ABUSE IN ACADEMIA, OR HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM AN AUTHORITARIAN RESEARCH ADVISOR

ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL ZENDER

About a year ago, at the height of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, I read the article “Instructions: How to recognize harassment and what to do next”. After reading the article, in which harassment is defined as a “hierarchical relationship between two people” where “one person’s personal boundaries are systemically violated by the other”, and the aggressor wishes to “control the situation”, I realized that for many years I had been in a relationship where I was the victim of harassment, or even abuse.  

In the modern academic environment, the relationship between student and research advisor, unfortunately, continues to be hierarchical rather than collegiate. My bachelor’s, master’s and PhD advisor was the classic abuser – she used control, humiliation and aggression against many generations of students at my alma mater. We, her victims, knew each other by sight, with some we shared our wounds, with others we only exchanged sympathetic looks. But we never aired our dirty laundry. I may be our advisor’s first victim who decided to share my experience of survival in the strong grip of an abuser.       

Many years after completing my postgraduate studies, having healed my painful body, I spent hours talking about our tormenter with a girlfriend who had suffered under the same advisor (incidentally, having met on the same battlefield, we remain best friends and sometimes ask ourselves whether our friendship would have grown if it wasn’t for our shared trauma). 

Several years ago I saw my advisor on the escalator in the metro. What do you think I did when I saw the person who for five years oversaw my research? I ran up the down escalator and out of the metro, and continued to walk very fast for at least half a kilometer until I calmed down. When I returned to teach at my alma mater, I did my best to avoid bumping into my abuser whenever I saw her from a distance.

At some point I realized that it was time for closure, and that I would write about my bitter experience at the hands of the abuser with the hope that my story and modest advice would help at least a few young people engaged in academic research.

How do you recognize an academic abuser?

Simple – it’s a person who constantly violates your personal space and insults you. At first they do it to see what you can handle, and then they become gradually bolder and more aggressive.

My relationship with my research advisor was extremely toxic. When she learned that I got married, she congratulated me and said: “Don’t you dare have kids until you finish graduate school.” Being a philologist by education and taking pleasure in rewriting every sentence of our undergraduate and postgraduate papers (while humiliating us, of course), she never tired from saying: “I am rewriting your thesis instead of working on my own doctoral dissertation.” At the height of her control and aggression, she would call me late at night to find out if I was staying in the city after I finished my degree, “because the city isn’t made of rubber”, and only people like my advisor, whose families had lived in the city for generations, deserved to reside there. My friend’s parents constantly heard as she insulted their daughter over the phone. There are endless examples.        

As you can gather, very few students defended their thesis in front of her. Some left the department on their own, others she drove out. My defense, which took place after an open conflict, became possible only after the deputy dean and several other faculty members intervened. My advisor was given an earful, and I was assured that I’d never have to deal with her again.

Oh, I should add that abusers have brief bouts of kindness, when they become fatherly or motherly, want to share their wisdom, tenderly call you “child”. No matter what it looks like, remember that this behavior is short-lived and that they are crossing your boundaries. When my advisor learned that after my fifth year of study I planned to switch departments and professors, she offered me milk and honey. Having had no experience in recognizing a manipulator’s tricks, I took the bait and spent the next three years of my life in academic hell. 

 ‘No’ means ‘no’

Your lack of desire to enter into an open battle – setting clear boundaries, sorting out your relationship, saying “no” – won’t be seen by the abuser as your desire to build a good relationship. The more you allow, the worse things will get, and sooner or later things will end in a conflict or a nervous breakdown, or both at the same time.  

The inability to say “no” will spread like a cancer cell to all aspects of your life, and influence similar situations with your partner, parents (who, sorry for the banality, most likely raised a victim for their own benefit), colleagues, friends, and even passengers on the bus. When you get rid of one abuser, you run into another, and another, and the one standing in line after them.

I’m not calling on humble, intelligent girls and boys, pouring over academic tomes and articles to become abusers, manipulators, bullies and authoritarians. The thing isn’t to crush the abuser using their own methods, but to say a firm “no”. The other person needs to understand that their manipulation won’t fly, that behind your “no” is a cold hard wall you can’t melt with short spurts of tenderness or break with pressure or humiliation.   

How do you defeat the victim in yourself and the abuser at the same time?

I think the first thing you need to understand is that you’re not fighting against a specific person, but with your own complex/trauma/lack of closure/karma – call it what you want. First we learn to say “no” to someone less scary – your mom, dad, partner (I’m not talking about domestic violence, where a simple “no” doesn’t fix the situation). It’ll be difficult, you’re a good person, so how can you refuse someone and insult them? But what about yourself? You are actually insulting yourself by stepping over your own needs, comfort, thoughts. 

Again, borrowing from my experience, you don’t solve your overarching problem by solving an issue with one person through an open conflict or by running away from the situation. You’ll have to follow your manipulator’s moves and assert your boundaries throughout your whole life.

Objectively, what can you do change the situation? Going back to the story of my research advisor (or any other supervisor), go above the abuser. In my experience, abusers are often gutless, but they understand that they are morally violating someone else. Often they’re afraid of getting into trouble from their own supervisor. People like this are frequently the bane of their department, faculty or even the whole university, and you’re not the only one who knows what they’re capable of. Having taught for a long time myself, I know the law of faculties and departments – you can’t fire someone just for being difficult if there aren’t any official complaints from the students.

When speaking with a “superior” you need facts – correspondence, witnesses, or even better, a collective appeal, an official complaint to the dean/rector from several victims. Don’t forget about documents that have legal weight that you can use during the conversation, such as contracts you signed when entering university. But talk to a lawyer before going to the “superior”.

If you see that they’re scratching each other’s back, take the problem into the public sphere, bring journalists, bloggers, TV into the discussion. The situation will develop more effectively if a group of victims take their grievances public. Even a simple social media post about emotional violence committed by a university professor isn’t good for the research advisor or the university administrator. Plus, you’ll get emotional support from others and won’t have to carry the burden alone.             

But what if you’ve just started working on your thesis and you realize that you’re in the hands of a abuser? Here are some tips based on my experience.

What’s most important is that you not allow your research advisor to turn you working relationship into a personal one (or I would say quasi-personal), because they will follow their rules only.

Tips:

  • Don’t play along with the academic advisor if s/he shares things from their personal life. Don’t ask questions. Keep a straight face, don’t nod your head, don’t say yes and smile. Your politeness will be regarded as an invitation to push the boundaries between a personal vs. work relationship towards a more personal one. Make it clear that you are not interested in hearing about you advisor’s personal life (or their sister’s family, since they have nothing to say about themselves…) and you want to move on to work issues.
  • Don’t give you advisor any information about your personal life. “For family reasons” is a sufficient explanation why you can’t make a meeting.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn them down. The phrase “I can’t talk right now” isn’t a crime, it’s a normal part of communication.
  • Don’t allow them to call you after a certain time in the evening. If it’s difficult for you to articulate this, then just don’t answer the phone.
  • Don’t rush to answer the phone if it’s not a good time to talk only because it’s your advisor and you feel you shouldn’t make him/her wait.
  • Try to decide beforehand how long a meeting will last. Don’t let them keep you longer than necessary.
  • Don’t apologize if you feel guilty, even if they point out your “bad behavior”. Try to explain calmly why you don’t feel you are wrong.
  • Don’t do personal favors for your academic advisor – drive them to their summer house if you have a car, deliver documents if you’re going in that direction, do their niece’s homework (I didn’t make that one up!). Remember that these kinds of requests amount to corruption! Use these facts effectively when talking with your dean, rector, journalists.
  • If your advisor asks for a bribe, don’t say anything if you’re afraid to say no. There are enough TV channels and government agencies willing to use your greedy advisor as a media precedent. But don’t forget that you’ll need evidence!

As you can gather, I broke all of my own rules. Following them doesn’t guarantee you a rosy, cloudless relationship with you research advisor, but at least it will bring the conflict to light at an early stage and allow you to change advisors so that you don’t have to put up with an abuser for 5 (!) years, like I did. Don’t be afraid to voice your dissatisfaction to the head of the department, dean, deputy rector, rector.  

The more students express their dissatisfaction with a particular professor, the less chances s/he will be able to bully other victims.  

The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).

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