Confidence

When I first began my PhD, I entered not entirely certain of my abilities. I looked up to the knowledge of my lecturers and professors, and I was keen to impress them as my mentors. I wanted to produce work that they thought was of high quality, and I wanted them to like me. I relied on the feedback I received to form my own understanding of the quality of my work and of my own own abilities. Since I trusted their assessment, if they told me that I wrote well, I felt pleased that I did. If they told me that what I had written wasn’t yet conceptually developed enough, I felt disappointed in myself. In short, I trusted them to shape me and to give me feedback that was reliable. I think these are fairly normal relationships to have.

Because I trusted those in a position to teach me, I was also vulnerable to manipulation. I had a professor, the head of my PhD programme, even, who would make comments to me. He told me that he had admitted me to the programme because he wanted me around (this ‘wanting my around’ was meant to be personal). He told me that he would make sure that I got the grant I applied for. When I did get it, he told me he had done me a favour – was looking out for me. When I submitted work to him, sometimes he would respond with flattery. But at other times he would respond with criticism that was imprecise. An idea ‘had problems’ – he would not say of what sort. Something was ‘not there yet’ – but he would not say why. Often he would deliver this feedback (either praise or criticism) in front of other students. I always felt humiliated when he did that. Even if he told me that my work was good, it was so public: it felt like an assertion of his power over me and his access to me.

The manipulative feedback came with its own ends: if my work was excellent that day, maybe he would try to walk me home. Maybe he would turn up at my house late at night to ‘sign some paperwork’. If the response was criticism, then maybe he would send me 2am emails suggesting that we have our next supervision after dinner and, and even if I was a little on the slim side, hadn’t I looked lovely today. More than once, I had to slide out of his sticky, clutching grasp.

I was in a position that it was difficult to remove myself from. Judgements of my work that were not about its quality, but were instead meant to manipulate me, were highly effective and ultimately threatened to entirely destroy my own sense of my work. Realising that I was being manipulated only amplified my sense of the unreliability of everything around me. Was it the case that he’d unfairly admitted me to a programme when I didn’t deserve it in order to get something from me? Was my work any good, or did he tell me it was good in order to try to gain access to me? Was I a good writer, or did he just want to have sex with me?

The confusing blurring of the boundary between academic interest and sexual interest eroded my confidence. I didn’t have any feedback on my work that I could trust, and that wasn’t adulterated by the desire of a man with power over me to have sex with me.

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Labour

I had entered my PhD self funded with a professional, practical knowledge that I would complete in 3-4 years and get back to work. When 3 years passed I felt nowhere closer and, in fact, I had lost my steadfast professionalism, work ethic and confidence, I had to ask how well I was actually navigating this sexualised experience. There was no one aha! horrible moment that had done this – it was a slow, grinding down through nuanced experiences. The soft touches of my waist in a pub, the comments on my clothing, the stares, speaking too close to me with boozey breathe, the favours given and taken away based on my acceptance or rejection of socialising. The rejection becoming more and more frequent while the acceptance more rare (but just enough to have me at his whim). It was also the emotional labour of supporting others who had more overt experiences (or what I thought of as worse experiences) whether consensual relationships or ‘stolen’ kisses. I was a shoulder to lean on and support them. They were my reminder of how badly it goes if I do not keep my guard up. In the end I was in serious financial debt and couldn’t see how making a complaint would get me any closer to finishing and getting back to work, in fact it made it seem even further away.

Serious sexual assault

Content note: this post describes assault.

I thought I knew the score.

He had taught me since I was a teenager in my first week at university. Now I was a postgraduate and the single mother of a young daughter. So I knew him. He had a reputation. He was a dirty old man who behaved unethically towards his female students and in a just world he would have lost his job years ago. He was an old-school white Orientalist whose relationship with his field was explicitly erotic.

But I still wasn’t alarmed when he greeted me as I walked across campus with my daughter. His second marriage had recently broken up and he had lost custody of his own two young children. Why did I say yes to his offer to take my daughter and I to see an exhibition at the museum that afternoon?

Because the exhibition was meant to be good, because I didn’t own a car and was always glad of a lift, because the costs were minimal enough not to incur a sense of obligation, and because a trip to the museum with my daughter (perhaps three or four years old at the time) seemed like as safe and wholesome an outing as you could imagine.

And because I thought I knew the score. I knew what he was like and I’d be on my guard. He’d probably make a pass at me at some point, and I’d say no – because I knew the score.

And I also assumed that sex was not his only driving force. He was lonely, I thought, after the breakup of his marriage, and he was missing his own children. He probably wanted to take them to the museum but invited us instead. The possibility of having sex with me was not his only motivation.

So we went to the museum and then back into the car to go home. Except we were taking the wrong road.

“This isn’t the way to my home. It’s the way to your home.”

He said that he was still moving in (sad face at the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his old home), that he’d like me to see the place. I was polite. I didn’t want to confront him. I assumed that of course he’d make a pass and I’d say no and it would be awkward, but it wouldn’t get too out of hand. After all, my daughter was with me and he would not cross a certain line while she was there.

We stopped for pizza and we went to his house, which was still only partially furnished. He poured himself a glass of wine (I didn’t drink) and he talked. I don’t remember the topic. My daughter and I sat on the sofa. She was curled up on my lap – well-behaved, patient, and sleepy. As she drifted off, he joined us on the sofa and began to fondle me.

I was horrified at the thought of waking my daughter, of exposing her to ugliness and confusion. I had thought of her as my chaperone, my guarantee of safety, but now her presence was his weapon. I wanted to get his hands and his slobbering away from her. I got up, sliding her carefully from my lap onto the sofa. Of course, he got up too. I told him “I don’t want to fuck.”

I keep coming back to that. I may have said it quietly (mindful still of my sleeping daughter), but I said it. I said no, and he heard me. He said “ok”. I let him sit me down on the mattress on the floor, but not to fuck. He agreed to my refusal, so far as his unzipped and hard cock was concerned. Instead, he pushed me back and used his finger. That was his “no”. I said no unambiguously and firmly, but other than restraining himself from penetrating me with his cock, for what seemed like hours he helped himself to my stiff and unyielding body in every way as I tried to twist myself away from him.

Afterwards, when I carried my still sleeping daughter out to the car, I felt dirty and contaminated and as though my touch would pollute her, too. She was my everything, my treasured girl, and I had let this ugly event take place in her presence.

I told my supervisor the next day. A few years earlier, she had encouraged another student to report a different staff member for a serious sexual assault. The staff member remained at the university, while both my supervisor and the student were left battered. This time, rather than report to the sexual harassment committee, she phoned the offender (with my permission). He told her that she “didn’t know the full story”, but he undertook to stay away from me.

This was not enough for me, so I went to the acting Dean. I told him the basic story without providing the name of the offender. The Dean said “I think I know who you mean. Are his initials -”

He had the right person. Of course, it had happened before. He believed me and he was sympathetic, but he told me that there was nothing I could do. Of course I was entitled to make a formal complaint, but it would go nowhere.

Over the next decade or so, this experience shaped my relationship with the university at a level that became so automatic and subconscious that I stopped noticing that it was happening. I would stay away from certain zones and events to avoid crossing his path. I told anecdotes about his sleaziness, his transgressive behaviour, without telling the story of his assault on me. In my heart of hearts, I carried the hope that sooner or later his sins would catch up with him and he would be driven out of the university. Only after he retired did I realise how much I depended on that hope.

Consequences Beyond the Relationship

I just read an article in Slate that hits home as a former grad student with a former supervisor that is infamous for his lechery. I find myself a highly educated person without a reference because of the very reasons outlined in the article;

“Let’s say, Fehr proposes, a woman whose adviser has a reputation for dalliances with students goes out on the job market. “People ask, with a wink and a nod, what it was like getting that letter of recommendation.” If, the next year, she leaves his letter out, she’s then “asked why the famous professor was not writing for her. Her professor’s behavior,” Fehr explains, has “put her in a position where she just couldn’t win.””

His actions not only damaged the students with whom he had relationships but also the peripherals whom received a lot less academic support and attention than his ‘favoured’ students and the stigma that something must have happened. This stigma attached to your academic experience also reflects how much of an open secret his behaviour has been and how many people chose to step aside and say nothing to stop it or protect students.

 

James Madison University Student solidarity

Adding to the growing list of universities in the States under investigation (under Title IX – see other posts). One student has had to drop out of James Madison University while her assailants received ‘expulsion after graduation’ (wtf?). The stress of the case affected her studies and she lost her financial aid. If you would like to donate or show your support – go to giveforward.

And a reminder of the growing list of universities under investigation (in alphabetical order). 

State Institution
AZ Arizona State University
CA Butte-Glen Community College District
CA Occidental College
CA University of California-Berkeley
CA University of Southern California
CO Regis University
CO University of Colorado at Boulder
CO University of Colorado at Denver
CO University of Denver
CT University of Connecticut
DC Catholic University of America
FL Florida State University
GA Emory University
HI University of Hawaii at Manoa
ID University of Idaho
IL Knox College
IL University of Chicago
IN Indiana University-Bloomington
IN Vincennes University
MA Amherst College
MA Boston University
MA Emerson College
MA Harvard College
MA Harvard University—Law School
MA University of Massachusetts-Amherst
MD Frostburg State University
MI Michigan State University
MI University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
NC Guilford College
NC University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
ND Minot State University
NH Dartmouth College
NJ Princeton University
NY Cuny Hunter College
NY Hobart and William Smith Colleges
NY Sarah Lawrence College
NY Suny at Binghamton
OH Denison University
OH Ohio State University
OH Wittenberg University
OK Oklahoma State University
PA Carnegie Mellon University
PA Franklin and Marshall College
PA Pennsylvania State University
PA Swarthmore College
PA Temple University
TN Vanderbilt University
TX Southern Methodist University
TX The University of Texas-Pan American
VA College of William and Mary
VA University of Virginia
WA Washington State University
WI University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
WV Bethany College
WV West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine

Reading through it, it is astonishing to realise that some of these universities pride themselves on their ‘liberal studies’ and have a huge majority of women (Swarthmore, Guildford, Hobart and William Smith, Sarah Lawrence…)

What UK universities should be added to this list?

 

 

 

Believe each other

Solidarity to the author of the most recent post on Black Girl Dangerous who writes of her experience of sexual assault by someone she thought was an ally.

She reminds us of the importance of believing each other:

among the many obstacles hindering my healing, the most insidious by far is the very same reason I chose to publish this piece anonymously—my fear that my community plain and simply won’t believe me.  Indeed, I am gripped by terror that my community’s attachment to this so-called ally would translate into accusations familiar to many survivors, that we are liars and exaggerators especially because my assailant is a “feminist.”  So what do we do?  What can we change other than institutional structures?  We can believe each other.

 

Her full post is available here.

An old white man

I had a not-great experience with my (older white male) supervisor in Honours and it’s really put me off academia.  He never harassed me, or was even overtly unkind, but he never took my ideas seriously.  I was assigned to him without knowing him, and a little research told me he was intensely xenophobic, but a request to be transferred to another supervisor was met with resistance and I gave up.  Because I wasn’t willing to go along with his extremely racist ideas, and didn’t feel like my arguments were making any changes in his opinion, I haven’t contacted him since I submitted my thesis.  Now I don’t have the networks and mentors everybody in academia assumes I have.  I constantly question my ability and whether my ideas have worth.  If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to on no account accept an old white man as a supervisor.

Wanting women to fail

I have three memories. The first is of a time that I emailed the convener of my PhD programme to ask a question. I was particularly stuck trying to work through an idea in my thesis, and I took the (for me uncharacteristic) chance that he might come back with something helpful, and wrote to him about the problem. He wrote back with nothing substantively helpful, but instead saying that he was “glad I was feeling uncertain.” That response stuck to me: why was he glad? I am not an overly certain person. It’s not that I needed doubt to be introduced in order to cut through arrogance, or to make me think something through more carefully.

The second memory is of him saying of his partner, another student of his, that he hoped something would slow her down professionally. It was phrased in a way to make it sound like a sort of back-handed compliment. She was smart, capable, and worked quickly. But it still wasn’t quite a compliment. Why, I wondered, did he want her to become less productive? What sort of wish was that for a partner?

The third memory is a conversation I had with a friend just after finishing my MA. I was thinking about how I felt about my work. I felt terrified. It was the first moment I was aware that even though I had done very well in the degree, the net effect of it was not confidence, but insecurity. I felt scared of showing my writing to others, and even of saying what I thought.

I’ve been talking to my friends in the department a lot, thinking about our experiences with this professor and working through the different ways we’ve felt and the different ways we’ve been handled. How have the ways we’ve been undermined worked? What happened, or what was done, to make us feel so uncertain of our own abilities?

The first one is simple. We were sexualised. And we knew we were sexualised. When we were given attention, when an interest was taken in our work, when an opportunity was offered to us, it was impossible to tell whether it was because we were qualified, competent and good at what we did, or because he wanted to fuck us. He did want to fuck us; he was trying to do that.

The second one is slightly darker: we were also treated as though things we had earned were favours that had been done for us. We were told when we earned firsts on essays that he had done us a favour. When we earned distinctions on degrees, this too was a favour we wouldn’t have gotten without his support in the decision. When we won funding awards and scholarships and research grants, he told us he had done us a favour. He had supported us. He had gotten it for us. It wasn’t a subscript or an implication. He would say, “I will get this for you,” then he would tell us he had gotten it for us, and so often he would do this in personal spaces. On trains and buses. In homes and at restaurants. Often we’d hear from him first, before we’d even been officially notified.

How could we trust anything we earned while we were being undermined like that? How could positive feedback actually come back to us as an evaluation of our work and ability when a man in a position of power was turning it into a favour he did for us in the process of trying to seduce us?

The third is the other side of it. There was the soft handling, there were the favours and the sweet talk. And then there was the sharpness of public shaming when you didn’t do what he wanted. Publicly, in institutional spaces – classrooms, lecture halls, and also in the more private space of the office – we would be shamed for being too emotional, too disorganised or slow, or just for saying the wrong thing. There was no reason given, no actual sustained engagement with our thinking or our work, but just a turning away from it. It wasn’t good; it had problems. We weren’t allowed to need to learn anything in the space of the classroom.

Not that it was really about learning anything or needing to: whether or not our ideas had “problems” depended on his mood and our compliance with him, and not on what we in fact said, wrote or thought.

And so we walked, so carefully, to stay on the right side of the bullying. To not slip, to not expose ourselves to name-calling in front of our peers and also behind our backs — because he would tell our peers, behind our backs, if our work “needed work,” or if our presentation was a “disgrace.” We had to speak and write and behave so carefully around him, trying to escape that shaming.

Wanting women to fail, he was good at making women fail.

A neoliberal university

I type the name of my professor into a search engine followed by the words “sexual harassment.” I want to see if there is any trace in the online world of what he has done over the past decade.

The first article that appears is an analysis of the ways the neoliberal university fails to attend to sexual harassment. It argues that the university fails to challenge an “institutional cultural of fear and compliance with injustice and inequality” because of a neoliberal tick-box approach to rights.

I read on. The article is an uncannily good description of what has unfolded in my department and in my personal and professional life over the past several years. The author writes:

For postgraduate students or junior academic staff (particularly when they are on short-term contracts, as is increasingly the case), there is immediately the threat to career advancement, should they file a complaint against a member of staff, where the complainant is potentially perceived to create problems not just for that ‘esteemed’ member of staff, but for the entire department and the institution, which is accentuated by an HE structure which ties funding to league table results. The target of harassment and bullying might even perceive her/himself to be the cause of generating the problems as a consequence of having been subjected to ongoing implicit or explicit threats by someone in an institutionally more powerful position.

Speaking out against a problem, we become a problem. This has been exactly the situation in my department. For years, women have been silenced by the institutional structures that have supported and enabled harassment and bullying to continue. When women have sought advice or spoken to other members of staff about the situation, there has been overwhelming complacency and, in many cases, a will to protect the institution by making the problem go away. Until very recently, there has been very little – or no – will to actually address the issue or intervene in the ongoing abuses of power.

The article continues:

The difficulty with issues relating to gender-based oppression and discrimination such as sexual harassment is that they are silenced. Exposure is strongly discouraged and, fearful of the consequences, those connected impose self-censorship. Even for those with the courage to expose it, there is no impartial place to which they can confidently turn and the first people they are likely to encounter are their colleagues embedded within the patronage system.

Clearly this author understands the nuances of power involved in the sexual harassment that takes place in the strongly hierarchical space of the university. Is this article, I wonder, a description of my professor? Is the author drawing on her own experiences with the same man?

It is not.

Instead, I find a reference to him later in the text. He is cited as a person claiming that audit culture undermines any sense of accountability and transparency within the university. I feel bleak reading this statement, given how extensively he has exploited the lack of confidence in audit culture to enable his own violations. Is he able to say this and to make this analysis because he knows, in a very calculated way, how thoroughly he exploits audit culture and uses it as his cover? When he is called to account for his abuses, he invokes lack of trust in the institution and a cynical awareness of audit culture as a way to hide what he has done. Having taught his students that audit culture can’t be trusted, he is able to position genuine attempts to speak back to serious and systematic abuses of power as another tick-box symptom of the neoliberal university.

And it is, in a way. But it’s not the speaking out against sexual harassment that’s the problem: it is his getting away with abusing students for so many years that is a symptom of a university system more concerned with protecting its own reputation than protecting its students.

 

Reference:

Schaumberg, Heike. “‘J’accuse…!’ Crisis in the Reproduction of Anthropological Scholarship,” Anthropology in Action, 16, 2 (2009): 51–62.

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Friends

The books felt stiff to me. Unwelcoming, theoretical in the abstract, difficult to relate to. Maybe I didn’t belong here.

But I’d chosen graduate school because I love books and love ideas – because when I had tried to leave university I desperately missed the company of my friends.

But these books were not my friends. Heidegger. Kant. Weber. Bloch. Even Derrida. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find interesting things within them, it’s that I couldn’t find myself or a world I recognised.

With despair I thought: maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe I’m more activist than academic. Maybe a phd, a university, is not the place for me.

But now I know that it wasn’t me who was wrong, it was the books. I’ve found again my Angela Davis and Stuart Hall, my Gloria Anzaldua and Marilyn Frye.

Who we’re taught and who we teach matters, not least of all because it changes who has friends in the classroom and who feels they’re welcome there.