Three Cheers for a Steve Reese Style of Advising

Steve Reese and Seth Lewis, AEJMC annual convention 2017, Chicago

A true highlight of the AEJMC convention that I attended recently was being invited to present on a panel that reflected on the lifetime scholarly achievements of my PhD advisor Stephen D. Reese, who received the 2017 Paul J. Deutschmann Award for Excellence in Research. The award isn’t given every year—28 have received it since 1969, including the likes of Chaffee, McCombs, Gerbner, and Schramm—and it recognizes scholars who have distinguished themselves for pathbreaking research in many phases of their careers. Steve certainly fits the bill, having produced key insights in each of the past four decades.

It’s rare that we get to be so personal in our remarks at an academic conference, but this was just the right venue and the right moment to offer these heartfelt sentiments, including quotes graciously shared by my “academic siblings.” I have included here my talk in PDF form and below:

Three Cheers for a Steve Reese Style of Advising

Seth C. Lewis

Remarks on the occasion of Stephen D. Reese receiving the 2017 Deutschmann Award for Excellence in Research

August 11, 2017

Chicago, IL

Good afternoon. I am truly honored to have this opportunity to speak about the life work and impact of my dear advisor, mentor, and friend, Dr. Stephen D. Reese.

Lest this sound like a eulogy, I promise that Dr. Reese is very much alive and well, and in fact currently engaged in some of the most ambitious and globally focused research of his career.

But, in the spirit of saying good and important things about people while we have the opportunity to do so, I’m grateful to share a few such things with you today.

On this panel, we have heard much about Steve’s field-defining contributions in the areas of media sociology and framing research, and those simply cannot be overlooked. But I’d like to deviate a bit and focus my remarks on what it means to be taught and advised by Steve Reese.

Let me begin by describing some of my own experience with Steve. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. When I left The Miami Herald to pursue a PhD, I had little idea of what I was doing. Because my masters was a professional degree in business, I knew almost nothing about communication research when I stepped onto the campus at UT-Austin in 2006. Somehow, by sheer luck of taking Dr. Reese’s seminar in framing in the spring of 2007 and managing to not embarrass myself in that class, I landed on his radar and eventually was fortunate to have him advise me through my dissertation completion in 2010.

Easy, he was not. He had very high expectations. But he was encouraging, and he instilled confidence — he treated you as a potential equal, even if it took a few years after graduation before you felt truly comfortable to call Steve by his first name.

He taught me how to think conceptually. (And if there is one paramount skill that every aspiring scholar must learn, it is to think conceptually — in terms of relational concepts, the stuff from which theory is organized and tested.) Virtually all that I do today as a scholar, all of the conceptual work that is so central to my research, can be traced back to Professor Reese’s instruction in the essential work of concept development.

In teaching me how to think conceptually, he continually pushed for concept explication. The more thorough, the better; the more careful the definitions, the better. And he pushed not only for more precise abstract thinking, but he was especially concerned that we made the connection between scholarly concepts and public life broadly. Really, why should people care about this research, beyond the boundaries of our campuses and conferences? Who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys” in your research story? He wanted to know.

The proverbial “so what?” question may be every advisor’s favorite question, but no one seemed to ask that question with quite the frequency or profundity as Professor Reese. And he wasn’t about to give you the answer to that “so what?” question — you were going to work it out on your own. Ever patient, he was in no rush, content to let students think long and deep, in the most classic tradition of what a PhD education ought to be. In short, he embodied then all that I try to be as a scholar and faculty advisor now.

*   *   *

To adequately capture the experience of being advised by Dr. Reese, I wanted to draw insight and corroboration from some of my “academic siblings.” It’s quite a family tree after all! Professor Reese has supervised 21 dissertations and participated as a committee member on 43 others. In addition, he has led nearly two dozen master’s theses. Think of the thousands of pages littered with “So what?” scribbled in the margins!

So, I reached out to a half-dozen former PhD advisees like myself, spanning a 10-year period, and asked them to describe what it was about Dr. Reese’s advising that most influenced them. What I found, through a rigorous content analysis of these responses, reinforced my own experience. What emerged was a picture of an advisor who cared about the whole student: who taught us how to work hard and discover on our own; who showed us how to be productive intellectual craftsmen; and who modeled something of a Zen approach — a low-key demeanor and steady way of being to withstand the ebbs and flows of academic life.

I will briefly organize these three impressions into what I call “Three Cheers for the Steve Style of Advising.”

Cheer #1: A Steve Style of Advisor makes his students earn it

Some doctoral students leave a visit with their advisor with a list of highly specific to-do items: fix this, fix that, go and do this, and so forth. Not so with Steve Reese. As one advisee put it:

He is a relatively hands-off advisor. I’ve heard stories about advisors themselves making changes to dissertation drafts or telling students what to do in very specific ways. He didn’t do that. He mostly pointed out broad issues and concerns, but that was it. He mostly didn’t even tell me how to address those concerns. That meant I had to think a lot myself, to try to figure out what exactly he wanted. To be honest, at times I did wish he would be more specific. But ultimately, I did manage to figure things out, and the fact that I did it without hand-holding made me a lot more proud of my achievement.

And another student described it this way:

Steve is the opposite of your typical advisor. He asks you to tell him what your project is, and then he just asks questions. Such as: “Well, what about these cases rather than those ones?” Or: “So, is this really the case?” Clearly, those questions are intended to tease out the weaknesses in your idea, without coming out and saying, “Here is where your idea is weak.” He would ask you questions that would help you figure it out yourself.”

The result, we found as students, could be a bit maddening: We wanted direction. We wanted to finish our dang dissertations! But a Steve style of advisor is in no particular hurry, not because he doesn’t care about his students — on the contrary, because he knows that the hard work of thinking, of thinking with a depth and intensity that perhaps is only possible during the dissertation phase of one’s life, will pay dividends throughout a scholar’s career.

As one student put it:

He liked to play with ideas like silly putty: “Can I stretch it this way? How does it work that way?” … He was interested in engaging with you as a fellow intellectual, rather than a go-and-do automaton. When I went into his office, I knew that my ideas would get tested. He wasn’t playing games — he was trying to help us figure things out.

Finally, another student said:

His advising helped me to think more for myself and find the right answers without assistance. This helped me a lot throughout my graduate years. Even now, I keep trying to ask questions and answer myself: why is such an issue important… and so what?

So, making students earn it, for their own good — that’s Cheer #1.

Cheer #2: A Steve Style of Advisor teaches his students to be intellectual craftsmen

Professor Reese cares deeply about bringing order and structure to intellectual work. He is a devoted outliner in all of his writing, and for years has tried, sometimes in vain, to get his students to adopt similar methods of setting up the scaffolding for a well-organized paper, rather than just opening an empty Microsoft Word page and dumping in whatever comes forth.

Indeed, I would argue that one of his most important though little-known contributions has been the teaching documents that he has posted to academia.edu. Among these documents is a research paper organization guide, a how-to for putting together a systematic journal article. It has been downloaded nearly 7,000 times. In my own teaching, I have shared that organization guide with scores of students, and the level of organization and coherence in their writing has improved because of it.

Also among these teaching documents is a piece called “The intellectual craftsman in a digital world.” Drawing on the sociologist C. Wright Mills and his famous articulation of the “intellectual craftsman,” Steve argues that the life of the mind, under attack from all directions, requires a concerted effort to be maintained and cultivated amid a growing sea of distractions. He writes:

What does Mills mean to be an “intellectual craftsman”? This seems like a term better suited to manual, blue-collar work than the rarified space of the academic professional. According to him, for those who feel themselves “part of the classic tradition, social science is the practice of a craft” (p. 1). The craftsman in this sense does not fetishize theory and methods but absorbs and puts them in the service of “problems of substance.” The intellectual craftsman does not separate work from life but has been given the privilege and opportunity to design not just a career but a life. To fully take advantage of the potential for this life, one cannot shirk the responsibility to be constantly managing one’s self, and must take seriously the need to construct one’s character based on the “qualities of good workmanship.” Thus, craftsmanship, the careful curation and awareness of one’s intellectual capital, is at the center of all one’s projects.

And so, with his students in class and his followers online, Professor Reese shares what he has learned about productivity. In another one of those teaching documents he posted, you’ll find one called “profhacks strategies for the busy academic”: a guide to software tools, time-saving tricks, and other sound advice on how to capture key information, retrieve it when you need it, and tame the nasty beast that is email. A key element in this productivity push is the “Getting Things Done” method by the management guru David Allen. While it sounds like a tool for corporate types, the GTD approach, as it’s known, is hugely relevant for academics — we who often find ourselves drowning in too many different projects that need such different forms of attention, never quite accomplishing as much as we’d like. I learned about GTD from Steve early in my doctoral studies, and my own work-life productivity has never been the same.

As one of his former advisees put it:

[Dr. Reese] was constantly trying to help us organize our time: showing us how he used email, how he chose to check it at certain times during the day, and how to manage information. It was part of his “in-touchness” with the student, trying to help us become the best we could be.

Cheer #3: A Steve Style of Advisor has a sense of balance and perspective

Now, amid all that talk of productivity, you should know that no one has more clearly cautioned the field against hyperactivity than Steve Reese. Quantity, he taught us, is not equivalent to quality. And too often young scholars lose sight of that in their flailing scramble to submit five conference papers or squeeze one more article out of a dataset wrung dry. As he wrote:

a bias toward action is a good thing, but academic achievement ultimately requires a careful coordination of reflection and action — not stalling out while waiting for the perfect insights and yet not rushing ahead with poorly thought out ideas.

That type of balance, of continually progressing while not running faster than you have strength, is perhaps the hallmark of Steve Reese’s career. To look at his CV is to see a scholar in full. Someone who produced groundbreaking insights in every decade of his career. Someone who was productive but steadily so, without the boom-and-bust cycle too often seen in tenured faculty. Someone who wrote quite a lot in his life — but only that which was truly worth saying.

And most important is what will not show up in his CV: that Steve Reese has a real sense of purpose in life, a healthy balance of work and family life, a scholarly career grounded in spiritual depth.

In those ways, in every way, his style of advising is one worth honoring today and emulating for decades to come.

Thank you.