Thursday, October 13, 2005



There’s a harrowing story in two parts at See Jane Compute about an untenured prof being stalked and feeling ineligible to report it.

I know that academia attracts the Calvinist, blame-yourself-first personality type, but I think this goes beyond self-doubt. It comes closer to accepting abuse.

Graduate school teaches us to accept abuse. The gap between the idealized meritocracy of academia and the lived reality of the thing breeds frustration on all sides. The outsized power of advisors (or what seems like their outsized power, which may not be the same thing) can bring out their worst. You get used to living hand-to-mouth, to currying favor with arbitrary overseers, and to losing contact with the outside world (a characteristic trick of abusers). Those who can’t put up with it either drop out or flounder; a certain ‘toughness’ (defined as the ability, roughly, to take a punch) becomes a calling card of success.

(If you think about it, the concept of ‘letters of recommendation’ makes no sense in a pure meritocracy. But I’ve covered that before.)

Then, there’s the market. Arbitrary, cruel, impersonal, and for surprisingly low salaries. That certainly teaches a lesson. Maybe you adjunct for a while, starving with dignity. Maybe you bounce from ‘visiting’ position to ‘visiting’ position, always good enough to do the work, never good enough to do the work two years in a row.

Then, the tenure track. Years of being judged by folks who were, generally, held to much lower standards then those by which they’re judging you. And making you believe it’s all about you, even when it isn’t.

Aside from the inherent ugliness of the whole process, a nasty side effect can be a creeping desensitization. It gets to the point that junior faculty who are being stalked are afraid that having been chosen as the target of some criminal’s sick fantasies will be held against them.

At my current school, we’ve had two cases on my watch in which faculty (both female) received intimidating, anonymous, threatening messages. To their credit, both professors reported it. We circled the wagons – department chair, dean, vp, security, local police, faculty union. One miscreant was busted, the other never came back. Both professors wound up winning respect from above for their aplomb in crises.

You don’t have to accept abuse.

You may have learned to. You may have always been the ‘good girl.’ You may have had issues in your personal life. None of that matters. You don’t have to accept abuse.

I’m all for hiring more women deans, but don’t assume that male managers will necessarily take these matters lightly. Any competent manager will jump out of his seat at this, feminist consciousness or not. (Even if your dean is a careerist troglodyte, imagine the consequences to the career of a dean who sweeps this under the rug, only to have the stalker later attack. Game over, career done. And we know that.)

(On another level, men know what men are capable of. That’s why we get so ridiculous about protecting our daughters.)

Not tenured? From my side of the desk, a good untenured person leaving is a devastating loss. First off, it’s not a given that I’ll get to replace. Secondly, a few departures within a short time of each other, and morale goes in the toilet. Third, we take a certain pride in having a strong faculty and a strong college. Repeated junior departures blow holes in both of those images.

You don’t have to accept abuse.

This week I’ve been playing around with podcasts. Yesterday on the way home I played a podcast of an interview Amy Goodman did with Studs Terkel, who is well into his 90's at this point. He kept coming back to the idea of a ‘prescient minority,’ which he defined as the folks who find, and tell, the truth first: abolitionists, say, or the early feminists. You can be the prescient minority. Tell the truth proudly, and don’t accept abuse. If you haven’t seen it, check out the picture at the top of Bitch, Ph.D. Prescient minority in training, I’d say.

And if you have a chance, send Jane some support. This crap has to stop.

Thanks for writing about this! Just one clarification: I did actually report it, and I'm getting a fair amount of support from the administration on this (so far). Where I feel I'm not getting any support/have to "hide" this is in my own department. Which, granted, is no less outrageous (maybe even more so?). But I just thought I should clear that up. (of course, as always, we'll see what ends up really happening with all of this....)
Delurking: I love your blog - thanks for writing it!

And the prescient minority may justifiably be diagnosed as having the Cassandra Syndrome. This may go a long way to explain the whole comorbidity with depression thing...
Thanks for putting into words what I feel about grad school, and about being a sessional instructor. Both 'states of being' are breeding grounds for the acceptance of abuse, even when one's supervisor takes the passive aggressive stance that mine has.
Excellent post.

However, I disagree with your characterization of the child pictured in the masthead of Bitch Phd. She's a spoiled brat, likely to grow into another "my way or the highway" person who will be hard to work with and harder to manage.
Hitting very close to home this week. Thanks, DD.
This is a great post. I should bookmark it and come back to it when there's an incident. Like others I, too, have felt silly, almost embarrassed when reporting a harassing phone call. A couple years ago a woman got a sexually threatening and racist message left on her voice mail. It worries me sometimes that this is my campus climate, but more than that it makes me angry and I will not keep quiet when something happens.
I've had two cases where I felt threatened, and each one was taken very seriously by campus security, my colleagues, and my Dean. But it took some real doing in some cases. The guy in the office next door actually heard a confrontation going on in my office (I told a student he needed to leave because he was becoming agitated and was making me feel uncomfortable -- I stood up and made myself as big as possible and just kept asking him to leave, in a repeatedly louder voice), but wan't sure it it was a problem.

Once he realized it was, and he asked other faculty if he should have intervened (I kind of said something like -- you heard me asking a student to leave MORE THAN ONCE and you didn't think it might be a good idea to just pop your head in??) his attitude changed. He really was just being polite, and didn't want to embarrass me by intervening in a situation where I was raising my voice to a student. But I think we are not always aware as we would like.
Last year, I had two incredibly evil advisees. One student wanted me to sign a blank form. When I said no, he proceeded to start shouting at me. At that point, I gathered up all my stuff and said "sorry, I have class now. You'll have to come back during office hours." This forced him out of the office and into the hallway. He stomped off and as I walked past another professor's office, the prof started to applaud. I stopped and looked in his office door. He said: "Way to go with the tough love." LOL. Right.

The second student left a series of escalating phone calls on my voice mail. My chair called his a** in and told him to stay away from me. He was assigned another advisor (much bigger, much taller, much more male) than me. And, would you believe that he actually tried to harass him as well? Good grief.

Some students just don't have any common sense ...
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