Signs of Abuse in Academia

Note: This is a post about my personal experiences and the way my circumstances dictated how I approached abusive academic situations in graduate school. I don’t have advice about how best to deal with academic abuse because each instance is unique and because our circumstances are probably not the same. But know that you’re not alone. And abuse is not a reflection of you and should not be internalized. 

What do you do when your imposter syndrome is exacerbated by abuse?  Do you even recognize that you’re being abused by faculty?  Probably not. I spent 9 years in graduate school (MA and PhD), and I can tell you from firsthand experience that many of us experience abuse, but we don’t identify it as such.

Let me say this: there were many more amiable faculty members than awful ones. But those horrid experiences still stick out quite clearly as part of my graduate experience.

Where do you turn when you can’t rely on anyone for support?  Your peers think you’re making too big a deal out of some “minor” situation. Your family and people outside of academia don’t understand what you do. You’re afraid of going to your department or division’s chair for help because you fear professional retribution. So, what do you do?  Do you walk away from school?  Do you approach your university’s Title IX or equity office for help?  Do you just live with it? Do you end it all?  The reason I’m asking these specific questions is because I know at least one person who answered “yes” to these questions and followed through with their choices. I won’t write about other people’s experiences because it really isn’t my place to do so, and it’s still quite painful for me to reminisce about the people we’ve lost to the latter question. I fall squarely in the “just live with it” category.

The Experience

During my time as a graduate student, I was made fun of in front of faculty by faculty. I was degraded by faculty in private conversations that made their way to me. I was accosted by faculty on “reply all” emails. I was harassed by faculty through email listservs. I was told by a faculty member that I didn’t deserve to be a graduate student at our university. I was told by a faculty member that I have an “aggressive” personality (code for “you’re too gay”). I was told by a mentor that my actual existence (i.e. my identity) was the reason another faculty member was hellbent on preventing me from moving forward in my program.  I’ve had faculty denigrate my chosen field of study.  I had one faculty member tell me that my personal life “should not get in the way of productive academic research” (that’s a direct quote from the email she sent to me). One faculty member would lisp when he spoke to me because he thought it was funny “to be gay.” The same faculty member would flick his wrist at me at department social events from across the room.   

This isn’t a list of complaints, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It’s simply a list of some of the abuses I faced as a graduate student. The list goes on and includes issues of lost job opportunities, free labor, lost grant opportunities, preferential treatment (and so much more). It has been even worse for some of my friends who have dealt with sexual abuse and harassment – luckily, not in my case. But I finally had my Oprah “aha moment” in late 2018: I feel like crap all of the time not because I have imposter syndrome (which I do), but because some of the people around me are abusive. By the time I figured this out, I was nearing the end of my time as a graduate student, so I didn’t really take any action other than avoid those people as much as possible. You might be asking, “But why didn’t you complain to the admin earlier in your grad career?”

Well, the answer is two-pronged. First, I didn’t realize that it was abuse, so I really didn’t think of complaining to anyone other than my close friends. They were experiencing similar things from other faculty members, so I thought it was par for the course. Second, and a bit more complex, was my fear.

Fear set in fairly early in my graduate career. Some of the very same faculty and staff members who were causing problems for me had harmed other students from before my time – so much so that those stories were still floating around. I never felt like I was in a position to do something about it. I certainly wasn’t going to talk to my department’s administration, knowing that faculty talk to one another and, often, talk to their students. Gossip is gossip.

Why not Title IX, then?  I brought one issue to the university and I was witness to two others, and let me say, I was completely underwhelmed by the way these cases were handled. I won’t go through the litany of hitches, but the one issue that really stuck out was how poorly anonymity was handled. As Dumbledore once said, “[It] is a complete secret, so, naturally the whole school knows.” My few experiences early on really shaped the way I viewed “reporting” my problems. I knew it would come back to the department eventually, and I didn’t want to be *that* guy who was making something out of nothing. But I realize now that it was something. It affected the way I viewed myself. It affected the way I viewed the people around me. It affected my campus life. And it has affected my memories of the university and the way I carry myself all these years later.

How did I manage to get through 9 years of graduate school with the “just live with it” attitude?

Friends:   My close friends and partner had to deal with the brunt of my frustration. Many of them saw firsthand what was happening to me, and to their credit, they were always available to lend a shoulder. But after all of the discussions and bitch sessions, not once did we come to the conclusion that what was happening was abuse. It was like we were blind to that fact. 

Advisor:  I discussed some of my issues with my advisor – who, to be reasonable, was one of my most ardent cheerleaders. I was lucky. I had an advisor who left his door open and let his students talk to him any time. I didn’t have to hunt him down and corner him for five minutes. But I always found that whenever I did approach him, I had something more pressing to discuss about my work or about a project, so I never wanted to waste time talking about “non-issues.”  That was a mistake. I should have been more upfront with him and made clear how difficult it was for me simply to exist and operate in that space.

Therapy: The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that academics need therapy. How else could we account for maintaining and propagating a system that is inherently abusive and exploitative (but I digress)!  Group therapy was very helpful for me because it created a space in which I could discuss what was happening to me without any ramifications. The group members had agreed to rules of anonymity, so I never feared that people in my department would find out about my problems.

The Upshot

Like I mentioned before, this post isn’t about advice or giving you some perfect insight about how to navigate abusive situations. I suppose it’s helpful for you to know that you’re not alone. A lot of people face adversity in academia, and you should never let it eat at you. Most often, it isn’t about you. You’re simply the target and outlet for other people’s problems. How you deal with it is your choice. In my circumstance, I didn’t feel like I had the power to actually do anything about it. And a lot of that was tied to the fact that I didn’t recognize abuse as abuse. I internalized a lot of it and truly felt like I was the problem. Now, I know that I wasn’t the problem. But to be honest, I don’t know that I would have made different choices had I recognized abuse as abuse early on. It would have, however, truly impacted the way I viewed myself. And that is important.  

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