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Part 1 | Part 2

Part 3

"there is some shit I will not eat."

-- E.E. Cummings

So let me summarize: one student in my research group harassed another student in our group; the harasser was rewarded for his behavior, and the victim suffered. I think that's unfair.

I said as much to the three faculty members in the group. The responses I got ranged from silence to hostility. In particular, Andrew Tolmach -- who is both my advisor and Thomas's advisor -- told me that he didn't know the details of what Thomas had done, and he didn't want to know. He also rejected an idea I had proposed -- of one of the faculty members in the group making a public statement that someone had done something really bad to our group, and explaining what would be done about it -- because he said that making it about Thomas in particular would be a "witch hunt". (I'm not sure whether he realized the irony of invoking a historical event consisting largely of the persecution of women -- some say largely queer women, at that -- to argue against holding a man accountable for persecuting someone for being queer and feminine.) Later, he told me that he didn't think sexual harassment was an academic issue, and therefore nothing that Thomas had done was any of his business. I explained that I disagreed, that I thought that when one student intimidates another student out of being able to do their job, that is an academic issue. He also said that he didn't think there was anything special about sexual harassment as opposed to harassment in general, and he didn't think that the genders of the people involved made any difference in its severity.

Legally, the precedent seems pretty clear to me: all workers in an organization who are in a supervisory position -- such as a professor who advises graduate students, supervising them more closely than, for example, many managers at a software company would supervise their employees -- are responsible for pro-actively preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, and for being aware of any ongoing issues that make the working environment a hostile one. Ethically, I don't see how it's possible for sexual harassment of a colleague to not be an academic integrity violation. In a lab science field, it would be an academic integrity violation to take out your competition by sabotaging their experiments. In any field, it should be an academic integrity violation to take out your competition by letting them know they don't belong and eroding their dignity. If I were a supervisor, and I had a student (or employee) who did this, to me that would feel like a betrayal and a violation on the same level as plagiarizing or falsifying experiments.

I guess, though, if you occupy a social stratum where sexual harassment doesn't -- and can't -- affect you, it's easy enough to pretend that it doesn't affect anybody, and that if it does, they're just being too sensitive. Sexual harassment, directed at a woman by somebody who has male, heterosexual, and cissexual privilege, is fundamentally different from a woman harassing a man, in the same way that hitting someone with a baseball bat is different from hitting them with a pillow. The reason is that in the first case, it's not just one person saying something that one other person finds gross or disgusting or crass -- it's somebody leveraging all of the power of a sexist, heterosexist and cissexist society, all of the tacit knowledge and shared assumptions that mean that with just a few words, if you've got male privilege, then you can put a person in your own socioeconomic stratum in their place with just a few simple words (as long as they don't have male privilege). Sometimes it's words like "bitch" and "cunt", but you can use more polite words to get the same effect. What's important, more than the specific words, is that you invoke the image as woman as being for sex, as not being good for anything but to provide sexual pleasure to a heterosexual man. Since part of all of our cultural inheritance is that the idea that anyone who is capable of providing such pleasure is just a whore, and only a whore, and incapable of being a competent worker or anything other than whoredom, men with cis- and hetero- privilege who want to use their power barely need to do more than just point at that cultural inheritance. A woman could say all the same words to a man, but it wouldn't have the same hurtful effect, because we simply don't have the infrastructure in our minds for such words to become a speech act. It would just seem laughable. (If you ever present yourself femininely, you can try this the next time some guy in a car asks you what you're doing tonight.)

I decided, though, that since Andrew had told me that it wasn't his job to ensure that his students didn't sexually harass their colleagues (or to express disapproval when they did), I had to make it my job to protect myself from being sexually harassed if I returned to the department. Let me remind you of how this affects me:

  • Knowing that it's tolerated in my department for a student to harass a GSM member, and that this will be met with neither personal consequences to the aggressor nor an institutional response, makes me feel like I'm not welcome, because it seems to show pretty clearly that my contributions aren't valued as much as those of privileged students.
  • Even if I'm never harassed myself, I'm not comfortable in a place where I will have to witness women or genderqueer people being harassed and where I'll be shamed or silenced if I try to talk about it with authority figures.
  • Seeing someone hurt my friend, and getting a response that basically says my friend isn't valued either, hurts.
This doesn't just hurt my feelings -- it makes it impossible for me to do my job. To do my job, I need to be able to trust that the people I work with will hear me if I have a complaint about how somebody else is treating me. I need to know that they won't automatically side with somebody because they can empathize with them better (being more socially similar) or because that person has higher status. Without being able to trust in those things, I can't feel safe. Every situation could be a new trauma just around the corner. I can't take risks. I'm less likely to go out and socialize with other students, because I don't want to be harassed, and I don't want to it escalate it into something that will also affect life in the office. That deprives me of the informal connections that are necessary to succeed in academia. It also makes me feel more lonely and isolated.

So, I told Andrew that I would be willing to return in the fall if three conditions were met: (1) that I would do all my work off-campus, except for attending meetings where faculty members were present; (2) that I wouldn't have to speak to Thomas, including interacting with him about project work; and (3) that it would be acceptable for me to do one internship per year (this was unrelated to the first two conditions, but relates to the skyrocketing cost of PSU student health insurance. For fear of making this really tl;dr, I'll omit the reason why I had to stipulate that). He rejected all three conditions, stating that regarding item (2), he expected all group members to be "collaborative and respectful" towards one another.

I asked whether he thought that making an unwelcome sexual advance towards a colleague was "collaborative and respectful" behavior in his opinion, and he refused to answer.

If I take these comments at face value, that means he's asking me to work under conditions that make it impossible for me to work. I can't smile at an abuser and pretend that everything is okay. That would take all the energy I have. I can't write a dissertation while hating myself and feeling like a hypocrite every day. And I can't get up every day to do hard intellectual work while knowing that going to work could make me a target for a bully, and if I became one, all that the faculty members would be concerned about was ensuring that the bully got an education. Doing my best not to appear angry would be a betrayal to myself and to the people I care about.

But I really can't take these comments at face value. I can't see how he can tell me with a straight face that it would be disrespectful to not be polite to a sexual harasser in the corridors, when nothing more than a (privately administered) slap on the wrist was ever done to let everyone in the department know that this is not a place where bullying people in minority groups is okay. How is that respectful to me or to Alice? It seems that there is a double standard.

Andrew can refuse to answer the question of whether hitting on somebody at work is "collaborative and respectful" because he doesn't know the details of what happened and can't judge whether it was respectful or not. But he chose not to find out the details, in order to spare himself from having to take a stand one way or the other. There's something unpleasantly circular about that. I thought Andrew was a good advisor because he always stressed the importance of intellectual honesty -- how, in research, you always have to be brutally honest and admit when you don't know something or when you've made a mistake. For me, those principles extend beyond the pages of a conference paper and into professional and personal relationships. I guess for him, they don't. And I'm disappointed.

If I go back to PSU, I'll have to look for a new advisor, and I'm not sure who that would be, so I don't know whether I'll ever go back. I also don't yet know what my future plans are, as my internship at Mozilla ends on September 9, this coming Friday. I've filed a complaint with the Diversity office at PSU, and I'm in touch with some folks at the civil rights group Basic Rights Oregon to find out about recourse. I have to say, though, that even if I "won" a case -- whatever that would mean -- it's hard to imagine voluntarily returning to a toxic environment, and it's hard to imagine how that environment could be cleaned up when there isn't a single person with any power to clean it up who wants to. That is, not a single person who has done anything to do so, as opposed to saying they want to.

My goals in writing this and making it public don't include effecting any concrete change. When understanding a situation would compel a person to action, and it's easier not to act, then it's in their interest to not understand. So, I don't really have a rational reason to have written any of this, except that I think if I don't put it in writing, I will lose what remaining ability I have to get out of bed in the morning, concentrate on my job, not channel my rage into snarky comments on Reddit, and otherwise be a functional member of society. When people try to silence me, it's an excellent way to get me to tell everybody everything.

Finally, I want there to be a public record of why I left grad school. It's well-documented that faculty members usually take credit for their successful students' accomplishments while blaming non-completing students for their own difficulties. I left because I didn't have the energy to fight bullying from students and poisonous apathy from faculty members. I wanted to go to a place where I can do my job and be productive, and if where someone decides to intimidate me because I'm fat or because I love men or because I was coercively assigned female at birth, I can have confidence that my supervisors will be completely behind me.

I've wondered whether the faculty think they are being "neutral". And if so, I wonder whether they understand that in the presence of a bully, neutrality means siding with bullies; not taking sides means that someone who is abusing their power will continue to do so unchecked. Perhaps they imagine it's their job to side with a student who may have been "falsely accused" of some wrong. But there's a conflict here between giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who's been accused of something, and believing people who are systematically disbelieved. When you choose to do the former, you're identifying yourself as part of a social pattern that disbelieves women, trans people, queer people, and other people in minority groups (because after all, women are emotional, trans people are deceptive, queer people are abnormal, and God help you if you're all of the above). That's not exactly fair.

If you're still thinking that harassment between supposed equals isn't harassment, consider how with a conversation that took less than five minutes, Thomas managed to derail two people's lives for six months or more. What should have been a small action got a lot bigger due to the complicity of those who had the power to condemn it, and chose instead to deny or make excuses. In the past six months I've learned that when people say they want to help and be supportive, there's generally an unsaid postscript of "but only when it's easy for me and when I don't have to take a stand".

Of course, some of the work was done for him already by the life experiences that Alice and I have both had as queer trans people living in a profoundly repressive, cisnormative, heteronormative society. But that's exactly what power is -- having that entire society behind you. If I could have reclaimed the time I've spent thinking about this situation, and talking with others about it, I might have a completed dissertation proposal by now. Just today, I spent about 4 to 5 hours -- while on vacation -- drafting this post. I could have gotten some solid work done on the research paper I'm working on. But that's how it is, eh? When you have the privilege of not having to care, it frees up a lot of time to have fun thinking about interesting problems and being successful.

And that's why analyzing power dynamics isn't useless theory. For some people, it might seem that way, because you don't need to think about power when you have it. But this is my life. I need to document what's happened because I can't think clearly about anything unless I write about it, and I need to think clearly about it so I don't blame myself. If I blame myself for not being able to graduate, I'll have lost my sense of defiance. Sometimes I think that's all I've got.

"Even if you're a woman who wasn't abused, you're fucking angry because people treat you like shit all of the time, even if it's those tiny little things that don't matter immediately. Those little acts of violence just build and build and you have to choose to either internalize it and hate yourself or get MAD and do something about it. So you do get mad -- you get more angry than you've ever felt before, because you've never had the chance to even say how you feel and have those feelings acknowledged as worthy and awesome. You get angry because anything else, any compromise or giving up or hiding or pushing things deep down and ignoring them -- it's total self annihilation. You have to get angry, or else the thought of living in such a world becomes unbearable."

-- Chungyen Chang

Epilogue

Knowing that I'm leaving and Alice has chosen to stay and fight shouldn't diminish the seriousness of either of our struggles. I decided that for me, the reward of getting a Ph.D wasn't worth the pain of having to do other people's emotional work and to fight every day to be seen as a person too. I was willing to endure almost anything to gain entry into the privileged fellowship of those who can show they deserve autonomy and freedom on the job, not to mention working in a field I love -- but the price, for me, was too high. Alice loves their work enough that it was worth it for them to stay, to endure, to exercise more strength and deal with more awfulness than most people in our profession can probably imagine. And for them, that's the right thing. Alice's colleagues might say, right now, that Alice "seems fine". If they do say that, it's because of the incredible amount of extra work Alice has done, is doing, and will do, to "seem fine" after having to deal with what no one should have to deal with.

The thing is, though, that both of us had to choose: choose between staying and dealing with conditions that have a disparate impact on minority group members like us -- conditions that mean we have to work that much harder to get the same (or lesser) reward -- or leaving and losing out on one more opportunity. Privileged people don't have to make choices like these. Choice isn't always good: not when either choice you make will be criticized. Stay, and you're criticized for participating in an oppressive system. Leave, and you're criticized for letting the bullies win. You can't win. I hope that no one reading this will conclude that I gave in by leaving or that Alice gave in by staying. That wouldn't be fair, because we're both in a no-win situation.

Postscript: Alice read a draft of this post before I posted it, and gave me their permission to post it publicly. I have not sought permission from any of the other people named in this account, as I believe their actions constitute implicit consent to such naming.

Comments on this post are screened by default. I will unscreen comments that I find to be constructive, unless you tell me "Please don't unscreen my comment". Edited to add: Please feel free to link to this post anywhere you feel fit. There's no need to ask permission. I don't mind having to deal with a few trollish comments as a result; screening means I'm the only one who has to see them.

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Tim Chevalier

September 2017

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