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.