The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Bad #1 and #2

1. No one knowing anything

Wow. I don’t know if I can approach this without resorting to lengthy, Tolstoyan language, but I’ll do my best. Let’s start with a question: how many of you can imagine a graduate department, any graduate department, whose professors have no idea when the master’s thesis deadline is? Anyone? No? Welcome to our department. Scott and I were hammering away at our theses (or he was, anyway; once I starting dating Marie my thesis-work couldn’t be described as hammering so much as gingerly poking, the way you would an underdone roast), neither of us knowing when they were due. I asked my adviser, who said he wasn’t sure. He also wasn’t sure when we were defending. We were supposed to have a mock defense at some point, but no one knew about that, either. One of the professors did eventually send out an E-mail to everyone, but in true Nankai form, it was about four days before the deadline.

That would be bad enough, but Scott found out, through the grapevine, that the formatting was going to be REALLY important, and of course no one had told us anything about it. If the Nankai Literature Department had been running the British trenches in WWI, no one would have mentioned anything about the Germans having mustard gas until the whistle had been blown for the over-the-top charge. When Scott and I did find out what the formatting was supposed to look like, I was appalled. The thesis here is supposed to be separated up into at least 3 “chapters,” each of which has at least two sections, each addressing a particular question of the thesis. What that means in practice is that you have to think about the layout before you can think about your topic. The number of questions or terms you address depends on how many chapters or sections you have. Sigh. I haven’t written like that since sometime back in 6th grade. We had to have a lot of other things, too, which I only discovered the day before the rough draft was due. At that point I just turned it in, then when we were given another week (because we international students botched our formatting pretty awfully; can you think of any reasons why?), I feverishly re-structured it so it looked better. Again: not was better, but looked better.

And how about my final language exam? I was told simply that I had to take it before I graduated. Fair enough. What I wasn’t told, until the April deadline had passed me by (that was my mistake), was that I couldn’t defend my thesis at all until I took the exam. Now, I had been into two different offices multiple times over the past semester or two to ask questions about the exam, the latest time being April, and at no point did anyone think to say, “Um, it’s really getting close to the end and you can’t defend your thesis without your exam score.” Once again, nice timing.

2. A true “mock” defense

We knew early this semester that we would be having a “mock” defense before our final defense, and it was for this that Scott and I were slaving away at our papers, because of course the professors had to have at least a rough draft in hand, though I was sure then, and still am now, that they didn’t read them beforehand. Scott and I submitted our papers on time, then showed up a few mornings later for the mock defense with copies in hand and seated ourselves at the big conference table with our classmates. Only one professor was there at that point, and when she saw Scott and I she said, “Oh, didn’t anyone notify you? Your papers have some special problems, so you’re not defending today.” That first question, incidentally, was particularly strange because there could have been no conceivable reason for us to show up for something like a mock defense and seat ourselves at the official table unless we figured we were going to be involved. Whatever. Scott and I just nodded, thanked Dr. Li for letting us know (You always nod and thank a professor here; there’s no question of doubt, discussion, or complaint. I can imagine court eunuchs feeling the same way.), and moved off to a table on a different side of the room to watch the goings-on.

Well, one of the professors was thirty minutes late, so they didn’t get started until 9. For the record, the tardy professor didn’t dash into the room, horribly embarrassed, with a thousand apologies for being a full thirty minutes late to something so official. He just strolled in, smiled, and sat down. Scott and I just looked at each other and shook our heads.

There were 11 students and 6 professors in attendance. For reasons I can only assume are egotistical in nature, each professor felt compelled to offer comments on each thesis, oftentimes repeating what someone else had already said, with perhaps a few additions or alterations. That made for a LONG morning. Four hours, to be exact. Nor did any of the professors think to keep their own comments brief. The professor who had told us we didn’t need to defend spoke for roughly thirty straight minutes by herself on ONE THESIS. The worst of it was, I don’t think I heard any comment during those four hours that I could describe as insightful or even all that helpful. For the most part, there was nothing but endless riffing on word choice, poor titles, phrasing, and the occasional intense criticism about a conclusion. It was mind-numbing after a while. The comments started to feel like white lines on a highway, or water from a leaky faucet, or Top 40 radio. There wasn’t a trace of positivity at any point, unless you count the occasional laugh shared among the professors, which I don’t because the laugh was almost always related to something they felt was wrong with one of the theses. “Can you believe this? He called this section ‘The Theoretical Basis for Theatricality.’ Totally wrong!” “Ha ha ha ha!” That kind of thing. My favorite moment came early on when my adviser and Scott’s adviser, totally ignoring the student who was presenting, got into a whispered discussion about the bald spot in my adviser’s hair. I could even see them examining it. (Oh, how I wish that wasn’t the gospel truth.)

Scott, one of our Korean classmates, and I did end up doing our own mock defense a week later, and I’m positive no one even read my thesis. Every comment or criticism involved word-choice or the relatively few sources in my bibliography. (Scott and I have tried telling our professors that there really isn’t anything on our topics, but they clearly don’t believe us. Perhaps it’s our Chinese. Pantomime instead?) I went to my advisor three days before our mock defense because I wanted to know if he had any problems with the content of my paper. My particular approach is far more analytical than the ordinary Chinese scholar’s, and focuses on the text itself rather than the historical context, so I wasn’t at all sure they’d approve. When I got to his office, he first asked me what I needed (I’d already texted him to tell him what I needed), then strode over to a pile of theses, pulled mine out from somewhere in the middle, and flipped through it randomly. “Oh, you need more sources in your bibliography,” was the first thing he said. Hadn’t read a word of it, or if he had, he couldn’t remember enough of it to give me any feedback. I just said thanks, and left ten minutes later.

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