Thursday, August 02, 2007

Feathers are a-flying

Today our Head of Department had unexpected visits from three unhappy but resolute grad students that he co-supervises, all wanting to drop out of the program or suspend their enrolments. I know about this because all three of them met in my office for a cry/hug-fest before and after. It appears he didn't see this coming, which is kind of indicative of the problem. What the hell sort of supervisor doesn't know that his students are too depressed to leave the house and haven't done any work on their dissertations in nearly a year?

Tomorrow our stand-in graduate convener* is organising a meeting that has become popularly known as "The Graduate Whinefest". Supposedly it will be an opportunity for grad students to air their grievances with the department and to talk about what practical steps need to be taken to make us functional again (as a department and as individuals). There is a lot of simmering anger and disillusionment among the other PhD students in our faculty, so I suspect the discussion will be heated.

I'm a little bit baffled by all of this, since my own experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I know that a lot of the other students are depressed, but I guess I assumed that was a common result of dissertating rather than directly resulting from anything our department has or has not done.

If I had to list what was wrong with our department, I couldn't go past the summary a fellow student came up with today: many of the faculty are both autistic and Amish.

I'm not taking the piss here. Several people in administrative positions who have control of the budget grew up in the Amish community and still really don't see why people need technology, travel or money in general. Hence they are financial tight-arses. Also, although I don't know whether they have been diagnosed this way, and I obviously wouldn't pretend I could diagnose them myself, certain faculty members (including but not limited to the Amish ones) display the same characteristics as some people I know who do have clinical diagnoses on the Aspergers–Autism spectrum. They openly admit to having problems with social interactions and interpreting social behaviour, and struggle even with tasks such as working out if someone is addressing them or not, or interpreting any sort of gaze or body-language. They therefore tend to be oblivious to departmental politics, tension, and to whether the department's grad students are happy or suicidal.

These two characteristics (financial tight-arsism and inability to interpret social behaviour) have led to the following specific problems:

  • Certain individual supervisors tend to forget about their students for years at a time. Unless the student makes an effort to connect regularly, there can end up being no relationship there at all. There are really only two or three faculty members who do this (the socially inept ones), but they each supervise a lot of students.
  • No one has enough funding for conferences and research expenses. (We each get a conference allowance over three years that pays approx. half the airfare to one international conference, or the conference registration (but not travel and accommodation) to the big Australian conference each year. We are expected to attend this Australian conference every year and at least one international conference). This is not just a problem for grad students, though: faculty have exactly the same allowance as us. There is no funding whatsoever for software or even essential electronic equipment. This does suck. A lot. And is evidence for why you should not put the Amish in charge of your travel and technology budget.
  • Certain faculty members (see above) tend to speak before they think. This has resulted in them unintentionally saying some hurtful things to certain students, and making stupid decisions that they have later awkwardly had to back out of.
  • Because we have relatively few students (and fewer new ones every year), and because they all start at random times of the year rather than in a group, our department has fallen out of the habit of holding any sorts of orientation events or even letting students know what resources they have, what is expected of them, etc. Good supervisors (like mine) fill this gap themselves, but others (see point one) don't.
I don't think these problems are unique to our department, and I don't think they are especially pervasive, and there are many positive characteristics that (in my opinion) balance them out. So I will be curious to see what people have to say tomorrow.

Maybe I have just been extremely lucky not to have affected much by it all, and the problems are actually a lot more serious than I had realised. We shall see.


* She is not the official graduate convener because our department has refused to provide appropriate teaching relief and therefore (surprise surprise) no one has volunteered for the job. This faculty member, however, felt bad that the graduate program was being left to sink or swim, so is kind of keeping it afloat temporarily.


Juggling Frogs said...

I found an explanation for all your difficulties.

I'm imagining an expressionless scallop wearing a plain black hat...

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Okay, I don't mean to laugh at your departmental woes, but the whole idea of having the Amish in charge of technology is just cracking. me. UP!