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.