February 25, 2008

Hazing and Bullying: One Academic's Story

In response to my newsletter article ("Mean and Nasty Academics" -- see previous post), I received some insightful replies. One of them is reprinted in full here, with permission of the author, leaving out any identifying information.

About ten years ago I helped form an organization for students with disabilities at an Ivy League University. At our first meeting with graduate students, we went around and talked about our experiences and needs from the organization. There were students in professional programs and students in academic, arts and sciences programs.

The students in arts and sciences, of whom I was one, uniformly told of harassment and abuse, loading on extra work, being stifled especially in bringing up ADA-related requests for accomodation.

In contrast, students in professional programs told of faculty who were solicitous and kind, who sought to adapt the program to fit the student's abilities.

I had experienced hazing in the first year particularly; since my funding was year to year, I was in a precarious position to file a complaint. Then I fell off a library stool, and suffered a major broken leg. Suddenly the funding was there, for the next semester. Guilt worked.

Ten years later, I see how callow and unprepared I was for the Ivy League academic culture. The Department now has shifted graduate advisers to one who is rigorous and defined about what a student needs to do, and these standards apply across the board. She is also approachable, and stands up for the first-year students in the required colloquium.

What worked best for me was to find my strength, in talking about subject matter and approaches to subject matter. Absolutely never to talk about personalities, say "I'm sorry," or admit weakness. For accommodation, I would go to the Student Disabilities Coordinator, and vent, and we would work out an approach to the faculty member involved, or the library, or whatever was needed.

The disabled Arts and Sciences students at that first meeting were all women, so we may have been getting a double-barreled dose of hazing.

In thinking about that experience, I can see that what (some) men gain in going through fraternity initiation, or playing team sports, may help in cultivating stoic endurance, or understanding a culture based on stoic endurance. Women are not socialized to such a culture. People with disabilities have no toehold in academic culture to which to be socialized. I joined, as student representative, the all-campus committee called Architectural Barrier Removal and Prevention, and it became my support group. Didn't support the academics, but allowed me as a person to believe that I fit on that campus.

Circling back around to the hazing itself, what was so scary? First was the private discussion with the Chair of Graduate Studies, who said "Don't talk about your disability," in a threatening tone. That's in contrast to ADA requirements that you DO bring up your disability and what accommodations are needed. I had a required course with this man, and needed to change my seat in a seminar so I could hear all the discussants. I asked to do so, he said "All the seats are fixed." I had counted on taking a lighter load in the first semester, as I had in a State University; he announced that all first year graduate students were required to take a full load. The summer after the first year, my mother was dying, yet I had to finish incompletes, in order to get (or release) that funding for the next year, so I couldn't go visit her. Then I broke my leg, and *really* couldn't go visit before she died. Of course once she died, the Department and teachers in other departments were a bit kinder.

Having finished in that program, I don't feel bitter. I had some support, in the following years, and survived. My dissertation was MacArthur "Genius" Grant quality, though I don't know anyone to nominate me for it. OK, I'm laughing.

The message is that doing good work is a way of undoing the sting of harassment, and the pain of bullying, a way of asserting one's self. It doesn't make it right, or helpful.

I could have finished sooner without the bullying. In my time there, I've seen incoming faculty come to the tenure decision point and be denied. Although I don't know their experiences, I would bet that they were harassed, disrupted, and bullied when requesting those things that would help them complete tenure. I talked with one who made it, who needed a semester off to finish her book, but was needed in the Department for teaching, so they said. She thought that the tenure clock would be postponed automatically. I said that wasn't a sure thing, based on an earlier tenure candidate who had not gotten an extended time to file for tenure. I suggested that she check it out and make a formal request. She did, finished her book, and got tenure.

And now that I know them, and they know me, for most I would say that these are all nice people. But until you have a good long basis of understanding, and even after, it helps to think of them as tricky, mean, nasty, SOBs, every once in while, not constantly.

Why do I post this person's recounting of her story? I believe that the more we air these kinds of stories, the more likely it will be that administrators will do what's right, and not just what's expedient, when it appears that academic bullying is involved.


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