This guide was collaboratively written by a POC graduate student and cis white woman in the academe who have experienced abuse in their graduate programs. It was written about a particular department, so not everything may apply to you, but it is posted here in hopes that it can provide much-needed strategies, resources, and a model for similar kinds of documents that could be produced in other institutional settings. Some specifics have been deleted for sake of anonymity.
This department is an institution like any other you will find in the United States. For the sake of your survival here, you need to reckon with this and maintain a constant awareness that this will always in the last instance take precedent over all the other things this space is/all the other forms that relationships in this space take (intellectual community, mentorship, etc.) – perhaps with the sole exception of the solidarity you will find among *some* graduate students. It is necessary for you to operate in this space with this knowledge in mind as early on in your program as possible to avoid being caught in dynamics that will destroy any future plans for being in academe or having employment prospects upon leaving the program.
This is not said lightly. People branded as ‘troublemakers’ for seeking recognition and validation for being abused in this department have faced escalations in harassment, have faced direct insinuations about their intelligence and whether they are the “right kind of person” for academe, have been completely hazed during exams and sometimes asked to rewrite, and faced other forms of retribution, which have been framed as nothing more than pedagogical styles or objective assessments. It is also very likely that they have had bad letters of recommendation written about them, and some have been refused requests for letters of rec. When you come into the program you do not necessarily know what the norms are that faculty are operating by, and consequently you do not know what is going to mark you as a ‘bad’ subject in this space. This is a guide intended to help you have a degree of strategic knowledge that will hopefully help you to survive if you start to become ensnared in any abusive dynamics in the department or if you face structural violence, and to come out with what you need to avoid unemployment in the future. If you decide at any point that academia is fucked, which it is, and you decide to leave, that is fully supported. This resource is intended for students who have to or choose to remain in their programs for whatever reason, and specifically for students in departments where conditions for collective graduate organizing to address these issues are not fully present.
With very few exceptions, faculty in this program overall DO NOT have your back, especially if you are a woman, POC, trans*, working class, disabled or chronically ill, have any history of trauma, or face any form of systematic oppression. The more damaged you appear, the more you begin to appear to them as a perversely undisciplined person unworthy of their investment and unfit for the academe. This is especially true if you are a woman/femme or have any kind of chronic illness, disability, neuroatypicality, or unprocessed trauma. DO NOT EXPECT THEM TO SYMPATHIZE WITH ANY EXPERIENCES OF VIOLENCE OR THEIR EMBODIED EFFECTS. Many of them will not, and even those who do will feel like they can only support you up to a point because of their own constraints and conditions of labor. Sharing these realities with faculty who do not care will make them more likely to view you as unfit for academe. Remember that faculty have been here for decades. If they are ignorant, it is willful ignorance that they have been committed to for years. They are not going to change for you and you have no means of compelling them to do so. And remember, from the perspective of the department we are still disposable labor. In an institutional timeframe, 7 years is very little, and we will ultimately leave, whereas other faculty will not. I do not think any faculty will pick fights with other faculty over you. In terms of institutional reproduction, the interest that faculty have in maintaining relationships with us is the degree to which we can reflect well on them and expand their presence into new areas of study. This is the bottom line. It does not matter if you are good at your work or not if you do not conform to some extent to the forms of discipline that sustain this institution, and consequently, white supremacy.
If you do encounter abuse, know that they will never recognize their own violence unless they are forced to do so collectively, which would require an unprecedented degree of solidarity among graduate students that structural conditions make intensely difficult to achieve. So be very, very careful about from whom you seek recognition or validation about any violence you face in this department (faculty as well as other students). For example, for some instances of racism there is only one faculty member I would trust to speak to, and even then you should be careful to not ask for too much. Abusive faculty will literally be offended by the idea that they should recognize the pain they are causing, and will be more hostile the more that you do things that indicate that there is something profoundly wrong in the relationship. There is no such thing as causing them to recognize a problem: by tagging the problem, you have only displaced the problem onto yourself. Consequently, they will treat you as the embodiment of the problem, and instead of addressing the conditions of the problem, will try to make the problem vanish by making you go away. In this sense, it is very unwise to raise a problem with the person perpetuating the problem. They will never recognize the suffering they cause as legitimate or real. Surviving here requires presenting ourselves differently somehow and finding a way to be at some kind of peace with this violence. To let it go.
If you encounter indifference when you tell people about the small things that build up towards abusive dynamics, that means you cannot trust them to support you and they will likely stop wanting to be associated with you if you become subject to further violence. DO NOT TRY TO CONVINCE THEM TO REACT DIFFERENTLY BY SHARING MORE WITH THEM. It does not work and makes you more vulnerable. The issue is not that they just don’t know what is going on; the issue is that for whatever reason they just do not care and do not want to offer support. Even if you do manage to get them to be supportive it will not be substantial. The earlier you can differentiate who will recognize and validate the pain you are experiencing in helpful ways and who will not (hint: none of the faculty and some of the grad students will) the better you will be able to maintain the necessary illusion that you are what this department conceives of as a worthy intellectual who deserves to be a full participant in this space and in academe in the future.
All of this moreso if you come in unattached to a specific faculty member – you are more vulnerable to harassment because no one’s status is protecting you. Also, faculty may be more likely to make power plays to claim you.
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING THE FIRST 3 YEARS
- The most important thing to keep in mind during the first 3 years that what you are actually doing is building the structures you need to get yourself out of here as fast as possible with as little damage to yourself and your professional relationships as possible, and ideally even forming intellectual communities with other students in the department and in the city as well. But remember that the goal is to get out with 3-4 letters of rec that will get you a job. One good strategy is to settle on the three or four people you will need for your committee as soon as possible so that you can start emotionally discounting abuse from others all the sooner.
- First year:
- You will be taking your required core classes, which are intense because of the weekly response papers. It is best not to take other classes that require weekly response papers/a lot of weekly labor. Maybe max one other class like that.
- Everyone will probably be feeling anxious, like an impostor, and weirdly competitive and constantly talk about which professors they want to work with. Keep in mind: I have never heard of a faculty member refusing to work with someone who asked them to be on their committee. So spend this time looking *very carefully* at how faculty you are considering working with treat their current students. ***The danger is not that you will be rejected but that you will form a relationship with someone who you experience as destructive*** You will save yourself a world of pain by staying the hell away from anyone who is fucking with your mind (you will know because at some point you will ask yourself why you feel crazy and you will realize it is related to your interactions with them), even if everything about the context is pointing towards the idea that you are somehow unworthy of them. Make sure your advisor is someone who does not cross boundaries with impunity (unless for some reason you absolutely have to work with them and they refuse to be on your committee with someone else as advisor – even then, think very carefully about whether you are going to be able to find a way to be OK with the abuse and work with them).You can choose faculty like this to be on your committee if you need to, but your advisor should be whoever makes you feel most like a normal, intelligent person.
- There is virtually no reason for a professor to invite you into their private life unless it is for the purpose of some form of exploitation (either sexual exploitation or the exploitation of your labor.)
- Take at least one (non-language) class per semester outside of the department with faculty who work around your project. The department will try to keep you from doing this, but the affirmation you will receive in other departments will give you much needed perspective on the dynamics within the department. If you are being told that you are innovative, smart, and hard-working by faculty who are excited about your project, it will help you resist internalizing the toxicity of faculty who feed off of making students feel inadequate. The very fact that the department systematically seeks to isolate its students should tell you everything you need to know about why this step is necessary.
- Second year:
- Focus on building relationships with many faculty in the department, ESPECIALLY if you are starting to have trouble with anyone on your committee. If you need to do any switching around, this is the best year to do it. It may be terrifying but it is best to rip off the bandaid this year vs. wait for things to explode 3rd year during exams – which they will. Just say you have ‘intellectual differences’ to whoever you are struggling with and they should get that you don’t want to work with them anymore. Some junior faculty are good at reading signs of trouble and may be able to give you advice on this. Do try to extricate yourself graciously or w/e, like have a conversation in office hours or something and send them a thank you note/email or something afterwards to avoid fallout but honestly if they are mad it is still better to switch and deal with that than to wait for things to come to a crisis point 3rd year. They have no control over your life once they’re off your committee. If anyone is mad at your for composing your committee in a particular way, that is their issue and you should devote emotional resources only to not internalizing their anger.
- Take classes mostly in the department with faculty you respect – doesn’t matter as much whether you can see how their work is relevant to yours or not yet, since your project is still forming. You just want to have good relationships with people instead of isolating, which is a common response to abuse but will mean that you have zero lifelines the next year to get you out of the abusive situation.
- If you are not finding the interlocutors you need (i.e. that make you feel sane and intelligent) then you need to start looking elsewhere for them, wherever that is – art spaces, activist spaces, other institutions, other departments, etc. This can be difficult to juggle if you are trying to also build relationships with department faculty, but generally you probably just want to start going to talks off-campus and/or having a small presence in spaces outside academe while taking classes in or outside the department.
- Third year:
- This year is kind of self-explanatory – grants, coursework, exams. You are going to get very isolated during this time, especially during exam preparation because you will be reading all the time. Not much advice to offer here – just keep going. Pull back from outside commitments, if you have any and if you can. You really really need to prioritize yourself during this year. Ask for support from your support network if you’ve built one (e.g. ask people to make you food, bring you aromatherapy stuff, listen to you ramble, read your drafts, etc).
- Take the summer of second year a little easier if you can so you are coming into third year on your feet.
- Read strategically for exams over the summer if you can too – the quality of engagement is actually more important than how much you read. Keep in mind the exams are 90% about what interests your committee, and 10% about what interests you (if your interests diverge). So read strategically – i.e. read the stuff they like and know well. And read the canon carefully, read key chapters from the various interventions you identified, and read a few secondary sources to help you navigate the canon. The point is not necessarily to write something original, but to write something that will be legible/recognizable to your committee. Just start writing answers to basic questions they will be sure to ask you – if you included Marx, for example, they will ask you to just lay out the basics of the labor theory of value, commodity fetish, primitive accumulation, etc etc. This will help you A LOT when you are writing exams, especially if anything goes awry and your committee throws you some curveballs.
- Myth-busting the exams:
- Your committee just wants to know that you have read whatever they think is canonical and understand it. Maybe 20-30% of the sources on your exam should be the younger theoretical worlds you are interested in or engaging with in some way, maybe another 20-30% on your specific region. You should find a way to situate these within some kind of genealogy/broader conversation that traces back to thinkers considered canonical in your department. You usually don’t need to go all the way back to Hegel or Kant kind of texts unless there is some specific concept/engagement you are interested in that directly concerns them.
- You are asked to write questions with your lists. The questions usually have multiple parts, so really they are a paragraph long and contain a cluster of 3-4 questions. The general question format should be something like:
- question demonstrating you have read canonical thinkers and understand their basic concepts
- question connecting these canonical texts to an intervention made by other people considered important
- question connecting this to a newer literature or to a more specific interest you have around your project
- Keep in mind when you are making lists that your committee cannot test you on things they have not read. If you find yourself continually resubmitting lists it may be because you’re not including enough that they know and they are too embarrassed or offended or confused by the fact that you have not included these things to tell you directly that this is why they keep asking you to resubmit. They may also just hate the newer stuff you like – you can try to see how much leeway you have by pushing for their inclusion, but if they indicate it’s a problem 2+ times I would say just stop trying and leave it for after the exams. You can resist more with a committee member if you don’t plan on relying on them for support much, but if you really need them to support you then I wouldn’t. Also note that other committee members who support you may still likely feel that it is ‘uncollegial’ for you to insist too much.
- It is most effective to study for the exam by reviewing the canonical stuff the most closely because this is what you are being tested on the most, and then have 1-2 points about why you like the newer literatures etc.
- Theoretical disagreements with your committee often come out the most in the exams and depending on how badly you disagree and how willing or unwilling you are to compromise, you can get hazed pretty badly. **DO NOT** suggest they are being violent (it will make things worse), and do not be surprised if you have insisted on doing things your way when you suddenly receive an exam that had nothing to do with the questions you wrote and you are asked to write about sources you did not include on your lists (this has happened many times). Ways to avoid these circumstances:
- Remove someone from your committee
- Find some way to be okay with strategically not resisting so you can get your ticket to continue on with your work
- Leave the program
- That is literally it. Unless you are willing to get kicked out of the PhD program for whatever it is that makes you resist – this is said seriously; those are the actual stakes and at the very least your letters of rec will suffer (you will not be considered ‘collegial’) – there are no other options and do not kid yourself that there are. If you decide that the situation is too fucked up and you can afford to leave, then definitely do so, optimally before things break down too much so you can get letters to your next job.
- Helpful ways to approach the exams
- It can be helpful to think of the lists as a syllabus for an undergraduate seminar that could be taught at any American university. What canonical thinkers would you have to situate the readings in (to be critiqued or not), and how would you progress through the semester?
- It can also help to treat the exam writing period itself as a time for meditative thought – a period of ritual seclusion, a sacred time, a game you have to beat, an exercise in creative acting, whatever works for you. It can help to reframe what it is to get you through it.
- You have time to read during exams if you can stay relatively calm and lucid. Honestly even if you are freaking out you still have time to read. It is 100% possible to pass even if you are thrown a curveball and every question you have to respond to includes things you have never read before and were not on your list. (This only happens if there has been some underlying tension/conflict in your committee leading up to the exam). If this does happen this is the lesson:
- You are being asked to acknowledge that their way of thinking is useful and interesting. So just read the stuff (usually there’s like 1 or 2 key chapters), sum up the main points, and find some way to engage with it – paint it generously even if you hate it. Do not let any anger or resistance show through in your tone or in how you write. You need to act like none of the conditions in which you are being asked to write affects you. Otherwise you will be hazed in the orals.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE TO WORK WITH AN ABUSIVE ADVISOR
- The best way to deal with someone who is attempting to passive aggressively telegraph anger to you is to play dumb. Do not let on that you are aware that they are angry, or why they are angry. This will force them to either articulate the reason they are angry (which is most often a silly reason related to you insufficiently catering to their ego) and look silly, or to drop the issue. If they bring up the issue, continue playing dumb. Tell them that you don’t understand why they are angry and ask them to explain. Instead of arguing, ask for clarification. Then agree with them completely while continuing to behave as you like to the greatest degree possible. Agree with them totally and then totally ignore them. (This has worked for a white woman…)
- Be punished; do not be disciplined.
- Be sassy. Make a joke to them about how they are treating you. Find some way to acknowledge to them that you realize what they are doing, and to convey that it doesn’t scare you, without trying to confront them (see advice above about how this is a bad idea.)
- Disinvest from them. Do not look to them for value or identity. Many abusive professors can sense when you are overly invested in their regard, and this only incites them to abuse you more egregiously.
- Compartmentalizing in some way can sometimes be helpful – treat communication with them as a game or as alienated labor (which it is). Get good at acting sympathetic. If you have ever had to do this to survive abuse in other dimensions of your life, coping mechanisms and strategies of survival from those experiences definitely transfer. If you have a competitive streak, you might think of it in terms of “beating the system” or “beating your advisor at their own game” though this does risk some degree of identification with them.
- If you are dealing with writer’s block, it is often helpful to change who you are addressing in your paper, since the problem is likely your relationship to the person you are writing to rather than anything in you. This can be done a number of ways:
- Write response papers to friends in the class. Exchange them and build trust with each other.
- Spend as much time off-campus as possible and find other interlocutors. You can pretend you are writing your response papers to them.
- **DO NOT** take more than 3 classes/semester. Max 4, but you should make sure 2 are classes that you can be OK sounding like you have not read anything etc because really you will not be able to.
- **DO NOT** take 3 classes that all require response papers. Usually it’s good to have a mix of classes requiring response papers and just weekly paragraphs.
DO THESE THINGS ASAP IF YOU ARE DISABLED OR HAVE TRAUMA HISTORY
- Find yourself a good therapist or other trained healing provider as soon as possible. It may be best if you arrive early in your first year to set up all these support systems before the semester starts. Make the appointment with psychological services and get referred out – it can take a bit to get referred out to someone you connect with. There is no way in hell you are not going to need a therapist or some kind of regular healing activity with someone very skilled in healing work.
- Register yourself with the disability office the moment you start having any kind of regular or serious health problems. Also register with them as soon as possible if you know you have a history of trauma. This is as a backup in case you find yourself triggered or ill at some point down the road and it is keeping you from completing work.
- **Do note that it is often considered normal to continue working when you have bronchitis, mono, etc etc so many faculty do not care about your health issues because they have normalized intense degrees of overwork. However, registering with ODS may help to guard you against cases when your body inevitably breaks down, or you are triggered, and faculty assume that the cause is due to an illegitimate psychological reality (usually “anxiety”) rather than deep histories of trauma or varying degrees of disability. **No one will be notified if you register with the disability office; it is literally just something to have essentially as insurance so that faculty will be less likely to deny you an accommodation (because it would be illegal and they would face consequences for it) – vs. without it, you are very vulnerable to being cast as anxious and lazy.
- Spend as much time as you are able creating a support network for yourself that is not connected to the department, unless your cohort has a particularly strong bond. Even then it is probably still best to create support networks in the city to ground yourself in spaces that operate by different norms – everyone in your cohort will be experiencing the intensity of the department. Find some kind of self-care routine if possible – meaning exercise, going out, aromatherapy, meditation, whatever.
PLACES TO GO WHEN YOU WANT TO AVOID THE DEPARTMENT
SUPPORTIVE INTELLECTUAL SPACES IN THE CITY
- Plan to move off campus when you no longer have classes 4x/week. Even during this period it is very doable to live off campus and helps to insulate you from the first-year anxiety, though living on campus during that time also helps you to bond with your cohort.
- Prioritize self-care. It matters more that you focus on eating well, finding time for exercise or other activity that you enjoy, getting enough sleep, etc. than it does that you make it to every single event and meeting.
- Find non-department ways to structure some of your time. Regular exercise classes, ceramics or painting classes at local studios, city sports leagues (some are super low key), dance classes, and other things can be good ways of helping you feel grounded on a regular basis outside of your academic work. Check out a local Jewish Community Center (don’t have to be jewish/religious at all) for classes if that’s somewhere you feel comfortable going, local art studios, local gyms, and similar places for ideas.
- **TRY NOT TO ISOLATE** even if you are being harassed, discriminated against, and people you see in the department are not validating any of those experiences. If you do not have a support network in the city, try to seek out a faculty member who might be able to put you in touch with someone who can support you. THEY WILL HELP YOU FEEL MORE SANE AND OKAY. All faculty listed have been very good about doing what you need (i.e. they might be constrained in what they can do but they definitely won’t go and act on their own if you tell them something, *unless* mandatory reporting is triggered [see post on mandatory reporting]).
- Faculty who have been helpful to some students in past crises [list has been deleted from this post]
- *These are faculty that some students have found supportive in the past; if they have been shitty to you please feel free to include warnings or list additional information on negative experiences with them.