Thursday, July 24, 2008

university scandal and repairing your professionality

I have been embroiled in a departmental scandal with god awful fallout and between the emails, the visits to the university OEO office and all the crazy ass plot twists, I've been freaking exhausted. I'm still not sure what to say about all of it, and, of course, I have to be less than totally clear because of the persons involved and content of the thing.

I think, when you end up embroiled in academic scandal, that you have to be very careful how you react and what you do about it. We invest our and our families futures in being an academic. It is horrendously difficult not to over-react and to preserve at least the appearance of being neutrally horrified. Or at least terrified in a subdued fashion, something like drowning with grace and poise. I have been struggling to try and be kind or patient with people, even people who have savaged me at various points because of what they had been told about me or because I have an aggressive, sometimes slightly strident approach to arguments or discussions in class. I try to get a grip on that reaction and my reaction depends greatly on the subject matter being discussed. I have also chosen to write about things that are not comfortable for me or for anyone having to read the works and I am not terribly social, which just makes it easier, thanks to the content of my work, to make any old rumor stick. In my defense, these last three years have contained anything that could go wrong short of an explosion and I have not had the time or inclination to drink or hang out, and when I had, the invisible strictures of the rumors circulating about me made it impossible to say much else. Rumor, especially in an environment in which you are so completely dependent on your colleagues, is almost as effective as tying someone up. It gives everything you do a sinister tinge and makes you wonder, at least marginally, if you are as sinister as you are portrayed. Self-doubt helps you make more mistakes, and that particular little vicious cycle makes you a little crazy. We want to blame ourselves, I think, as a way of deflecting the inhumanity of our portrayal. I want to be personally responsible in direct proportion to the fact that the rumor mill makes me out to be everything short of a sexual serial killer.

My thesis director outed me as kinky, as well as encouraging me to write about it, among other things.

When I came into the program, I anticipated hard, one-on-one work with a professor or small group of professors. I anticipated teaching, though I thought I might not be good at it (hard to tell in advance). I was definitely looking forward to research (I have a reading dependency) and to partaking of what I felt was the academic environment, not the least of which was contributing to the understanding of students so they would become better citizens. I am aware this comes with a certain amount of danger, so I'll qualify that I think teaching and learning critical thinking skills and/or encouraging critical thought is an important part of being in a college and of being a citizen.

I have had to re-evaluate what I think about the process of going to college, thanks to the scandal and resulting fallout. It has done a fine job of sweeping out some of the blind spots in my expectations for academics and academic life. The glass is no longer rosy nor does it hold much water. I want very much to believe that there is much which can be salvaged and learned from this. I want to believe I have not just wasted three years and a great deal of money, though there are people I am sure will never speak to me again and there are still people who will walk out of a room when I walk into it. It seems ridiculously easy for the close, emotionally and intellectually invested working conditions of academia to result in the single most cruel and persistent rumor mill I have ever encountered.

There's a lot I should have learned about professionality that I hadn't and am still trying to pick up. I don't ever remember it being addressed directly. It is my feeling from watching the students and professors around me that we're all just supposed to know how much to say or not to say to our professors (in this case my ex-thesis advisor) or fellow students and to know, if we feel our dissertation director wants us to do something, that the request should always be checked against common sense or someone else's opinion.

But who can you trust? The people who are nice to you? The people that ignore you or are important enough to make you fear asking them anything of the sort, lest they mark you in a negative fashion for not knowing?

In my case, my whole life had fallen apart and I was just devastated as hell, and the heavy drinking and partying with my advisor was not helpful to professionality. I am not at my best after five martinis and a bad critique, even if there is not a mass of problems in my personal life. Add the problems, the liquor and the bad critique, and I am not for public consumption, especially not the consumption of my peers.

The advice I got from her was mostly career poison. I don't think it was all purposefully so, but a lot of it has had such a poor effect that I find it hard to believe she would not have known it would destroy relationships with my peers. I know she purposefully destroyed my relationships with other professors, both by telling me horrible things about them and by telling them horrible things about me.

But I still chose to listen and do what she suggested, sometimes out of blind faith and sometimes because it was my impression that this was simply the way things were in my department. And, sadly enough, sometimes because I was just that angry, something she and I have in common. I am enraged by certain kinds of things and I have had to learn to be patient with people who insist that you can work your way to success all the time (when will the American Dream get a good look at itself?) and who persist in ignoring certain economic and/or sexist policies and their resultants. I am resisting the urge to find her at fault for all of what happened, something that is a real temptation for me, with mixed results; it's nice when you can make things that simple. Don't we all like to look better than we feel? (And I feel pretty damn shitty.)

To some degree I feel bad for the problems my complaint to the local ethics and university civil rights office have undoubtedly caused her. I think she has been caught for a problem that is not just her and is being blamed for what I have been told by other students is an ongoing problem department-wide: sexual harassment and retaliation.

You can have a few good people in any bad situation, and I am meeting those people now, but it came a little late. Mostly, I'm told, because they thought she had me in hand. I suspect it had more to do with finding me difficult, if they noticed me at all. The ivory tower syndrome has been often cited, and while this is not exactly the way it's usually cited, the way that colleagues tend to be focused on their own territories allowed a lot of damage to be done to myself and other students before anyone realized. I am lucky that my former advisor attempted to oust and slander other professors or sometimes I think that this would have gone on much longer. I don't have a lot of faith that I would have been important enough to garner attention otherwise, but I could be wrong. I'm feeling a touch cynical.

I have to go back next semester and be five times more inhibited than normal (and I am not exactly wild and free now.) I have to live down what has already been said about me (the highlights of which are a series of assertions about my sex life, personal ethics, mental health and a purported propensity for violence.) I am continuously discovering more that has been said or done and I am under the microscope.

I am terrified that my dream has been wrecked. I had a dream for the process, for being a teacher and an academic, and now I mostly have a lot of shame.

I hear this is normal. I am ashamed that I listened, ashamed that I let myself be so far out the other side of open that I feel everyone knows the negative parts of my business (some of this was her, some of this was me in workshop discussions. I felt like it was the duty of the artist to tell the truth and I did. Too much.) I am ashamed that I did not figure out what was going on and ashamed that I was so easy to slander and that I let her convince me (not that it was hard) to be a bit of a snob with my fellow students. I am ashamed that I might have ruined my ability to be employed by not being more professional, but I am trying to remedy this.

I have asked to talk to anyone I can to remedy the professionality questions; my model for this was that thesis director and my anger at the sense of being a poor fit with my fellow students (hence the snobbery.) I will go back next semester and try to pick up the pieces. I can try harder. If nothing else, the raw fear that this may cost me a career will provide the energy for it.

1 comment:

Rufus said...

The graduate life seems to be built around fear at times. Usually it turns out okay, so have faith. But the amount of abuse engendered in these all-powerful mentor roles is significant, and the scales are tipped way too far against grad students.