Enough Advice, Already

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Man sitting on rocky mountains

This fall marks three years since I first started advising doctoral students at Duke. What have I learned?

Here’s one lesson: when students reach out, advising may be the last thing they want or need.

Initially, I expected to focus a lot of effort on filling information and advising deficits, and even doing some damage control with students who hadn’t, for one reason or another, had access to good advising and mentoring elsewhere. And I made sure my office was stocked with a few boxes of Kleenex.

Now, three years later, I’m happy to report that I’m still on that first box of Kleenex. Conversations have generally been upbeat. Many, if not most, of the students I see are already following “best practices” in being effective graduate students. This includes establishing good and productive relationships with faculty both at and beyond Duke, leveraging supportive networks of other doctoral students, and reaching out to professional staff as necessary.

And while some students receive faculty advising unsuited to their goals or needs, I witness these situations more as the exception rather than the rule. So what’s the most critical student issue I encounter as an advisor, when so many show up well-supported and informed?

Call it too much of a good thing.

For a lot of Duke graduate students, the issue isn’t a deficit of information and resources, but a surplus. In addition to all of the information students glean from in-person mentors and networks, we have the rich harvest of Facts and Perspectives from the Internet. Online discussion boards, Twitter, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Professor is In (which one student confessed to me that she reads before bed every night), you name it.

So often, I find, advisees don’t want more information, or (especially) to be told what to do. They most need and want to be listened to.  It’s not hard for me to recall my own formative years in graduate school and post-PhD, when faculty, mentors and advisors (well-intentioned, invaluable) did an enormous amount of talking. We absorb this (often gendered) model of professional formation, and consequently spend a lot of time planning what to say, how to say it, and how best to impress an audience.  And when we do begin mentoring others (perhaps students earlier along in the program), our first instinct may be to talk rather than listen.

Although we valorize the work of academic mentoring, let’s face it—there’s a lot of ego bound up in taking the position of Wise Person on the Mountain. And when you start seeing your mentees as younger versions of yourself, that’s when your ability to help becomes severely limited.

This past year, I’ve renewed my commitment to do more listening and less talking, and to create more “open spaces” for doctoral students to process and reflect on everything coming at them. To support this resolution, I’ve just completed a ten-month professional coaching certification program at NC State. We don’t use the term “coaching” much in higher ed (outside of the athletic arena), but it is a well-established professional development practice in both the business and nonprofit worlds.

While I won’t attempt a full definition of coaching here, I’ll simply note that in a dedicated coaching session, the coachee does most of the talking. The coach’s objective is not to give advice, but to create a structured space for individuals (and sometimes groups) to reflect on strengths and growth areas, clarify values, set goals, and to formulate action plans.

Keeping yourself out of somebody’s else’s space takes great discipline. For example, to keep us in line as we practice-coached on our first weekend of class, our instructor wrote the acronym W.A.I.T. on the board in large letters. (“Wait: Why Am I Talking?”)

So what do these reflections mean for you? For starters, if you show up for advising in search of the Wise Person on the Mountain, you might (depending on your chosen topic and goal for the conversation) still find her there. Or I might respond to your questions with some counter-questions, to encourage you to formulate solutions on your own. I might also support you in channeling analysis into action items (something we humanities scholars aren’t always great at doing).

Hopefully, I will do more listening than talking.

If you’re interested in learning more about coaching as a formal process, I’ll be piloting a limited number of spaces in several group coaching cohorts for doctoral students this fall. I welcome you to read up more on those in the VH@Duke newsletter, and consider participating. Coaching in a group context offers several added benefits, such as rich possibilities for peer mentoring.

Not interested in advising or coaching at the moment? Then I simply invite you to identify where, in your doctoral training, you presently feel listened to and heard. And if you can’t find those spaces, I encourage you to cultivate some. This may involve hand-picking a few mentors (or friends) especially skilled at empathetic listening, rather than individuals with the most impressive CVs.

In addition to cultivating a stronger voice (if you haven’t already) in conversations with faculty and advisors, also identify opportunities where you might productively put W.A.I.T. into practice. It might be as a new teacher, when you let students take the lead in class discussion. Or in your graduate seminar, so that more reticent classmates have space to share their ideas. Or even in a job interview, so that your self-presentation is crisp and focused, and that hiring committees have time to move through all the important questions on their agenda.

And when a student or colleague comes to you with a problem (recognizing you as a mentoring type), just W.A.I.T. Often the biggest gift we can give someone is the permission to help themselves.