I had originally intended this post to be a commentary of sorts in response to Cathy Day’s essay yesterday in The Millions, “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” Her observations about the way creative writing programs are structured – mostly out of necessity – produces writers who are better equipped to write short stories than longer works left me pondering not only my own tendencies as a writer but also how those categories might apply to the work of medieval historians. That is, some historians excel at very close, detailed work, concentrating, for example, on a handful of charters or maybe a single, longer document to glean as much as possible, while others take a broader view, sifting through thousands of documents in search of patterns.
As I got to thinking about the professors I knew and worked with while pursuing my degree, however, somehow I latched on to the subject of poaching – that is, professors poaching students away from their original supervisors. So that’s what I’m writing about this week, and will shelve the other topic for a later post.
I don’t know if poaching is a recognized phenomenon in graduate programs or not. While I’ve seen students switch advisors because their own research focus and interests had changed and they wanted to work with someone who could provide better guidance, I’d never encountered one professor co-opting students from one of his colleagues until a couple of years ago. This guy didn’t do it once, but frequently, and seemed to take great pride in it, though I’m not sure if he was boasting more about pulling another one over on his colleagues, or having so many students under his care. He even tried to persuade me to switch tracks/advisors midway through my 2nd year, arguing that my thesis would be easier to write if I’d focus on translating a couple of documents rather than the broader topic I’d chosen that involved analyzing a dozen or so charters. (This was his general M.O.: he was always trying to convince students to translate documents for various projects he was working on.) Since I had no burning interest in 13th-century Spain, at least not enough to override my interest in 7th-century England and France, it was easy enough to turn him down, but I was one of the few who did. By the time I finished, probably half of my cohort and nearly all of the group a year below ours was attached to this one professor. I don’t know how he managed, but given what I observed of him teaching undergraduates as his T.A. and the way he reneged on a promise to write a job reference for me (though he could have been getting back at me for not jumping ship) leads me to believe he didn’t.
As I said, I don’t know if this is a common occurrence in graduate departments. I’d never seen it before. If the other professors in my department engaged in similar practices, I wasn’t aware of it; the one professor who seemed to suffer most from Dr. Robin Hood’s poaching was understandably infuriated, perhaps more so because the worst of it happened while he was away on leave to research his next book – not that it stopped after he returned, only slowed. There are probably some sort of C.V. bonus points you can claim based on how many students you’re supervising, but I can’t see what real benefit the students gained from it, apart from maybe a half-line of credit in his next article or book thanking them for their translation work. In contrast to this shameless poaching, posts like Notorious, Ph.D.‘s here and here and here or pretty much everything Another Damned Medievalist has to say on teaching, where it’s clear they care about their students and get that a director directs, an advisor advises, and a supervisor supervises, are a welcome antidote to my cynicism.