To: John Poirier
On: Advisor Problems
[I wasn't going to reply, other than a note of encouragement to John
privately, but as I was writing that note, I see words of advice popping up
on my screen via Syn-L. Since my experience of academe (which I admit does
not include schools of theology) leads me to believe that acting on that
advice might well be detrimental to John's present hopes, I venture to reply
at large also, hoping to lure further voices in the same vein, and so
balance things out. The reply is nevertheless addressed to John, and is
meant for him].
You ask, and I think it is the central question, "Does this kind of stuff go
on a lot in higher academia? The simple answer is, Yes, and a lot worse. The
complicated answer goes on to say, And there is not a thing you can do about
it except go elsewhere, quietly. A professor is worth more to a school than
any student (for one thing, they have more money invested in him). To
contend formally with a professor is, in effect, to contend formally with
the school (the school will automatically feel involved with the professor;
students are The Other). And the rule in school administration is that
schools are always right, and they will invariably close ranks against even
the most objectively justified complaint about one of "their" professors.
That can quickly lead to formal litigation. You can publicize the complaint.
One MA student in my experience did just that, with a very similar problem.
She gathered signatures. She wasn't expelled, but also, the problem wasn't
corrected. The general result of pursuing a formal challenge within the
institution will be (1) you will never get a degree from that school, and,
quite possibly, (2) no other school will accept you as a transfer student,
meaning, you will never get a degree, period. The extreme case in my
experience was a professor who stole his PhD student's research and
published it as his own. The facts were obvious, but the result was that the
student quietly [key word here] left that institution, and resumed his
degree work elsewhere. He finally got his degree, and is now teaching - in
another country. There were no repercussions for the professor, who
continued a high-profile position as an institute leader, and continued to
employ the prettiest secretaries in the whole building, and to be courted by
everybody in the program, including his own senior colleagues.
Clarification: You best know your own institution. But my perception is
that, despite some recent attempts to put education on a consumer basis,
with implied warranty and all the rest of it, the general presumption of
institutions is still that you are not paying for instruction (and teachers
are not paid, at least not by the hour, for giving instruction). You are
paying for the personal prestige and career enhancement that a degree from
that school will eventually provide. You can try to make a consumer case, in
the courts, and the lawyers will take your money, but you won't win, and if
you should win, your only award will be money, not reinstatement, let alone
degree (the court can't award degrees, and almost no court will venture to
reverse an academic decision as such). By putting things on that basis, the
ultimate form of confrontation, you will only dig yourself a deeper hole in
which to lose. Let me add that I entirely share the indignation that
permeates previous responses. I could probably top any examples that the
previous respondents have to offer. There are cases known to me personally,
right now, where a tenured professor has violated every expectation of his
employment, and every decency of his implied obligation to students
(including refusal to return student papers, or to finalize degree
proceedings that stretch over years). The institution, and even the
professor's colleagues, are simply not interested; nay, they are
enthusiastic. If you make trouble as the victim of such a situation, you
will be branded a "trouble-maker" and excluded from the school's, and very
possibly the profession's, good graces.
The same guideline applies, in my view, to outside litigation and also
taking things "higher up" within the institution. It might conceivably be
different if you had a relative on the Board of Trustees, or were a close
friend with a major donor. But the scenario at best is one of winning a
confrontation, and academe does not like confrontation, and, by and large,
it systematically penalizes those who (in their view) provoke confrontation.
It should be different, I totally agree. In some places it *is* different.
Between my writing this paragraph and the previous one, another Syn-L
respondent has provided an example. But the general pattern, from all
evidence available to me, is as I describe it, and it seems your institution
is running true to form. If so, I think you are stuck. It's beyond the power
of any individual to reform an institution, let alone the "culture of
scholarship" in which those institutions exist. Not only is there no
structure for bringing such instances to a proper (morally defensible)
ending, either intramurally or otherwise, but such imperfect structures as
exist, for determining professorial nonfeasance or even scholarly
misconduct, are vanishing from the scene. The trend, as far as I am aware of
it (and I read the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is what the
administrators also read) is in the direction of worse, rather than better.
So follow previous advice if it appeals to you, but only if you have
sufficient income, from non-academic sources, to fund that battle and to pay
for your life also. Indefinitely. NB: Lawyers cost about $300 per hour,
minimum, and the minimum may not be good enough, for a difficult trial case,
and you may at some point need competent legal advice, even in an intramural
case (the other side will certainly have some).
After all that, I should now offer some positive advice. This is it, with
all modesty, and with the usual "no warranty" disclaimers, but in good faith
and in helpful spirit. (1) Don't do anything to call attention to yourself.
Within that admittedly hard limit, (2) Quietly see if there is another
person in the department (or whatever) who could take over the job of thesis
advisor. If so, very gingerly and privately and with use of all the
subjunctive and conditional and implicational resources of the language, see
if that person would be willing to do so. Perhaps only a shifting of roles
on the thesis committee would be involved. In any case, don't make your
complaints part of the inquiry to the alternative advisor. It won't help,
for reasons listed above; it will polarize things in the wrong direction.
Also, if the present advisor routinely delays or denies feedback and other
student guidance, his colleague will know it, and may already be shouldering
the burden it creates (I know one guy who is doing his own work, plus the
work of two no-show tenured colleagues; he gets very tired by the end of the
week). If not, (3) see if there is another institutional program in the area
that would take your project on. That is, explore the possibilities of both
long-range and short-range shifting of your work. Transfers at the graduate
level are difficult, whether within a department or between institutions,
but they do happen, they are perhaps even a little more common now than 50
years ago, and that option is a lot more peaceful to the soul than the
demands of litigation (which, even if you have providently kept a full
"paper trail" of your own work and your advisor's nonfeasance, are much
greater than you may imagine; copying, filing, annotating, midnight oil,
general psychic wear and tear). With those alternative possibilities known
(never, repeat never, enter the office of a superior without being prepared
to lose everything in the ensuing conversation), (4) talk to your advisor.
Ask if there is some problem (eg, a problem of doctrine, or a problem of
sources, or simply a problem of personality) with your work. Nonfeasance is
one way a professor may take to tell you so. If such a problem emerges, see
what can be done to solve it. Utter subordination is the right mode in which
to put these questions. The solution may be to adopt conclusions, or
methods, or style, more in keeping with those of the advisor. Some thesis
advisors (and I would think, especially so in the NT field) see themselves
not as research facilitators, but as orthodoxy enforcers. Your solution in
that case is to embrace orthodoxy, whatever that may mean in your particular
Whether you are comfortable doing that is up to you. A word of personal
experience: I have often been told, at various stages along the way, and by
persons entirely sympathetic with my aspirations, Oh, just do what they
want, you can say what you think later. Often. But I have never been told,
OK, now you have paid your dues (that is the idiom), you are officially one
of us, so tell us what you think. Never. Students may imagine that they are
being trained to think. Would it were true. Once in a while, it is indeed
true. More typically, they are being trained to accept, and devotedly
promulgate, what their teachers think. The students of one modern China
expert now populate Chinese and history departments across the continent.
They are recognizable by their almost comical predictability. They all know
the same answers to the same question. It is that situation that many
trainers of graduate students are looking to achieve.
I was once crossing Harvard Yard with a very senior colleague in the French
Department, who had shifted his field entirely from the one he had long ago
been hired for. He grinned at me and said, I have tenure; I can do whatever
I want. That, I may say, is an extremely unusual use of tenure (or
equivalent protection). The usual use of tenure is to do nothing, except
cash the checks (this was before the days of direct deposit). Nonfeasance
(and hopefully your case is nothing worse) proliferates accordingly.
I know, principle might dictate something less abject and conciliatory. I
have principles too. The thing with following principle, though, is that one
wakes up one morning and realizes that one is not working for a career in
the field (as was originally the idea) but for immortality in the form of an
article in the New Yorker, profiling one's struggles and empathizing with
one's failures. It's fame of a sort, but be sure that it is worth it, as the
sole reward of a combative response to the situation, before embarking on a
combative response to the situation.
As for one's very natural indignation, which I repeat that I fully share, go
out to the neighborhood bar and drink it off. That's what they have
neighborhood bars for. Or write the New Yorker article yourself, and leave
it among your papers, to be submitted under a nom de plume by your executor,
sometime in the future.
I don't mean to be cynical, but I do mean to be helpful, and I wish you well
in extricating yourself from the situation with a minimum of friction and a
maximum of degree.
Use what tact you can, and beyond that, may good fortune attend you.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l
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