Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gratitude and Politics in Academia

Recently I read a book called "Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier" by R.A.Emmons. I'd like to thank my friend who recommended it. As a result of reading the book, I've been trying to focus more of my attention on things to be thankful for, which is consistent with my general belief that we can change our psychological habits by working on them.

I was also recently talking with a dissertation writer who was having difficulty with her faculty committee. That's a statement which is pretty much generally true in my life, and has been since I started working with dissertation writers. Which isn't surprising, since someone having problems with their committee is much more likely to look for outside help than someone who is getting along just fine with their committee.

It's hard to be grateful for a committee that is causing problems. And it would really be far too new-agey for me to suggest that you try to find things about them to be grateful for, though there may well be such things.

What I am interested in, at least with respect to giving advice to dissertation writers, is how to get the most out of your committee. Which would give you something to be grateful for.

There's an old saying "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar." What role can gratitude play in this? Well, look, I'm not asking you to actually be grateful for anything your readers did, what I am doing is suggesting the possibility of acting grateful on the premise that it will help you get better responses.

In the relationship with a faculty committee, you have to be able to express doubt, disagreement and problems. But there is some discretion in how to express that doubt or dissatisfaction. Let's say, for example, you get harsh criticism. You could respond by complaining to them: "this doesn't help me at all," or something perhaps more subtle. Does that help you move forward? Does that motivate them to help you?
You could also respond by choosing not to respond to them, or even by complaining to someone else. If you complain to a different reader, what will they expect you'll do when they give you their feedback?
What I recommend is to say thank you. "Thank you for taking the time to comment on my work." Sure, it's their job, so they damn well ought to give you feedback, but that doesn't mean you can't say thank you. It's liable to create some minor spark of positive feeling.

There are other levels to this that I was thinking of writing about, but I'm running out of steam, and I have other stuff to do.

But, briefly, gratitude is a factor in people's lives. Some people have no gratitude, but even the ingrates have interests and desires. One thing your committee wants is for you to finish your dissertation. Make no mistake, it is to their benefit when they have more students successfully file. They may be very particular about not wanting to be embarrassed by signing off on sub-par work, but they still want you to finish. Also, people who give advice want their advice to be followed. To the extent that you can thank the committee for their advice, and to the extent that you can follow their advice, you give them opportunity to feel good about you.

This little not-essay isn't quite as focused as the idea I started with--maybe it's that I didn't have a clear idea; or maybe it's that I just haven't found the right words. That's the battle with writing. I'm grateful this is a blog, so the worst I suffer is the scorn of my few readers.

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