Free speech versus freedom to thrive

Like many of us, I’ve been reading a lot these day about students insisting on being coddled and about how such demands are threatening the free speech vital to unversities. There are many versions of the conflict, but Yale and the University of Missouri are in the news today in a clash over the allegedly racist atmosphere African Americans experience.

At the same time I know well what it is like to be targeted by very hostile words and actions. If your university does not make civilty and respect a very high priority, you may be in a fight for survival, with your fitness too often placed in question. One reaction to such a situation is to withdraw as much as possible. In fact, withdrawal is often recommended by books offering career advice, if you need the employment and cannot get a different job.

If nothing else, the adverse health effects of trying to function normally in adverse situations make withdrawal a sensible choice.

So what should students do in hostile circumstances? Someone with tenure may survive trying to minmize social contact with colleagues, but it is hard to see what comparable strategy is available to students. Further, it may be that claims for relief are seen by lots of people as merely an insistence on being coddled.

Mizzou today reached crisis and resolution point. Both the President and the Chancellor are leaving. As It turns out, in some cases students may decide what is to be done:


4 thoughts on “Free speech versus freedom to thrive

  1. Thinking of withdrawing? Be careful.

    In self-defense, I withdrew while in the third year of my PhD programme. Now, several years later, my life is a mess. I have no income other than a meager bit of child support and no employment and I still haven’t finished my degree. I live in fear of my partner becoming verbally abusive yet again, and I’m struggling to raise a child with grossly inadequate help.

    While the department was not a safe place for me, withdrawing from it was not a safe option, either. The combination led to years of isolation and a long and debilitating struggle with depression, anxiety, and burnout. That, in turn, left me in a vulnerable position, leading to my being sexually exploited by men I would never choose to be with under healthy circumstances, and to my putting up with far more disrespect and abuse than I would tolerate if I were not in such a desperate and mortifying situation.

    In addition to providing me with a hostile climate, my department was grossly negligent. Though I was a Ph.D. student for a ridiculously long period of time, and am now nearly 40 and STILL trying to complete my degree, I’ve never had help coming up with a reading list, never had a committee, and I’ve gotten almost no feedback on my work at all. Instead, for years now, I’ve been urged to submit a complete and polished thesis all at once despite clear indications that I have been overwhelmed and falling apart, while taking on unrealistically vast projects that I’ve needed help containing. The only people to have given any serious attention to my work over the past several years are men who have no formal obligation to me, whose interest in me is not only in my work.

    Now, when I open an inspiring book and read acknowledgments that are packed with thanks to dozens of people, I have a strong and painful sense of what I’ve lost out on. Attempts to find colleagues have been disappointing, to say the least. The field is not all that meritocratic. Networks, credentials, and names matter far more than they should. My situation does a lot to prevent me from being taken seriously and from having my work engaged with. I withdrew from a hostile department that failed to take me seriously, then, only to end up in another situation in which I am still not taken seriously. The lack of intellectual support and camaraderie perpetuates the mental health problems that emerged in response to my horrible experiences as a graduate student. The isolation my withdrawal led to functions as a horrible loop, making it agonizingly hard for me to get my life back in order, whatever that might mean at this point. The field is elitist and cliquish and the people in it seem to be far too busy to help, even if they want to.

  2. L of W, my heart aches for you. Some of my sympathy is due to my own experience and some problems that may be caused by stress, such as breast cancer. It does sound to me as though you could use some good career advice. Are you still a registered student? Evenif you are not, women’s studies programs might help you find sources of help. It’s not obvious that staying with philosophy is your best choice. There are all sorts of helping careers, for example, that might be of interest??

  3. Thank-you for your response, Anne. I’m so sorry to hear about your cancer. That has been a big fear of mine given how much stress I’ve been under for so many years now. I hope things turn out well for you!

    I’m no longer registered. Way back in 2004 I was already so disturbed by what I experienced in academic philosophy/”philosophy” that I met with an associate dean (who also happened to be my supervisor) to discuss the possibility of moving over to women’s studies. I was discouraged from doing so. At this point, it is difficult for me to imagine working in academia. Part of why I’m still hoping to complete my degree is that I think the credential would be helpful as I try to work independently (in education and counseling). I also think that the work I’ve been doing over the past several years is worthwhile. I want to complete it. I became so upset about the state of the field that I shifted thesis topics in 2008 to focus on sorting out (i) what went so drastically wrong that I ended up a nearly suicidal wreck while trying to get a PhD in philosophy, specializing in ethics, and (ii) what to do about it.

    Perhaps someone reading will address this question: What, if anything, does the field owe to those who, like me, it has royally screwed over? Should I just “suck it up” and carry on as if no one is at fault but myself? That is what most people I’ve talked with about the situation seem to be suggesting. My experiences in the field caused me and my son enormous and ongoing harm, and very nearly killed me. As far as I’m aware, no one has been held at all culpable and no one who has played a role in the mess has made a real effort to help me rectify the situation. I am stuck on that fact due to the injustice and inhumanity of it. More than that, though, I am heartbroken over it. The woman who was my “supervisor” for much of a decade is supposedly a feminist. She did not perform the role she agreed to take on. She watched me fall apart and flounder, year after year, and often kicked me when I was down. I can’t say I’ve gotten much more support when I’ve reached out to other feminists for help. I have lost whatever trust in people I once had. I need reliable, trustworthy people to help me rebuild that trust, but my attempts to find them have not gone well.

  4. LofW, it is very hard to get compensation of any sort within an unsympathetic power structure. Children molested by priests, men and women harassed in the military give us other examples of similar bad situations. There’s quite a bit about the bad behavior women in philosophy get in our sister blog, What it is like to be awoman in philosophy. We’ve also looked at abusive mobbing in universities; you can access quite a bit by using our search engine with “mobbing”.
    I would have thought there are ways to get counselling credentials without writing your dissertation. Do be reasonably sure you are not stuck in some rut.

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