In an article on the Avita Ronell controversy, Masha Gessen quotes a Facebook comment — apparently from a current or former student of Ronell’s — that has stuck with me. The author declined to be identified in the article, citing fear of recrimination, so nothing said in the comment can be confirmed. But I find it fascinating nonetheless:
We don’t need a conversation about sexual harassment by AR, we should instead talk about what AR and many of her generation call ‘pedagogy’ and what is still excused as ‘genius.’ When people talk about sexual harassment it’s within the logic of the symbolic order – penetration, body parts – I doubt you will find much of this here. But AR is all about manipulation and psychic violence…. AR pulls students and young faculty in by flattery, then breaks their self-esteem, goes on to humiliate them in front of others, until the only way to tell yourself and others that you have not been debased, that you have not been used by a pathological narcissist as a private slave, is that you are just so incredibly close, and that Avi is just so incredibly fragile and lonely and needs you 24/7 to do groceries, to fold her laundry, to bring her to acupuncture, to pick her up from acupuncture, to drive her to JFK, to talk to her at night, etc….
This comment brought back something that happened to me in graduate school, something that I haven’t thought about in decades.
In one of my classes I wrote my big final paper on a famous and yet almost wholly unread work, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The professor praised the paper very highly — indeed, I hadn’t written anything to that point in my grad-school career that had received as glowing an evaluation — and made it clear that he believed I had great potential. I was of course flattered by this, and when I saw that he was offering a seminar the following semester on a topic I was interested in, I signed up for it. At this late date I am not sure, but I think I was wondering whether this professor might make a good dissertation advisor; in any event, I very much looked forward to the course.
On the first day, he laid out the plan for the seminar. We would be studying an author of the first importance, he said, a figure fascinating and yet endlessly challenging. Writing about this author could bring out the best in us, or defeat us altogether; but in either case, it mattered — not, he concluded, like writing on something as useless as, say, Sidney’s Arcadia. And then he looked right at me.
After class I went away and thought about what had happened. It seemed to me that the professor was telling me, You are bright, young man, but you don’t know how to direct your abilities. If you take my guidance, I will set you on the right path. But if you continue on the path you are now going, I will have no respect for you. The more I thought about it the more sure I was (and for that matter still am) that this was the only plausible interpretation. So I walked over to the graduate office and dropped the course.
I saw the professor in the hall a week or two later, and he stopped me to ask what had happened to me. He seemed both concerned and wounded. I made an excuse of some kind — I think I said I had a scheduling conflict with my part-time job — and scurried away. We never spoke again.
Eventually I found a very different person to direct my dissertation, the brilliant and kind and odd Daniel Albright, God rest his soul. But just as Daniel and I began to work together, two things happened. First, I took a one-year appointment at Wheaton College — which turned into two, then three, and eventually twenty-nine; and second, a little later, Daniel went off for two years as a visiting professor in Germany. Remember, this was the 1980s and therefore pre-email (at least for most academic humanists). So I had a dissertation to write — in between bouts of grading freshman composition papers, hundreds and hundreds of freshman composition papers — and no ready way of being in touch with my advisor. So rather than writing a chapter, sending it off, waiting for a reply, getting the reply, incorporating revisions, sending it back — forget all that stuff, I thought — I just wrote the whole thing and when I was done, a couple of years later, I mailed it all to Daniel in Munich. A month or so later I got back his corrections and comments, all of them written, in a minuscule hand, on the front and back of one sheet of typing paper.
So what’s this little trip down memory lane all about? Just this: my realization that I have had none, absolutely none, of the experiences that, everyone says, are intrinsic to the career of a graduate student. (See this essay by Corey Robin, for instance, or this one by Chris Newfield.) No passive-aggressive games, no assertions of power, no building-up-and-then-tearing-down — not even anxieties about whether my advisor is writing me a strong enough job-recommendation letter. I already had a job, though I wasn’t sure that it would turn into a tenure-track one.
Moreover, I have spent my entire career teaching undergraduates, having played a role in but a handful of Masters’ and PhD theses, and even then a secondary one. So though I have been a professor of English and then Humanities for more than thirty years now, I am reading all these descriptions of what graduate study is really like with almost an anthropologist’s eye. What a strange and fascinating tribe! How peculiar their customs! I’m really, really glad not to be one of them.