Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A screenshot of an Ohyay room showing several circular video feeds of student faces, several doodles, and a chat full of banter.
Our lab space in Ohyay, recording a congratulations video for one of our undergrad research assistants. Credit: Amy J. Ko

Research, advising, and vulnerability

My first year of doctoral advising in 2008 wasn’t exactly a triumph. I’d just moved across the country. I’d just separated from my wife and was in the middle of a divorce, deep in arguments about child support and joint custody. I was broke after 6 years on a doctoral student stipend and didn’t get paid for a long four month summer. I was incredibly alone, with no friends or support system. I had recently tried to share my gender dysphoria with my therapist and ex, and both responded hostility, so I was putting immense effort into locking away my transness deep inside me where no one would see it. And of course, I was at the beginning of a stressful 6-year tenure clock, with all kinds of opportunity in front of me, but also the immense risks of failure. I worried that much of my success had to do with my advisor and now I was alone. None of this was a strong foundation on which to be a caring, constructive, thoughtful mentor. Instead, I was often impatient, hypercritical, transactional, aloof, and intimidating. I don’t how how my first few students experienced me, but I constantly felt like a jerk.

Yet somehow this year, 13 years after that bumpy first year of advising, my lab nominated me for our university’s Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award, and I won an honorable mention, out of thousands of amazing University of Washington faculty. How did I go from being a cantankerous, anxious, and sometimes dehumanizing advisor to one that my students described in their nomination as “fearless”, “respectful”, “inclusive”, “empowering”, “caring”, and “brilliant”?

Let’s suppose those adjectives above are true. If I had to point to anything that I’ve learned or done to earn this recognition, it wouldn’t be lab policies or fundraising or meeting formats or availability or responsiveness any of the other things that academics usually talk about when sharing tips on advising. Those all matter immensely in the daily grind of discovery, but I don’t think any of them matter as much as one thing: vulnerability.

That’s an easy word to talk about, but a hard thing to achieve. In general, academia’s reputational currency isn’t really aligned to incentivize it. Tenure-track professors are taught to be smart, knowledgeable, critical, skeptical, and expert. We’re not taught to question our own ideas, share our humanity, or make our struggles visible, as those might harm our reputations. There are hints of vulnerability in some aspects of scholarship—intellectual humility, for example, or openness to critique—but those are tightly confined to the intellectual realm, not leaving much space for the broader tapestry of emotions and circumstances that ultimately shape our scholarship.

My own path to vulnerability in advising began in 2017, when I started seeing a therapist again after a decade of running from my gender dysphoria. My first step into vulnerability was simply writing my therapist. It took me weeks to craft a message that was the perfect balance of not admitting to myself that I was trans, while also saying that I needed help and was on the edge of a breakdown. It took me many more weeks to send it. Those first few sessions were all tears, a dam breaking after three decades of self-loathing. For the first time in my life, someone had accepted my fundamental humanity and worth.

And it was that basic idea—that everyone has inherent worth and dignity that must be seen, valued, and celebrated—was the foundation of how I began to advise. Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t know that idea already. It’s a value my parents taught me, it’s something I discussed at length in college classes and in my brief engagement with Unitarian Universalist churches. I knew it intellectually. What changed after I began to accept myself as trans is that I no longer had the fear to be vulnerable. Because that’s the thing about hating yourself: it’s just not possible to love others authentically, because such love requires being open to receiving it. Until I felt like I was worthy of respect, I could not respect others.

Even before I came out to my lab, this new embrace of vulnerability and self-respect led to small changes in my advising. I started asking students about their lives. I wrote an onboarding document that set out the core values of the lab, the first of which was centering our individual humanity but also our collective need for mutual support. To realize some of those values, I started having lab meetings that centered much of our time sharing woos and boos. Woos were things that were going well in our research, and things in our lives that where helping us thrive in research. Boos were the opposite: things that were going poorly in research, or in our lives that were making research hard. My students leveraged this vulnerable space to find other ways of sharing. For example, they started sharing woo boos, things that were good in some ways, but also bad. We spent time sharing the intersections between our scholarly lives and our broader personal lives, identifying ways of supporting each other in them, and when possible, offering some solidarity around shared struggles.

That said, there were limits to my vulnerability prior to coming out. I think some of my students knew there were important things I wasn’t sharing. One student even asked me about my gender explicitly, which I wasn’t ready to share. This forced vulnerability went too far, and resulted in me drawing a firm line around sharing myself. That lack of vulnerability and openness became a problem, because the closer I came to coming out, the more obvious it was I had secrets that I wasn’t sharing, which prevented students from sharing any more than I would share. That year of being out to myself but not out to my lab was more open than ever, but my unwillingness to be out placed a clear limit on how open the lab could be, and also limited how I could support my own students, some of whom were working through gender struggles themselves.

Coming out removed those limits. After I had time to settle from sharing my news, there was a new found liberation in my lab. Students came out to me as non-binary, as agender, as cisgender. Students felt more open to talk about their disabilities and the ways in which our university, school, and my lab were failing them. My own need to advocate for change created space for students to advocate as well. It also opened students to new interests and research questions, with some beginning to critically examine their uncritical research areas. Finding ways to love and respect myself ultimately made room for everyone’s vulnerability, and vulnerability made room for the human and intellectual diversity in my lab that had been there all along.

With all of those changes, our lab’s culture changed as well. Students felt safe to offer new ideas on how to change our lab culture in order to meet there needs; I wove those together with things I needed to feel confident in my advising. Here’s a sampling of practices that we do now, each requiring some kind of vulnerability:

  • We do progress reports in our Slack channel at the beginning of the week. This helps me keep track of students’ weekly goals and accomplishments, and it helps students reflect on what they’ve accomplished or what they’re stuck on. This asynchronous sharing also spares us from having to talk about updates in 1 on 1 meetings, which can be low value. It can also lead to me reaching out to schedule a meeting to chat more about something. I monitor who doesn’t reply, so I can make sure to reach out. Ultimately, this kind of sharing can require students to “out” themselves as struggling, meaning that it only works if they feel its a safe space to divulge struggle.
  • We meet twice a week as a group, most of which is time for critique and discussion. Students sign up for as much time as they need, get practice preparing for critical feedback. Sometimes we’re reading drafts of writing, sometimes we’re critiquing interfaces, sometimes we’re critiquing prototypes of research designs. Many of our most engaging activities are discussions about academic culture and skills (e.g., learning to write, dealing with criticism, networking, making the most of conferences). Some of these emerge from inherently vulnerable emotion positions about skill, such as “I’m not sure if my writing is good” or “I don’t feel confident in my speaking skills.” Some emerge from vulnerable positions of oppression, such as “This class I’m in is erasing my humanity, and I don’t know how to advocate.”
  • The beginning of our first meeting each week are woos, boos, and now also how do you dos, directly addressing our mental wellbeing. We spend 30 minutes, sometimes more, doing this sharing. It can feel like anything from a celebratory professional update when things are going well, to professional group therapy with things are going poorly. I share as openly as the students, and they support me as much as I support them. Students are free to be as vulnerable or private as they want, but the general embrace of vulnerability usually leads to reciprocity.
  • I leave most of my afternoons open for meetings in lieu of weekly 1 on 1 meetings with students. I end up meeting with most students once or twice a week for 25 minutes each anyway, but sometimes we go more than a week without meeting a student 1 on 1. Most of our meetings end up being deep critique, collaborative research design, or mentorship about careers and research trajectories. When students schedule, they don’t have to coordinate with me; they just book on my Calendly link, which asks them to write a brief agenda for the meeting. Our other group activities create a foundation of vulnerability and shared for these 1 on 1s, allowing us to dive deeply into intellectual questions about methods, analysis, and inventions.
  • We message each other throughout the week on Slack, sharing interesting research, asking logistical or policy questions, and asking for quick feedback. I think this is only possible because students recognize that sharing is psychologically safe: everyone is aware that everyone else is struggling in some way, and so asking for help is necessary and desired.
  • I spend 30 minutes each week doing lab maintenance, which includes setting up funding, updating my onboarding document, planning our lab meeting agendas, reflecting on changes we might need to make to our lab structure. This stems from my own humility about our lab processes, recognizing that they are always imperfect and always evolving.
  • I maintain a private date-stamped log for each student, with summaries of each of our meetings, questions I have for them, and a copy of their most recent progress reports. I have 25 minute meetings with students so I have time after one and before another to read and write notes so I can come to meetings aware of what they’re working on. Students know I have these private notes, and I make it clear that they’re primarily to ensure they’re not burdened with constantly reminding me what they’re working on. This is a way of modeling my own vulnerable stance as someone who isn’t always perfectly prepared: I need practices to be prepared, and they aren’t perfect.

While the above might sound like a lot, even with 6 doctoral students and a few undergraduates, I might only spend 5 hours a week in group and individual meetings with students. The rest of my time supporting doctoral students on research goes to collaborating asynchronously on research papers, writing grant proposals, giving feedback on presentations and impact efforts.

While I feel like my own vulnerability has helped my lab be better than ever, there are still things I struggle with. Every student is different, and it can take me a year or two to feel like I know how to best mentor and advise them. I still struggle to know when to step in scaffold student work, and when to stand back and help them develop independence; my default is to scaffold, which isn’t always helpful. I still don’t know how to help students become great writers; I provide a lot of feedback, but I don’t know how to help them scaffold their practices. When there’s conflict between students or between me and a student, I always feel disoriented, confused, and uncertain. Some of my biggest mistakes have come from mismanaging conflict. And especially as I’ve brought more room for vulnerability in the lab, I’ve lost all sense of when to apply pressure on productivity, especially during the pandemic. Too often, I’m intimately aware of what’s driving a student, and it’s usually not me and my arbitrary decrees about deadlines.

If you’re wondering about productivity—which is probably the wrong thing to be wondering about if you’ve made it this far—vulnerability has probably helped, or at least not hurt. My students publish as much as ever, and I’m more proud of my lab’s work than I’ve ever been. I think our research is more humane, more thoughtful, more rigorous, and more important than ever. And more importantly, I think my students are far more free to be themselves, do the work they want to do, and get the intellectual and emotional support they need then they were when I first started advising doctoral students 13 years ago. To me, that is successful advising, not grinding students down into publishable units at the expense of their wellbeing and humanity.

Of course, I say all of this with considerable privilege, which is I’m sure a large part of what’s freed me to be vulnerable. I have tenure, I work in a relatively well-funded research area, I have a collegial and inclusive faculty, I have university leadership that is focused more on excellence than bean counting, I’ve been supported in my gender transition, and I live in a safe city for trans people. Other faculty, especially those minoritized, marginalized, or oppressed more systematically than me, have a lot more to survive, whether it’s industrialized metrics about research productivity, racial and gender microaggressions, competitive academic cultures that leave little room for one’s humanity, or simply the pressure of tenure. All of these things make it harder to lead a lab from a place of vulnerability.

That said, the past few years of vulnerability have taught me an important lesson: one is not vulnerable alone. Perhaps because I’m in a safe space, every step towards vulnerability I’ve taken has been largely reciprocated by my students, my colleagues, and my communities. Far from exposing me to harm, it’s strengthened my community of support, made me feel less alone, and made me more confident in my ability to thrive and help others thrive. If you fear the risks of leading your research lab and community with vulnerability, I encourage you to try just a bit. I think you’ll find that you get as much as you give, and the more you give, the inclusive, equitable, and enriching your lab will be.

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.