Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice

Note: This might be a regular series, or just something I do at the beginning of a semester when I've been drinking. Most of the questions I think about have been paraphrased from conversations in my presence or openly stolen from more successful advice columnists on the interwebz. Where necessary, I have boiled down to just gist rather than let people drone on for 5 pages.

~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:

I am a tenure track professor at a New England liberal arts school with about two years left on my tenure clock. Last Spring my department managed to poach a celebrated professor from my graduate school. The Department is thrilled to have him. I am not.

This professor made my graduate school experience very uncomfortable. He once tried to kiss me, rather forcefully, many years ago. I managed to hold him off but it made the rest of my grad school experience a terrible one.  It was all I could do to prevent him from sabotaging my work or my standing.

We somewhat repaired our relationship. I graduated and moved on. I’ve heard about affairs he had with other grad students after his failed attempt with me. Now that this guy is joining my department, I don’t know what to do. I feel that his tactics are predatory. Not to mention he’s a married father of four. I thought he was out of my life but now my concern that he would prevent me from defending my PhD for turning him down has become a fear that I will not get tenure because he has joined our department. I also worry about my lovely grad students. What should I do? Hope he has changed his ways, or talk to someone about his past?

Unsolicited Advice:

There are a few ways to approach this. I think if I had any HR training at all, I would advise you to talk to HR. But lacking that kind of training, I only have my personal experiences where mentioning anything to HR that even whispers of the term "sexual harassment" leads to uncomfortable and never-ending hearings and consequences that can tear a department apart and ruin people's careers -- often the victims' careers, for reasons that the Universe has failed to explain adequately.

If you really felt like it, you could be direct, or slightly indirect, about the situation:

1) You mention that you "somewhat repaired our relationship." In light of that, perhaps you could talk to him personally. Explain that this Department is very different from the last one, and you'd really like to ensure the professional atmosphere is maintained.

(Just writing that makes me realize how unsuccessful it will be. *awkward* What would you even say? Stop kissing ladies who are under your influence! Siigh.)

2) You could talk directly to your Chair. I suspect this is the responsible thing to do, because the Chair (unlike HR) could keep it under wraps or take action only as needed. The Chair will be assigning someone to mentor this professor's transition into your department. Knowing about the incoming prof's background might help the mentor selection process. But again, what rot that such tactics must be used. And since you are ticking down your tenure clock, this might not be the best time to stir the pot.

3) How well do you get along with your colleagues? Perhaps there is a middle ground. If there are any well-established full professors who have a good rapport with you, perhaps you could take one of them off-campus to lunch and indicate some discomfort about the new hire. It does not have to be specific -- in fact, I would encourage you NOT to be specific -- but to use your charm and euphemisms to the best of your ability. That way, if Newbie Prof starts pulling his old behavior, you can go back to this person and give more information.

Completely Secret and Passive-Aggressive options include:
- Keep your mouth shut about this situation and start an undergrad series of presentations about "safety on campus" and "how to say no elegantly when your boss comes on to you." Maybe he'll get the point if you plaster such fliers ALL OVER THE DEPARTMENT and especially ALL AROUND HIS OFFICE DOOR.

- Talk to your grad students about the importance of keeping relationships professional during their graduate career. Remind them that future fellowships, journal articles, and post-docs are decided based on personal relationships -- and you don't want an ex on those panels. Date outside of the field.

- Sit on the floor of the Department Office and beat a drum about patriarchy.

- Don't worry about it, because Alcohol.

I'm sorry this happened to you. I hope you are able to take control over the situation and gain the tenure you deserve.


  1. Ick.

    There is no direct way to deal with this. The first two passive aggressive approaches may solve the problem and do some good generally. The last approach might not help but it's worth a try.

  2. I'm left wondering how a liberal arts college "managed to poach" a "celebrated" professor from a Ph.D.-granting institution. Maybe there's a significant prestige difference, or a fancy named chair in play, or something like that, or maybe the professor was looking for a lifestyle change, but it still strikes me as an unusual move. Is there any chance the professor had gotten onto such thin ice at the university that he was quietly on the market? Or maybe I'm misinterpreting "liberal arts school," since the letter writer has grade students? In any case, if the letter-writer has any useful contacts back at her grad school, it might be interesting to find out what's being said about his departure there.

    Beyond that, I'd lean toward options 2 or 3, depending on if/where one might find a reliable senior faculty member. Besides the chair, another obvious person to consider would be the director of graduate studies (or similar), or whoever schedules/wrangles TAs (if such exist, especially if the arriving professor is likely to have TAs or research assistants or whatever). You might also be guided by the situation in which you were accosted -- in his office, at a party, whatever -- and either exercise particular vigilance yourself or warn relevant and reliable involved parties to do so.

    If in doubt, do nothing, but stay watchful -- but not so watchful that you don't concentrate on your own work. It doesn't sound like he has a vengeful streak, but the best defense against his skewering your tenure bid (and the best way to put yourself in a position to cope should he do so) is to publish, publish, publish (and do whatever other parts of your current job count for tenure as well as you possibly can).

    1. I wouldn't put too much thought into that. I have tweaked some details about the institution to make it more anonymous. Spoiler Alert: it isn't really in New England.

    2. Fair enough. Well, "tread carefully" and "publish, publish, publish" still apply.

  3. Sounds like this advice was indeed solicited. And the school isn't really in New England. Is anything in this post true?

    I just want One True Thing.

    1. See the caption above... I see problems on the internet, or stories posted on facebook, I steal them, I give unsolicited advice to them.

      I would suggest that your advice is better, Bubba. Because Alcohol.

  4. You probably can't talk to anyone about this, Lady with Problem. Because you did not address the problem at the time. Not that I blame you, but you didn't. Whatever Ser Creepy did, he did it in another time and place. You aren't in the same--shall we say--jurisdiction.

    You certainly can't go up to Ser Creepy and bring up the incident, even obliquely. Because to Ser Creepy, anything but "Hi and welcome!" is going to sound like, "Remember that time you stuck your tongue down my throat even though you're a married father of four? Remember how you wanted to fuck me? Well I do. Can we keep it professional here?"

    This is how it will sound to him, which will either make him guilty and angry, or horny, or all three, and trust me, you don't want to inspire any of those emotions. The only emotion you want to inspire is "Nice to see her again! Hope she gets tenure because I think it would be great to have her as a colleague and see her every day for the rest of my life. Of course I sure wouldn't want to see her if I thought for one fucking second she was ever going to mention the fact that I forced her to kiss me."

    Whether or not you go to your chair depends entirely on your chair. Friend? Or no? Supportive of the new hire? Or no? Dickweed? Or no? Dickweeds stick together, lady with problem. If the chair is indeed your friend, and can be trusted, and is not a dickweed, you might consider telling the chair what happened, and request simply that Ser Creepy be kept off the tenure committee.

    And what happens after tenure is a different story entirely.

  5. If I were your Chair, you could come to me. I'd keep tabs on the creep. I'd watch him. I'd become palsy walsies with him. Just to watch and learn.

    And if I saw nothing, I'd do nothing. But if I saw something.....well, I'd maybe call Strelly. Or I'd call him on it immediately. I'd ride his ass, for sure.

    But I am not sure you should tell your chair. Not in my own experience of Chairs. What I'd suggest is doing a version of what my mother told me to do long ago, when I went to college in a "bad" neighborhood, (It was a bad neighborhood, for reals, actually) if someone tried to touch me inappropriately on the subway.

    She told me to say, in a very loud voice, "Get your FUCKING hand off of my knee!!!!!" This has to be done right in the moment. Like, when he actually has his hand on your knee.

    If you do this, in the moment, he will become disoriented and back off. And won't do it again.

    At least, variations of this have worked for me.

    AND, you can laugh it off as soon as he moves his hand off your knee. But both of you will know it was not a joke.

    1. I guess I did not really answer your question. In a nutshell, what I'd do is let it be water under the bridge, and call him on any bad behavior immediately from now on, in the moment. Look him in the eye and be shocked and appalled. And when he backs off, smile at him wickedly, letting him know you both know what a dirt bag he is.

  6. Here's another interesting point to consider:

    The department and deans all knew the Advice-Seeker's alma mater. It was the same program, right, not just the same school? Information about Newbie Prof was not sought at the point of hire, so I think Advice-Seeker needs to stay FAR AWAY.... until after tenure. It strikes me as odd that there was such secrecy involved.... perhaps he has a powerful friend in the New School's hierarchy? More reason to stay FAR AWAY.

    1. Or get as CLOSE as possible to the Newbie Proffie, grab him on both sides of his face, pull him toward you, and give him a big, wet, sloppy, kiss of death. Make him sweat for the next decade or so.

    2. I just vomited a little in my mouth.

    3. Somehow I think Bubba's unsolicited advice would be a lot more entertaining than mine. Booze and creepy gangster overtones. Maybe next week...?

  7. Scorched fucking earth.

    Start with the chair. If the chair doesn't listen and promise to watch like a hawk, go to the dean. Dean don't listen, talk to you dean of students. Talk to someone F/T in your gender studies department (if you have one) - they may be your best ally.

    Why? Because your experience is the tip of the iceberg - that's been my experience. Because people like this (yes, I can generalize about this) are allowed to slink and slither around the system and unless confronted, pursue inappropriate relationships with impunity.

    Because he doesn't know that no means no. And I don't want anyone like that near my daughter EVER. Or my students.

    Raze his fucking career to the ground.

    1. Cheers! Huzzah! Raising a virtual glass to Adjunct Film Guy! May many more men will be like you in future generations, so that tenure-track Advice Seekers won't have to tiptoe to keep their jobs.

    2. See, this is what I thought was interesting about this question. Because what the Letter Writer did was preserve herself and get to the goal line by graduating. But I imagine she's one of many, maybe a lot of people, who have all colluded with this dude because of their silence. And that's his game -- he knows they can't say much without risking themselves, and sometimes they don't even say no but give in if only to prevent any future hardships.

      And so many grad students are pushovers, completely in awe of their faculty members. Because of that, even though this is a different "jurisdiction" so to speak, I do think something should happen. And preparing grad students and undergrads -- loudly -- might be the answer.

      As Don Draper says: Don't like what's being said? Then change the conversation. Make the department a safe space for aspiring scholars.

    3. Been there, done that, as an untenured prof.

      Guess who they got rid of?

      Hint: it wasn't the slithery guy. He's still there, more than twenty years later.

      Even at my far friendlier current school, what happens to the slithery guys? Well, they aren't fired. After years of questionable behavior they are eventually brought in and asked to "resign," with no formal action being taken against them. And these same people are then free to walk about getting new jobs, telling whatever story they like.

      This is just the way things are. Pretending they are different doesn't help anything. Pretending an untenured woman is not going to bring down trouble upon herself by challenging a tenured man (especially when the offenses didn't happen at the actual university at which they are both now teaching) is unrealistic.

      The untenured professor needs to cool her jets. Stay quiet. Leave her eyes and ears open, until she is secure. She can do nothing if she's cast out. Nothing. Like I said, the slithery man from my former university is still there.

      Sit down, shut up, and get tenure. You can't help anyone if you don't have a job. Least of all yourself.

    4. You might not be able to take down the guy, but you don't have to stay quiet. Creating awareness and preparing others for a more direct response for when it happens to them can shut down the culture of looking the other way. When we are silent, we are colluding. When we come together -- even if we have no targets -- then we can shut this down.

      Although I admit doing that has everything to do with each department and not with personal will.