you are not alone.

Last week the Daily Nous, a philosophy website, relaxed its commenting rules and allowed readers to anonymously comment in one of its threads using a fake email address. The thread asked, “Grad Students: What Would You Tell Your Prof(s), But Can’t?

The responses vary, but many chronicle the heartache and harassment that pop up frequently in academic discussions and higher-ed publications like The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.

Because of the venue and specific details in the comments, it is obvious that the posters are largely philosophy grad students. To an outsider, philosophy seems unparalleled in its problematic academic culture (philosophy departments and faculty certainly come off as the worst offenders in media coverage and the gender/status disparities don’t help), but the issues brought up in the comments are universal and affect graduate students across disciplines (and many undergrads, staff, and faculty across a range of levels and statuses as well).

I  hope the posters, although they felt like they couldn’t tell their professors their thoughts, found other people to talk to. However, I am sure that many of them just never said a word to anyone until they posted in that comment thread and know that there are many, many others who have never said or wrote anything to express their pain or dissatisfaction.

If you are one of those people with something to say but who has not had the courage or opportunity to say it, I encourage you to find a way to do so. You are not alone. Share your experiences with other students or a professor you trust. Contact your university’s counseling center or someone in the graduate school. Call GradResources‘s national crisis help-line for graduate students – 1.877.GRAD.HLP – for “free, confidential telephone counseling, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, and information and referral services provided by specially-trained call-takers” who understand the unique pressures graduate students face (they also offer a special Skype line for students working/living abroad and other resources like mentoring and seminars to help students in other ways). Write a letter that you’ll never send or journal about it and throw it away, to process the pain and to let it go.

That said, if there is any way that you could tell the professor – perhaps after advice from someone else, or with the help of an ombudsperson or another third-party, or in a less contentious way – please consider doing so. I will never forget a dinner I had with my brother years and years ago. I had used an ethnic slur that I didn’t even realize was one, largely because of how I’d erroneously spelled it over the years. It must have been so hard for my little brother, but he stopped our free-flowing, upbeat conversation and told me I’d just said something racist. He went on to tell me that he knew what kind of person I was and he was sure I’d never want to offend anyone and so he wanted to share the root of the term and take the time tell me how hurtful it was to hear it come from my mouth. It was hard to hear I’d hurt him and to imagine all the people I’d hurt with the term over the years, but I appreciated him saying something and his thoughtful delivery. I was grateful he found the time and courage to tell me and never used the word again.

Faculty aren’t trained in most of the aspects of our jobs. Without some form of feedback, we’re likely to continue to falter and continue to make the same mistakes. I’d like to get better at all aspects of my job and assume many others would as well, but only journal reviews and teaching evaluations provide regular feedback. Remember, too, that you don’t need to share your thoughts directly. As DGS, I talked to a number of faculty on students’ behalf and once a campus ombudsperson spoke with me about a concern about a fellow faculty member that a student had brought to the ombudsperson, all while maintaining confidentiality. Some faculty won’t listen, but I am sure that many will. It can be hard to hear criticism- as all grad students know – but the sting can also promote growth

Finally, if what you would like to say is positive – as a number of the comments in the Daily Nous thread were – please feel free to share it. What’s holding you back? It will not only help professors realize what they’re doing well, but is an excellent way to reinforce or cultivate those traits in yourself. It will also give you a chance to share your thoughts before it’s too late.



7 thoughts on “you are not alone.”

  1. Yes, figuring out how to get the communication out is important. One problem about power hierarchies is that people are afraid to be specific enough in their complaints to allow people who are willing to correct their behavior to understand what they need to fix. Or for others to know that something really is happening. Over the years, I’ve heard and read lots of complaints from African Americans about people touching their hair. I’ve never done it or considered doing it, but I’ve heard enough complaints that I know it must happen. Even so, I was shocked when I was speaking with a specific African American graduate student from another department on my campus about a specific faculty member who did, in fact, touch this student’s hair. I guess you really do need to tell people things that ought to be obvious. It would be very helpful to compile lists of things that can make people feel abused as graduate students as a resource checklist for us faculty folks. I know, for example, that some students take offense if an advisor refers to “my” students or advisees. To me that seems folksy and friendly and not something I would think of as offensive, but I learned that some people find it so. Useful. And I have certainly observed a lot of passive aggression in faculty-student relations.


  2. My sense is that SJMR and the other *JMR forums thrive because of job market information asymmetries, and a general chill on discussion in universities. Of course the free speech libertarian would say that. Well, this goes beyond my personal experience.

    I wrote and administered a survey in order to get more students out at our departmental events at Chicago, since we had such a desiccated culture. Students chimed in on, “What food do you like?” “Do you want to go off campus.” And then an open ended question got filled in with two or three reports of harassment (out of about forty responses).

    Outside that (which our student government handled, by gossiping and arguing about it a little, and dropping it), I managed to bond with a litany of students who felt ignored, harassed, abused, and hopeless in graduate school, while I was getting hit with my own public shaming. That was constructive for all of us, but there’s no formal mechanism to facilitate it. Nobody wants to elevate their complaints to administration because nobody wants to be a tattle, a crybaby, nor litigious.

    Most folks think the endemic harassment and complaining on SJMR is essential to SJMR itself. But it’s what’s preexisted in graduate programs and the discipline more broadly (SJMR is about half professors and post docs). It’s an electronic Trump or Bernie rally.

    If departments were serious about improving their training, they would follow up with dropouts and ask them what the program did wrong. Embarrassment and pride among legacy faculty obviate those efforts. Arby’s is better at this than the academy.


      1. I’ve always liked your openness a lot. But I’m biased – I grew up around shit kicking leftists in your neck of the woods.

        One of the deepest emotional and analytical lessons I took from graduate school was that some portion of what I felt put upon about was structural to the institution of graduate education itself, politics free. And so it dawned on me how many women, people of color, and so on were going through the same things as me, regardless my sense of population average struggles outside universities.

        Jon Shields, an incredibly sensitive and thoughtful conservative, has made this point in Passing On The Right. Social justice folks and conservatives and libertarians are natural allies in the academy. I developed so many wonderful and supportive and learned relationships with folks in my program by being out of the closet. There is yet hope!


    1. The sociologist Barbara Lovitts wrote a book, one that I believe was actually her dissertation, years ago about graduate school attrition (Leaving the Ivory Tower, 2001). As a researcher, she was able to get students (both completers and non-completers) and faculty to open up to her in ways that particular departments or faculty couldn’t (Notre Dame’s graduate school used to do something similar, so that students who were leaving wouldn’t need to talk to people in their specific department). It’s an interesting read and really helpful at exploring the structural and cultural causes of students’ experiences that so often get chalked up to students’ personalities or psychologies. As such, it’s helpful for both graduate students (particularly those who might feel like they’re struggling to see they’re not alone) and faculty/departments/institutions in thinking about the types of changes that might help students.

      Of course given status differences, some well-founded fears of retaliation, and the small world of graduate study, students feel like they can’t report what happened to them to folks in their department or especially the faculty member or offender themselves, but there is always someone who you can talk to whether at the institution or elsewhere – someone who can help you process the event, explore your options, discuss strategies to deal with it, etc. – so you really shouldn’t have to go through anything alone. Someone understands and should listen and I think the crisis help-line is a particularly useful first step.

      The cry-baby fear is relevant here. I think students often don’t say something because they think that their problem is small and it’s unwarranted. Sometimes these issues are actually big (I didn’t tell anyone I was getting divorced, which was a pretty big deal, especially with a toddler and grad student stipend) and sometimes they are actually small and many might look at them as no big deal. However, very small things can still interfere, whether with progress or psychological health – something like the Princess and the Pea. It’s better to nip that stuff in the bud before it becomes a more significant block.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jessica’s comment is spot on: talk to somebody. If you are afraid to talk to someone in the department, talk to someone outside the department.

        I read Leaving the Ivory Tower years ago and highly recommend it. I still refer often to things I learned from it. The only criticism I have of the book is that she does not recognize the issue of collinearity, correlations among independent variables, and writes as if all the effects she talks about are additive, when controlling for some of them might eliminate the effect of others. Some of the not-obvious things I recall (besides just talking about it at all) are: integration matters and a first year fellowship can hinder integration; there needs to be a balance of social and academic/professional integration; the best advisors work with students of all levels of students, it is bad advisors who read files and screen to decide whom they will work with.

        By the way, as I’ve alluded to elsewhere, I did have some very bad experiences in graduate school. I am not in denial about what can happen.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Directors of Graduate Studies need to keep a few things in mind.

        1. The internet is real, and it is, like department drinking outings, etc., where we’re most likely to see coworkers doing their harassing (kids misbehave at the back of the bus). You can’t dismiss complaints because they happen on the internet. This is how the police have dealt with internet rape threats (which are criminal assault). Stop it.

        2. You can’t predict who’s going to get hit. And you can’t downplay based on whether someone’s complaints fit a script. Blacks and women will come to you. White males. Two subfield alters who are competing with each other. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.

        3. If you’re hearing a complaint, it’s likely been months or years since the person started feeling harassed. Quite likely, a range of peers and faculty have failed to support or intervene, have potentially enabled and encouraged what was happening, or simply lacked the capacity to change the situation.

        4. Your program likely has a handful of lemon students who will cause problems. If you can’t be a sociologist, one option is to tell other people how to be a sociologist (I don’t miss the irony here). Kick these people out or get them working. Friendly as they might seem, students who basically hang out in the department will drive productive students away and degrade morale.

        5. Make sure other faculty are not gossiping with students. I can’t tell you how much dirt I heard from peers, who heard it from their advisers. If you don’t like a student, 9 time out of 10 they are behaving that way because they’re not doing well in the program, and may be a bad fit. It’s your job as the adults in the room to confront this situation and counsel them out, or get them resources, and working.

        6. Get involved with student government. A “town hall meeting” once a year, that covers a range of policies and procedures that may have been in place for ten, is insane. Again, Arby’s is better at this. You’re managers. It’s your responsibility to check in with employees to ensure the productivity of your team. If your department ends up on fire, it’s your fault, and no one else’s.


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