Reader query: how to help?

A reader writes:

So, I/the rest of my cohort are facing a difficult issue: a male faculty member has two advisees in my cohort, a man and a woman. It is obvious to the rest of us who are not his advisees that he treats the male student *much* better than the female student. Yesterday we all did presentations of our research for this faculty member (as part of a dissertation seminar). Her presentation was very good, just way too long and thorough. After she finished, the faculty member proceeded to go off on her for a good fifteen minutes, in front of the rest of us (her peers). Stuff like “this isn’t philosophy” and “this all has to be gotten rid of,” the latter of which he sort of changed his tune about over the course of his rant. It was intense. Had I been the student on the receiving end, I would have cried. I’m amazed that she didn’t.

My question is: this is plainly inappropriate behavior, but what can we (as her fellow grad students) do about it? I mean, content of the presentation aside, what seems inappropriate was to dress a student down in front of her peers and to do it in such a harsh manner. I’m just worried that, because this faculty member is well-regarded in the department, that if a few of us were to tell someone about this that we at worst would not be believed and at best there would be nothing that anyone else could do.

So, for readers: what can fellow grad students do to support a grad student in an abusive advisor relationship?

17 thoughts on “Reader query: how to help?

  1. It is very hard to make suggestions from afar but if there are indeed a number of you willing to not simply agree that there was something egregiously unfair and inappropriate but willing to actually walk the path (not necessarily knowing what will come of it) then I would suggest that you write a brief and careful statement to the admin. If the environment does not feel safe you might want to create an ad hoc group using tags like anonymous 1,2,3 or names (dead women philosophers for example) and send it signed by all of you. The more of you there are the better — there really is strength in numbers. I would not necessarily speak too much to the woman who was on the receiving end of this outrageously unprofessional behavior so that she does not find herself in a place of reprisal (via prof culprit or admin). But this is tricky since acting without any regard for her centrality is not respectful either. THe other thing to do is to see if there is in fact anyone who can verify that this behavior is in fact a pattern and whether or not there are other women who might eventually be willing to come forward if the admin were to investigate. In both cases, ‘victims’ and witnesses the more the safer.

  2. If you present a united front and you’ve got a nice group going (8-10 or more students), I think a little direct action can be helpful here. Going to the admin is one thing, but I’d try the professor himself if it’s feasible. Again, if you’ve got the numbers behind you, I’d advise making an appointment with the professor. Present your concerns and state 1-2 things the professor can do to improve his behavior in the future. But if you go this route, I think you’ve got to have the student he unloaded on supporting you on this (and preferably with you when you do it).

  3. I think this is a very difficult situation. I wouldn’t expect the chair or the prof to accept the idea that she was treated differently and/or that his reaction was driven by anything other than the quality of her work. You could in fact cement in his mind the idea that she isn’t that good.

    If you go to the prof, I suppose youmight get somewhere. But I’ve seen too many people to take something like this to show women want special treatment.

    I think I’d try more something more indirect. One would be to get women in the department to consider whether the dept should request a site visit – maybe on the grounds that there have been some incidents that make students very uncomfortable. You could claim you can’t reveal details. Just getting a discussion started might be helpful if you could get it tied to the question of whether women are treated differently. A second move would be to talk to a women’s studies dept, if there is one.

  4. I agree with Anne that the situation is *very* tricky.
    I doubt it will help to go to the administration, and it certainly could hurt (the student). Confronting the professor as a group is likely to make him defensive. And if there is only this one incident, your department is not apt to agree to a site visit just on its basis.
    I think I would see if a student this professor likes would be willing to mention something: “Everyone knows you’re tough, but I wonder if the way you handled Roxanne’s presentation was counterproductive.” When I think of professors who consider themselves tough, that’s the kind of thing that seems like it might work.
    But as the first commenter said, it’s very hard to give advice without being much more familiar with the characters and climate.

  5. One concern that the OP raises is that students who acted to intervene could suffer some kind of blowback from the professor or other faculty members. I think this is a real concern. I think an even more important concern is the kind of blowback – especially from the professor in question – that could end up on the female student. Whether she was involved or supported whatever intervention was taken or not, this could color perceptions of her within the department – as weak, as unable to hack the pressure, as a less talented student.

    I find myself wanting to give more positive suggestions, but at a bit of a loss what to recommend that won’t harm this student’s future relationships with the faculty in your department. If this is a regular occurrence – i.e. this faculty member is regularly harder on this student in ways that a neutral observer would be sure to notice, maybe it would be worth asking a sympathetic faculty member (one you trust, not one you tell this story to) to sit in on the dissertation seminar from time to time so that the behavior could be witnessed first hand?

    Somehow that seems like unsatisfactory advice. But I worry that sometimes in our haste to try and change things – a good haste, and a worthy cause – that individual students might suffer as a result, and none of us want that.

  6. If this is not one-off behavior, then a number of graduate students should have been witness to different incidents. I’d suggest waiting a bit, and then have a few of the older graduate students talk, in person, to other faculty, about general trends. They don’t even need to mention this particular event or this particular student. They can even say, hey, we want to talk about tone in general. We don’t want to pick on people, but here are the kinds of things we’ve seen.

    (And if it is literally one-off behavior, then I think it probably behooves graduate students to sit tight.)

  7. No matter what you do, DOCUMENT IT…right now. If you can, have multiple people document it (date, time, who was present, what happened–the more detail the better). Memory fades with time (and how quickly after the event it’s documented often is a consideration, so note that too).

    Then whether action is pursued, or not, at least this will be there.

  8. It sounds like the other students in the seminar do not agree with the professor’s estimation of the work of the target of his scorn, but they do not feel safe enough to express their disagreement. If that is so, the class is a farce—a dissertation seminar in name only—and the entire department should be concerned about this. One thing you might try in the immediate circumstances is playing ‘dumb’: ask the professor after the next tirade to explain his evaluation (‘I didn’t quite follow—why did you say such and such about such and such; I’m wondering if rather…’). What would happen if two, then three, then four students did this? (Is the class just so toxic that this is impossible?) Another thing you might try is asking as a group after his next rant, ‘Do you mind if we take a break?’ In my dissertation seminar at a highly ranked program, we had a similar situation. As the seminar was 3 hours with a ‘bathroom break’ in the middle, we decided as a group to basically plant ourselves in the department lounge down the hall—the usual gathering place of the break—and then ‘lost track of time’ (refused to come back). The professor had to come down the hall and ask us to come back, which we unsmilingly did. He got the message. (But perhaps your professor is a bigger jerk).

  9. A very important thing you can do is privately express your support for the student. Make sure she knows you notices, you think it’s wrong, and you care. Perhaps ask if there’s anything she’d *like* you to do. You might also think about whether there is a sympathetic faculty member you can talk to, who could help you figure out the right way to proceed– and who, perhaps, can also offer support.

    Also: while changing the prof’s behaviour would obviously be the ideal, it’s quite likely not to change. The targeted student needs to be encouraged to change supervisors. He will do much more damage to her as supervisor than he would as random staff member.

  10. How about printing out this post and putting it in his mailbox as an anonymous message? You could write on the top of it: “This is about you.”

    Another thought: I notice from reading this and other blogs that many students are nervous about engaging in behavior they see as possibly antagonizing faculty, lest it sabotage their future careers. (Not that this is universal, but it seems to be very prevalent, and probably results from a bad climate in these departments.) But when your faculty/administration is not acting in a way to ensure that your environment is one that fosters a free and spirited exchange of ideas between students and faculty, one in which it is completely out of the question to institute any reprisal for students who responsibly, firmly, even energetically disagree with faculty members, either on matters of theory or on matters of climate, it really is down to the students to take action. Of course you should try to minimize blowback at all times. But the truth is, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes activism requires an element of risk; requires getting out in front of an issue, without knowing what will happen.

    I speak as a faculty member who is known for being very dedicated to my students. I am also speaking as someone who has spoken out, both as a student in a department with a bad climate (at the time) and as a faculty member. FWIW, in my experience there will be much less blowback than you think. In fact in the majority of cases, you will get a lot of support.

    I don’t want to encourage anyone to put their careers in danger, and local conditions are often the most important factor in deciding whether to speak out. And perhaps my respective is skewed by working in a fairly benign department. But in my view, in any reasonable department, serious students who responsibly disagree with, for example, the treatment of a fellow student, will be listened to.

  11. I follow other comments in encouraging you to talk to the student.

    You – either as a group or as one or more individuals – should first and foremost express your concern, your care for what is going on and how she may feel, and your support for whatever furthers steps she wants to take. Then you can discuss some steps you think are worth taking.

    Keep in mind that perhaps the student does not think of the umiliating and unjust situation you observed under the same light as you. Even if she felt very bad, she may be worried about her performance, what her advisor thinks of her, how the dissertation is going, she may be doubting her philosophical qualities…that is, she may be so focused on other aspects of the situation that she doesn’t realize she has been treated without neither justice nor respect. An external point of view – but the point of view of someone who was actually present, and is part of the department community, and will be there should she need to talk again and ask for support – could be a precious help.

  12. The first thing you have to do is talk to the female student in question and ensure that your reading of the facts is accurate and that she wants you to intervene. What you regard as disrespect might just be the conversational style that they’ve developed. It’s impossible to know from afar. You should be sure that an injury has been done and, of course, that the student wants you to interfere in her business. She might appreciate the solidarity but has other plans on how to correct things. So I follow Matt’s thinking here.

    And then several good options have been brought up. A straightforward conversation with the professor, in private, is your best option. If the professor is acting out of malice then this is probably not going to help and the student will resort to other options. But quite often these are just issues of miscommunication, or of someone being oblivious to his biases. Philosophers are generally receptive to honest, straightforward, rational argument.

  13. I wanted to second many of the suggestions here. I think it is important to involve the female student but unless this particular student is the only one that has an abusive history with this professor, I don’t think that she should get the final word on where you go from there. Furthermore, I want to actively caution you (and the others who have agreed to act with you) AGAINST take some of the more passive-aggressive suggestions (leaving during the break or posting anonymous messages in his box). Passive-aggression is not a good way of communicating effectively and is probably the most likely response to lead to retaliation by the professor in question.

    I think you need to figure out whether this was an isolated incident or whether it demonstrates an abusive pattern of behavior on the part of the professor. If it’s the former then I think this is personal issue and the professor should be given the benefit of the doubt (perhaps he too had an excessively bad day that day and unjustly took it out on this student). If, however, this behavior constitutes a pattern then I would round up witnesses, act as a group, and have a meeting with the chair, the professor, and an external mediator. Shit like this needs to be taken seriously but respectfully (treating the professor with respect is most likely to keep him from adopting a defensive posture and to be receptive to your ideas). I realize that this takes this to a fairly formal level quickly but I think department’s have such a huge incentive to brush this kind of stuff under the rug that I think an external person (either from the administration or a professor from another department that is trusted by the department) could act as a mediator.

  14. Slipping in, anonymously, this post and comment thread isn’t “passive aggressive.” I would characterize it as “gentle.”

  15. I am not yet a philosophy student (soon), but I am currently a department secretary and I have also had an unpleasant encounter with a professor.

    Speaking from the POV of student, I had a professor call me out and make fun of a personal failing of mine in front of the whole class. The whole class laughed along with him. The timing was particularly bad, as I was just coming off of losing my parents and my emotions were off-kilter. I sat through the entire class mortified, focused only on holding back tears. After all the students left, I told him off. Quietly. I told him he had no right to make fun of a student in front of his class and belittle her (me), and that I’d just been through hell (told him about my parents’ end of life scenario) and that just getting TO class was hard enough but it was very important to me so I did it.

    He apologized and agreed it wasn’t right. Then he admitted he’d been going through a divorce. (Not that it made it right, or OK, but it gave me perspective on his using me as a target.) He behaved better after that, and he made a point of speaking to the class the next time to say as much publicly.

    End note: he died of a heart attack in the middle of teaching a few years later. Hmm.

    From the professorial perspective, having observed long enough, I can say that it’s very likely the blowhard professor’s behavior is already a well-known pattern among the faculty and administration. Word travels. If the assailant is not the Chair, then there are two approaches to take:

    1. Speak with the victim. Ask her how she felt about the way her review was handled, and if she is upset by it, advise her to speak with the Chair directly to express her concerns.

    2. That may be enough, but the concerned students may also wish to meet with the Chair, but it does not have to be directly related to the victim. Instead, handle it individually, as if you have observed a “disconcerting pattern of behavior with certain students”, and outline the professor’s actions. Keep the students’ names out of it. Keep it very general in tone. This will at least alert the Chair to be watching the professor (if he or she isn’t already). Staying general will also reduce blowback.

    If he is the Chair… good luck with that.

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