A Symposium on Oppression in the Academy

From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com

Graduate school presents itself as a classic apprenticeship opportunity in which you work long hours over many years for a poverty salary, receiving in exchange instruction, mentorship and an entree to the field. I believe that that contract, as played out in academia, is fundamentally unfair, because a graduate student’s teaching and research often yields his university tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and research funding, while he only receives a small fraction of that value in compensation. Still, students willingly enter into these contracts, and so the situation might not be so bad if the universities actually lived up to their half of the bargain. The trouble is, they often don’t. Many graduate students are given minimal mentorship, and many are “mentored” destructively – with the student himself being blamed, of course, if he underperforms as a result.

Moreover, the career payoff is, in many cases, illusory. In her 4/18/2010 New York Times article, “The Long-Haul Degree,” Patricia Cohen cites a study that found that more than a third of 2008 humanities Ph.D. students remained unemployed a full year after getting their degree. Of course, academia is happy to continue exploiting those unemployed Ph.D.’s with poorly paid, part-time, no-benefit, no-advancement “adjunct” and “instructor” gigs.

Obviously, not all grad experiences are awful or exploitative, and some are wonderful. But the bad stories I hear are truly awful. Consider the below, said to graduate student by her thesis advisor:

“Graduate school is not about babysitting, and I’m not going to be your mother hen. If you want that, go to a community college.”

It is:

1) Gratuitously insulting and demeaning.
2) Snobbish (and ignorant), with the dig at community colleges.
3) Possibly sexist, directed as it was to a female student (by a female advisor, by the way). I doubt the professor would have used the term “mother hen” to a male student, although she might have.

And, above all,

4) Controlling and intimidating. “Don’t bother me,” is what this advisor is really saying. “Just do great work, get it published, and let me share in the glory and collect the grants. But if you run into any problems, solve them yourself.”

Of course, the advisor never bothered to delineate which requests for help she considered reasonable and which she didn’t: vagueness is a tool of oppressive systems. Probably, if the advisor had really stopped to think it over, she would see, (a) that the vast majority of her students’ needs are reasonable, and (b) that it’s also her job to cope with students who are basically competent but require more support than average. She would also see that her strategy of setting up a straw-person in the form of an over-needy student, and using that straw-person to control her actual students, is not only dishonorable but an abdication of professional responsibility.

I can’t entirely blame the professor, however, because her quote reflects the pervasive macho propaganda about how tough graduate school is supposed to be: how it separates the “wheat” from the “chaff,” the “serious scholars” from the “dilettantes,” etc. Graduate school is “sink or swim,” students are told; and anyone asking for more than the bare minimum of help (or any help at all, in some cases) is looking to be “babysat,” “handheld,” or “coddled.” (All of the terms in quotes were actually said to graduate students I know by their advisors – and note the grandiosity, dichotomization, labeling and other perfectionist symptoms.)

Oh, and “let’s face it: not everyone can handle intellectual work, and if we open the field up to everyone it will simply devalue it.” (The straw person argument again.) Oh – and I almost forgot! – if you’ve got significant personal responsibilities or problems that you need to balance with your scholastic activities, too bad; and the fact that you’re even asking indicates your lack of seriousness.

Of course, it’s particularly grating when you hear that kind of macho garbage spewed by advisors in fields related to social justice.

In Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives (Elizabeth Benedict, ed.), my Grub Street Writers colleague Christopher Castellani, wrote that his MFA program, “had a sink-or-swim philosophy. You were a writer with innate talent, or you weren’t. The program’s goal was to anoint the real writers and spare the ‘nonreal’ ones from years of heartbreak.” (See the section on “unfairness” in Chapter 7.2.) Fortunately, Castellani subsequently attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where some of the perfectionist damage was healed:

By the end of my stint…I don’t feel “real” or “not real,” and I begin to understand that such a distinction is meaningless, that the questions should be: Am I working hard? Am I learning? Am I digging deeper, embracing complications? Am I “failing better”?

Do I think the “mother hen” professor is a monster? Of course not: she’s probably a decent person who is trying to juggle multiple responsibilities with inadequate support from her own superiors. The “mother hen” comment might have even been an effort to help her student by clarifying the rules for their interaction, which is more than many advisors do. Still, her comment was, at the very least, inept; and whether or not she meant to manipulate her student into not feeling comfortable asking for help, that was the result she got.

And I’ve heard worse stories, much worse: like the one from the graduate student whose adviser told her, “Graduate school is about wrestling with your demons, and I hope I don’t wind up to be one of them, but if I do, so be it.” And (surprise, surprise) the advisor did indeed prove himself to be a demon by stealing his student’s work and publishing it himself. His justification was that of oppressors everywhere: that the victim drove him to it (in this case, because she was supposedly too slow to publish). And, not surprisingly, he also committed other egregious sins, including neglect, cruelty and sexism.

This student actually had nightmares in which her advisor raped her. Is it any wonder she had trouble writing?

It’s not just advisers who are abusive, by the way. Another awful story I was told was of a graduate student at an Ivy League college (which I’ll call College X) who, after learning that her brother was diagnosed with a serious cancer, went to the departmental administrator to do the paperwork for a leave of absence to be with him, and was told, “This is College X, and we don’t take leaves.”