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?“
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.