The Adviser-Advisee Relationship

February 28, 2002

As a professor of American studies at the College of William and Mary, I regularly give a statement to my doctoral students outlining the obligations of both parties in the adviser-advisee relationship:

Let me make explicit what I expect in a dissertation and how I see my roles as your adviser. A doctoral dissertation in American studies must stake out a historical, cultural, or literary problem, explicate its significance in relation to the existing scholarship, make clear how the inquiry engages broad questions about American society or culture, and then lay out a clear research design, by which the intellectual problem will be addressed. The investigation must identify a body of pertinent primary sources, published and unpublished, and describe clearly the methods, approaches, and theoretical presuppositions it brings to bear upon the subject. In describing and analyzing the sources, the dissertation must draw upon and relate its conclusions to all the relevant scholarship, including books, journal articles, and other dissertations. The conclusion should generalize from the specific findings of the study to the larger issues the study engages.

As to my roles, I see myself as your principal editor, whose job it is to note errors of spelling and grammar, identify infelicities of expression (awkwardness, clichés, unclear formulations), and set forth problems in the larger presentation, especially in the structure of chapters or the work as a whole. Secondly, I read your work as a critical scholar, assessing the logic of your argument, the pertinence and the persuasiveness of your evidence, and the acuity of your analysis. Third, I will offer suggestions of pertinent books, articles, sources, and propose various approaches, methods, lines of interpretation. Finally, despite the critical stance all these roles involve, I am also your chief cheerleader, who will do everything possible to enable you to produce a first-rate dissertation and secure a top academic job. Whatever faults your work may show along the way, they will not dispel my support and enthusiasm for your career.

What do I expect in return? First, that you send me a text that is always spell-checked, grammatical, documented with footnotes in appropriate style, and as clear as you can make it. Second, that you respond to my comments and, if you choose to ignore or reject them, tell me why in an accompanying letter. I get frustrated and cranky when I invest lots of time in reading and reflecting on student work and my suggestions seem to get lost in space. Third, it is useful for you to recognize that both of us operate under time pressures, with all sorts of obligations and deadlines to juggle, and that you alert me when I should expect to receive draft chapters and leave me roughly a month to read and comment on your work. Ordinarily, I return manuscripts within two weeks' time, and a month is my outer limit. Beyond that, you have a right to complain.