students found it weird and annoying to be blindsided like that, but as C.M. above points out, that kind of engagement with a student’s ideas is what teaches them what it is to be a scholar (and then, how to be a better scholar). On the other hand, if a student isn’t producing the kinds of ideas that can provoke a reaction (or if the ideas need a lot of line editing before the reader will be in a position to formulate a reaction), then a “nice” adviser doesn’t do the student any favors by silently shielding them from the expectations of scholarly discourse and debate.

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  13. I really appreciated your not being nice. My friends all do that and it doesn’t help at all. Usually I just keep telling people until someone tells me what I suspect to be the truth. Most often that never happens. In a way, when I tell someone about a botched thing like that, what I really want to do is to confess. I want to own up to being so, so stupid, allow myself forgiveness, get wiser and–most importantly–move on.

    In fact, it really was all over when I missed that interview as I suspected and you predicted. Just as I thought, the interview was key because they hired two new people that time. It appears that they hired one of them and the matter is closed.

    Have I been filled with regret and self-loathing?
    Yes, but it is gradually fading into wisdom.

    Am I ready to move on? Absolutely!

    One can only do that by fully knowing and accepting the truth. God bless the mean advisor.

  14. I meant to say that of the two people they hired as adjuncts, one appears to have now been hired on the tenure track.

  15. Interesting article, but why turn it into a gender issue? I don’t think that this has anything whatsoever to do with gender.

  16. I’d like to take a stand for nice advisors.

    You seem to assume that nice advisors aren’t doing any work, and that they lead their grad students into a state of clueless complacency, but I have a tremendously nice advisor who’s extremely engaged and helpful, for whom I push myself all the time. He’s so productive that I feel that I consistently fall short (although he never says this), and he pushes me gently but consistently. Before submitting a joint paper, we go through many rounds of revisions. Before I give an important presentation, he gives me multiple rounds of feedback during practice talks. And he’s always inviting me to do more work–submit to a conference or competition, take up a new project, run a new study, follow-up our previous work… Because he always says yes to me, I try to always say yes to him. Although he’s insanely busy, he always makes time to meet with me, and acts like he’s got all the time in the world. It’s largely because he’s so nice that I work like crazy to try to make him happy and not to disappoint him. I’m already getting flyouts for TT positions at R1 schools that I haven’t even applied to, and I’m looking forward to being a nice advisor like the one I’ve got.

    FWIW, I recently had a conversation with psychologist who studies gender among other things, and who has mentored many, many grad students. He told me that in his experience, men have responded better to challenges and women have responded better to praise. And by “responded better,” I took him to mean done better work, not just felt better. I don’t know whether the gender difference is generally true, but I believe it’s true for me because I beat myself up enough without somebody else doing it for me. Positive reinforcement keeps me going–and all the research on behavior change and conditioning supports this notion.

    (And finally, of course I agree with you that an advisor who doesn’t spend any time advising and helping their students is a major dud.)

  17. Yes, being nice is harmful, but being negative isn’t a virtue. Even in your example, “this writing sample is boring and shallow” is a completely unnecessary comment. Stick to the facts, start with “it repeats an empty assertion multiple times without developing it with additional evidence and argumentation” — point out the problem in objective terms, don’t make an essentially subjective assertion and then try to support it (“shallow” and “boring” are subjective). You aren’t advising idiots, they can figure out there’s a problem if you point out the facts in a way that suggests there’s something to be fixed.

    Even with your fictional friend with the audition, don’t point out that it’s their fault say something like “well, that audition is out of your hands now, concentrate on preparing for the next one.” There’s no need to repeat that they should have prepared, they know it—they told you it.

    “Should have” is useless. “Shall” is useful.

  18. “Nice,” “truth,” “teach,” “nice lady advisor” need more definition to be helpful to readers. Otherwise advice like this may be taken the wrong way. Also, more empirical evidence of the results of the advising strategies you paint would help.

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