Last month I was asked by Career Services to participate in a panel on “Managing your Advisor.” I’m not quite sure what is the relation between this kind of programming run by Career Services and very similar programming run by the Graduate School’s “Future Professoriate Program,” but with the thought that repetition is pedagogically a good thing (despite neoliberal attempts to eradicate it as inefficient), I just said yes and happily showed up. I’d been warned that I would be the token Humanities “perspective” on a panel with a quantitative sociologist and microbiologist, but despite this forewarning I really was thrown off by a room dotted with international students majoring in Engineering, IT, Computer Science, and Chemistry graduate students. I found out their majors by chatting them up while the panel was getting set up for recording. Learning their majors and listening to the lilt of their linguistic accents did two things to me. First, it put in sharp relief the conversations occurring at various levels of the university about the ethics of drawing large numbers of full-pay international students, when the university does not (by policy) offer very much support to assist students in accommodating to US academic culture (I am not commenting on university capacity or will, only policy). Second, it suggested to me that these students needed to talk and question more than they needed to listen to any prepared remarks I made.
My panelists are good academic citizens. They are stellar scholars. They are really pleasant human beings. They were not good listeners. When a student asked a question (e.g., “how will I know when I should maybe change advisors?”), my colleagues answered with remarkable fullness and confidence. When it became my turn, I asked the student to talk about the situation that was giving rise to the question. This happened over and again. It seemed strange to me that, on a panel about maximizing the advisor-advisee relationship, the structure of the conversation made it difficult actually to hear the students. I found myself saying the darnedest things. To give one example: when a science student started colorfully (and to me frightfully) to describe their* relationship with the lab director, the biologist cut in to talk about prevailing egos in laboratories and the importance of the ‘squeaky wheel getting the grease’ of the advisor’s time and attention. The sociologist underscored, among a number of points about professionalism, the importance of having academic celebrity attached to one’s own research. Eyes sidled over to me, still sort of stunned by the student’s account. I said that it should be clear that the student was describing an abusive relationship and that abusive relationships are not ok, not even in the academy and not even for the sake of prestige. I said that the student should get out of that relationship right away and pursue a degree at another institution or here at SU in another laboratory. Life is short; one should not willingly submit to abuse. I added that if the student really wanted or needed the celebrity connection (if indeed that’s what was on offer in this relationship), they should forge ahead but only on condition that they can enter therapy or find a friend or other academic advisor who transparently understands the ongoing abuse and can help them navigate it.
Yep, I said that.
My question lingering from this experience is this: was my response the expected role of the Humanities professor? And what does it express? Does my response show the relevance of the Humanities in considering things like values, inter-relationality, affect, ethics? Or does it point to the abject instrumentalization of knowledge-production in the non-Humanities. Or something else?
Next entry: My thoughts on what to do if a PhD student (in the Humanities) is having problems with her or his advisor.
*I apologize to the grammar police, but I don’t want the gender of this student announced even in this fairly oblique post.