A View from Beyond the Ivory Tower: An Addendum to Elizabeth Dunn’s “The Problem with Assholes.”

I am a fourth generation academic. I am the daughter, niece, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of professors.  I left academia soon after I got my PhD, because I had neither the money nor the patience to keep playing the adjunct/visiting appointment/job market game.  I became a teacher.  So my fight is not your fight.  But by way of encouragement, and caution, I would like to add some observations to those of Elizabeth Dunn.

1)            Beware the manipulation of selective targeting, by means of which the assholes corrode the solidarity of their weaker colleagues.  “Well, he doesn’t treat me that way,” as readers may know, is one of the notorious traps that women fall into as they form relationships with abusive partners. In our  highly prestigious PhD-granting department (yes, we two Elizabeths take our inspiration from the same program), the confusion of selective targeting was endemic to maintaining a culture of assholery.  One cohort had a great experience with a professor who was abusive toward another class.  Professors were verbally abusive of different individual students.  Professors who abused some students comforted others when their colleagues abused them, thus winning their undying loyalty – their colleagues may well have been doing the same thing for them!  My abusive advisor was entirely supportive of me for several years – until I became “his student,” formally as well as de facto.  During those years I heard plenty of stories and even witnessed his abusive behavior toward other students – but, I thought, he doesn’t treat me that way, and he was really supportive when Professor X… etc.  I fell into a trap that I had known about before starting grad school, due to recovery from an abusive relationship with a professional mentor outside of academia that I ended by… leaving for graduate school.  What if people who are NOT treated abusively supported those who are?  Assholes who think nothing of bullying one student, or a few students, might reconsider their sense of entitlement if they faced consequences from ALL their students.

“Do not be a bystander!” is a key point in our middle school anti-bullying curriculum.  I have presented scenarios from my graduate school experience in our anti-bullying lessons, and it’s pretty sad to see 8th graders better able to identify abuse and discuss counter-measures than people with PhDs.

2)            I have seen “amplification” work, and it’s awesome.  A professor with whom at least one of my female colleagues had a great advisorial relationship, go figure, quickly showed our class that he was ready and willing to offend anybody – you’re a woman, you’re Jewish, you’re gay, you’re black, whatever, he had something for everyone.  But there were more women in the class than members of the other groups, so we were his main focus.  I don’t know how the guys stumbled onto it, but tag-teaming by male graduate students won us the battle, if not the war.  Two minutes after he dismissed somebody’s point, a hand would go up: “To get back to the point that My Female Classmate made a few minutes ago…[that you dismissed instantly], I wanted to add…”  and then, after another two minutes, another hand:  “But to return to the point that My Male Classmate and My Female Classmate were pursuing [before you cut both of them off]….”   It was utterly supportive and completely disruptive of the professor’s assholery, all without breaking a single rule of academic discourse.   I have never forgotten it.  I am grateful to this day.

3)            At one point, I went to a consistently supportive professor who was being worked half to death by emotionally supporting every victim who came to her, and said, “He behaves in this way because his colleagues allow it, and his graduate students allow it.” She replied, “This is not a confrontative culture, Elizabeth.”  And it wasn’t.  And under the prevailing circumstances she may well have been right to wait for her own, eventually inevitable, turn to be chair – when she, with allies, could, and did, make changes.  But I think the era of Wounded Warriors waiting for their turn for institutional power within the inherited institutional structures is over.  Those institutional structures are collapsing all around us. Is it worth the wait?  How much remains to inherit?

4)            Specifically to Dunn’s first suggestion, “Creating a Disciplinary Code of Conduct:” the most liberating thing ever said to me in response to my describing my situation, to a friend who happened to be ethicist by academic specialty (thank you, Michael Jaycox), was “Oh! That’s unethical.  You know, academics don’t have a code of professional ethics that covers our relationships with students and colleagues.  We are entirely dependent on the mentoring we ourselves received.  One of my professors is working on that.”  In this case the person I was describing was the female enabler (the “F.E.”), an undergraduate advisor not yet mentioned (it’s quite a society, isn’t it?).  His comment allowed me to move from, “How could she have done that to me?” to “How would she have known not to do it?”  I was then, from the safety of my non-academic career, able to approach my F.E. with some empathy.  The empathy was abusively rejected because empathy inevitably implies a wrong having been committed; it is a step forward from utter anger.  The F.E. was unable to face up even to my having been angry, past tense; she was unable to face my clear persistence in thinking that I had been wronged.  She had also been wronged.  That’s one of the ways that assholery perpetuates itself – “I survived, and I decided it was all worth it, so it was all right for me to encourage you to get into the same situation.”*  The F.E. perceived an implied accusation, and was hurt by it, and I can understand that.  But she got an academic career out of it, in a supportive environment that gave her, in due course, institutional power.  That outcome is rare now.  Even at my highly prestigious program, the kind which fills more than half the jobs, as Dunn writes, only about half of the PhDs of my decade got tenure track appointments (this from departmental records that I had the opportunity to scan)**.   And that coveted outcome often comes at an unsustainably high cost — financial, emotional, personal, physical.  Our institutions cannot be saved by people whose professional socialization and working conditions just suck.  Too many anthropologists are people who are either damaged, or damaging others, or both.  We need academics who have not had their spirit sucked out of them by the dementors, who have not become vampires by the bites of other vampires.

5)            It’s change or die, people.  Education from kindergarten through the PhD and beyond has been under persistent attack from the political right since those late 80’s days when we frittered away our seminar time in spurious debates about post-modernism (I thank Ira Bashkow for that point).  That I view the disintegration of academia from the safety of a secure job with a decent salary, here in my poverty-stricken urban school district, depends on this city’s decades of history in the labor movement.  Charter schools?  We FILL that approval hearing room with well-prepared, angry teachers.  Inequitable funding?  We sue the state’s ass.  Unsupportive elected officials?  See you in November.  I may be a fourth generation academic by birth, but after I got the damn PhD, I had the luck to find a job teaching among the grandchildren of factory workers, who understand that mutual respect = survival.  It is a lesson that my community of origin would do well to learn, fast.  Some on the political right, I believe, simply stand back and laugh while we destroy one another, while responsible state legislators legitimately wonder why state budgets should fund Assholery.  Academics, whether privately or publicly employed, are supposed to be public servants, not assholes.  Assholery is indefensible in the state houses, as much as in the Halls of Academe.  State universities educate over 70% of American undergraduates, according the U.S. News and World Report, so when underfunding forces them to casualize and cut, the entire sector is affected.  Departments filling over half their positions with the damaged and the damaging – blindly hiring from the Highest Citadels of Assholery – is an existential threat.  Solidarity is a survival strategy.

*There were other ethically iffy specifics to my situation, which combine to make it unique. However, they also fall under the general question, “How do we think about our personal experiences as we ethically give professional advice?”  A thoughtful answer to that question belongs in Dunn’s suggested Disciplinary Code of Conduct.  I would be delighted to help write it.

**Those records also show that the above-mentioned Supportive Female Professor brought twice the number of students through to the PhD than any other professor in that department, during that decade – another workload reward of being a decent person within a Culture of Assholery.

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