There has been some recent discussion on the blogs and on Facebook about the tension an adviser might experience between paying attention to graduate students and doing the other stuff you are supposed to do, or from the student perspective, how to deal with getting that quality time from your adviser.
Much of this discussion is in the area of standard NIH funded lab-ratty science which is a world that I am only marginally familiar with. But that is not the only kind of science that is done, and these issues permeate academia beyond the sciences. There are built-in tensions between doing the right thing and doing the right thing, where, often, the former is the right thing for yourself (directly) and the latter is the right thing for your students (and thus, indirectly, yourself… but only indirectly.)
I normally ignore much of this blogospheric discussion because I find it disturbing and of little relevance to me or anyone I know. Presumably because NIH funded research is so vast, most of the discussion seems to be about how to deal with that environment. Over the last year or so I’ve actually worked a bit with mainly NIH and Medical Industry funded labs in a couple of different capacities, and my wife works in a highly specialized medical research lab now, so I know enough to understand that when we talk about “young investigators” or the demographics of science training and professionalization (and retirement and so on) that the majority of this drama is being carried out in a world that is different from the one I’m interested in or know much about. Also, I find certain aspects of that world rather disturbing. For instance, the insistence that it is ethical to have one’s name on a paper using data collected with an expensive machine that you got the funding for, where you had nothing else to do with that paper, is disturbing, offensive, and … well, if it were not so demented it would make me laugh. That kind of thinking certainly kicks the moral stilts out from anyone who practices this form of intellectual theft. But I digress.
My first graduate adviser, Glynn Isaac, was quite experienced and began his relationship with a brand new crop of graduate students at Harvard with the idea of a very fresh start. He was coming to Harvard from Berkeley, and most of us were starting out as new grad students, so it was fresh for all of us, and one had the sense that Glynn wanted to do things in a way improved over his prior experience. (Two student came with Glynn from Berkeley, so their relationship was a bit different.) Glynn knew that it would be difficult to maintain regular and systematic contact with his students, so he set up a system. Every Wednesday, without fail, each of us was to meet with him no matter what. There was a sign-up sheet on the door. In the event of a scheduling issue for that Wednesday, there were some other times we could use to do a makeup meeting.
So we started out this process at the beginning of the semester. I remember my first meeting with him on week 2 of graduate school. I also remember my last meeting with him. On week 2 of graduate school. Every other time there was a note on the door: “Sorry, meetings canceled” or words to that effect. Every. Other. Time.
This does not mean that I did not have a lot of interactions with Glynn. I actually did have a fair amount of interaction. I was his “special assistant” (like a teaching assistant sort of) for his Intro Archaeology class. John Shea and I had set up a nice flint knapping arena in my old archaeology lab, and Glynn worked there quite a bit with his flint knapping class and with various visiting scholars. Glynn and his wife Barbara Isaac had regular parties at their house, and that always involved sitting around with Glynn smoking something (he would smoke a cigar, some of us cigarettes) by the fireplace and chatting. I took a class from him. Some of our longest interactions were out on the North or South Shore making hand axes for hours at a time.
There was one such time I remember very well. There were about eight of us down below high tide line at Marblehead, Mass. Marblehead is a head of land (that’s a coastal/nautical term) made of rhyolite, which is a workable stone for making stone tools. We were harvesting the rhyolite to use in the lab, but also, we were making a lot of stone tools on the spot. If you are at a source, you might as well spend several hours working the rock. This gives you a much better idea of what to bother taking home, and you can waste a lot of material playing around with it but not pay the usual transport costs.
I remember two things especially well that day. First, as we were pounding and pounding and making stuff, the ocean was glass calm, which is very rare for the Atlantic. And the air was a bit cool for that time of year, and there was almost no breeze. Suddenly, I noticed little tiny wisps of fog out over the water, distributed sort of randomly (but actually rather more uniformly than randomly), each about three feet above the water, almost invisible. I said to Glynn and one of the students, “Watch the water. Something you don’t see every day is about to happen.” They watched.
Suddenly, the wisps, all of them at the same time, grew. They became visibly continuous with the surface of the sea, and grew in height, and breath, and then there were no more wisps … just continuous fog, five feet think, covering the ocean from view. In a few moments a modest breeze came up and the fog lifted off the sea, then was disrupted and dispersed. A clear crisp day by the ocean was thus converted to a misty foggy day by the ocean. (What we experienced usually happens at night and is much less visible.)
After the fog found its place, the second thing happened. There we were at the base of this low cliff over the sea, down in the low tide zone making dozens and dozens of stone tools. More experienced flint knappers were instructing the novices, and everyone was exchanging ideas and showing each other their products.
Glynn was at the center of all of it, reveling in the experience of actualistic archaeology, as it was called … doing the paleolithic in the present. Glynn was a small man, bald on top with his pattern baldness ring of hair diving into a full beard. His facial features were rugged yet slight, and he was slim yet tough in his smallness. In other words, for Glynn to dress up for Halloween as an elf, well, he could probably just put on an elf hat OR curly shoes and that would be all he would need. (Indeed, he and his twin brother were once arrested in Austria on suspicion of being elves.)
Glynn also had the habit of putting his hand on top of his head as he spoke. So did Louis Leakey. So there are all these photographs of Louis Leakey and Glynn Isaac talking to each other, four or five photos in a row from one bull session, with the two of them alternating who’s got the hand on the head, elbow raised to the side, chattering away about some archaeological issue.
And Glynn was very quick witted, had a thick colono-British accent, and a bit of a gravelly voice.
So it was funny when the couple … the man and woman of 32 years of age or so, yuppies in the days when yuppies ran the world (or thought they did) out for their mid day stroll along the shore, stopped at the top of the cliff and watched us for a while. Tap tap tap tap clunk, scrape tap tap tap ouch tap clunk, and so on, as we detached flakes, shaped blobs of stone into spear heads, and hurt ourselves now and then.
And the young man ventured to say, “Excuse me, but I need to ask … What are you people doing down there?”
Glyn half turned to the man. The hand went to the head. And in his elfin gravelly voice,
Half turn back to the rocks, pick up a new hammer stone, and we continued…
…. Tap tap tap tap clunk, scrape tap tap tap ouch tap clunk, and so on…
The yuppies wandered off. Amazed, I’m sure.
That is how it was for half a summer, a Fall semester, and a Spring semester. Then, at the end of the Spring semester, I went to the field, and near the year’s end received the telegram, three months after it had been sent. Glynn had died on an air strip in China. By the time I got the telegram, the autopsy was done, the ceremonies were over, the gathering of arcahaeologists and africanists from around the world to honor him posthumously had happened, and the decision had already been more or less made to bring Ofer Bar Yosef in as resident paleolithic archaeologist in the Peabody Museum. When I got home another couple of months later the crying was done except on the occasional quiet lonely night in the Stone Age Lab.
I still have one of those notes, scrawled in his big script on a half sheet of lined yellow paper.
“Greg – Can’t make this week’s meeting. Please reschedule! … GLlI”