tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Today is the fifth anniversary of my post "Emotional Labor Day", chronicling how I was constructively dismissed from the computer science Ph.D program at Portland State University because of sexual harassment.

Thomas Dubuisson, the grad student who sexually harassed a fellow student in front of me, left the program not long after that to take a job at Galois, a software company in Portland. He still works there now. He still has a career in the research field the three of us all started in -- and is welcomed by that field -- whereas his victim and I lost our careers.

The victim of the harassment left the program several years later after trying extremely hard to make it in a program that continued to show active hostility to her for being a trans woman.

HASP, the research group that the three of us were all part of dissolved; I can't help thinking that the loss of several grad students played a part. When faced with the choice of including a student who made a rape threat, and the recipient of that threat along with a student who spoke out to say that rape threats are unacceptable, they showed that they believed the student who made the rape threat to be more of an asset to the group. They also went out of their way to say that they believed calling out rape threats to be worse behavior than making them. The HASP faculty were willing to sacrifice their group to protect rape culture rather than discipline a harasser and keep the group threatened by his behavior together.

In the intervening five years, lots more stories like ours have come out. It turns out that it's the norm for universities to silence harassment victims and protect their predatory faculty members and grad students. While there is more awareness now of the role of universities in recreating and reinforcing rape culture, that awareness hasn't yet been accompanied by action -- at least, not action on the part of people with institutional power. The ever-increasingly profit-centric academic realm continues to make it clear that those of us who are devalued due to our gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or disability have little value to contribute, regardless of our ability to teach or do research.

And I'm still paying the bill, literally, for the program I got kicked out of without a degree; I'm still paying off the student loans I took out while I was at Portland State to cover the cost of student health insurance and other medical expenses, as the university didn't consider the research that graduate students did for low wages to be work and thus didn't provide us with employee benefits. Grad school isn't for people like me who've had no financial support from parents since the age of 17. At age 35, I have no savings and I don't expect to retire -- all because I made the mistake of thinking that a person like me could have an academic career. But those careers aren't for me -- they're for people born to wealthier parents, into more acceptable bodies.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
I stumbled upon this essay I wrote almost ten years ago, which I wrote in order to shake out all the laughs before writing a genuine statement of purpose.

I have edited it heavily in order to remove the more libelous parts and to redact the names of the person I was asserting I wanted to work with as well as my own name-at-the-time. Those mentions of specific people that haven't been edited out are of people who I think highly of. Really. I meant well.

I'm posting it not just because I think I'm funny, but also because the parts of this that aren't lies are a little bit revealing of the career path I actually took and I like to think that might be helpful for someone reading this who's starting out in the same field. Not that I would recommend anyone do what I did.

At the time, I said I was going to make this public once I had tenure. Since I'm never going to have tenure, I'm posting this now. And really, isn't knowing that I'll never have it a little bit like getting it, without all the hard work?

"Statement of Purposelessness".

Originally written in Cambridge, England, November 21, 2006
Heavily edited, May 10, 2015


I would like to be admitted to your graduate program in order to study functional programming. I like functional languages (particularly Haskell), because they let me be as lazy as possible when I write programs, and I'm a very lazy programmer. I also like Haskell because Haskell programmers seem to be a lot hotter than other programmers on average. What can I say, I have a weakness for guys with ponytails. The only problem is that there aren't enough women who do Haskell, but the men are girly enough that that kind of makes up for it. I mean that in a nice way.

I want to attend your university and work with [REDACTED] because few other professors are as successful nerds as the one I aspire to be. I hope to learn from him about how to title papers with ridiculous puns, take off my shirt during talks, and still be respected by more or less everybody. I would also like to learn from him how to get a cushy industry job during the tech bubble and then retreat back to a cushy academic job when the bubble bursts.

I've achieved my current state of programming language enlightenment by being stubborn, unimaginative, lazy, and foolish, so I plan to stay on that horse and ride it to the finish line. 13 more paragraphs )

In summary, please admit me to [REDACTED UNIVERSITY] because if I don't get into your school, and don't get into Cambridge either, I'll probably have to go to Portland State [**], and people will laugh at me. Then again, I might end up working in the operating-system-in-Haskell project if I went there. So like I said, people will laugh at me. Also, if you don't accept me, I'll [REDACTED SERIES OF CRUDE THREATS AND BOASTS WHICH NO LONGER REPRESENT MY VIEWS ABOUT WOMEN]. No, but srsly, I would like to be IN UR UNIVERSITY IMPLEMENTING UR LANGUAGEZ, because god knows the faculty aren't going to do it.

aged 25 11/12

2015 footnotes:
[*] This seemingly-incredible statement was based on working in the Valley during the dark hour between the 1990s tech bubble and the San Francisco-based tech bubble.
[**] The redacted university either rejected me, or I never even finished the application. I honestly can't remember. I wasn't even planning on applying to Portland State when I applied to [REDACTED], instead applying at the last minute in March, so really, the joke's on me.
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
With apologies to Reel Big Fish
Don't go to grad (school)
You'll get old and snide and overqualified
Don't go to grad (school)
You'll be so disappointed
When you end up an adjunct in Riyadh
Don't go to grad (school)
Oh yea yea yea

I hate to ruin the magic
I hate to kill the dream
But once you fail your prelims
Well you'll know just what I mean

You might think that it's cool to hang out with scholars
And chase knowledge instead of almighty dollars
But no one gives a fuck and your reviews all suck
And there's no novelty in your Ph.D
You will hate education
And no one's going to read your dissertation

Don't go to grad (school)
You'll get old and snide and overqualified
Don't go to grad (school)
You will be so damn terrible
You will disappoint your mom and dad
Don't go to grad (school)
Oh yea yea yea
It's a losing bet
That you will regret

And even if you make it
All the way to MIT
I don't think you could take it
The egos and hypocrisy
Everyone is so fake when it's visit day
And they ingratiate 'til you matriculate
And rejection fears will make all ideas
Bland and boring, your reviewers all snoring
Your advisor will become a jerk
Faster than you can write "Future work"

Don't go to grad (school)
You'll get old and snide and overqualified
Don't go to grad (school)
You will scrimp and be frugal
till you leave to work for Google
Don't go to grad (school)
Oh yeah yeah yeah
Your passion will be lost
Like opportunity cost... alright!

And if you think that the joy of research
Will help you cope with the unknowns
Wait till you quit and go bankrupt
And you can't discharge your loans
Nobody cares what you have to say
Tenure-track is dying anyway
You'll be stymied by self-doubt
And critics will find fault till you burn out

Don't go to grad (school)
Don't even try you will regret it yeah
Don't go to grad (school)
You will be so disappointed
When you end up an adjunct in Riyadh
Don't go to grad (school)
Oh yea yea yea
So just drop out now
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
I wrote the following on a closed Facebook group for Wellesley alums, and since I spent all that time writing it, thought it would be worth it to share with a larger audience.

See also: How to Fail Out of Grad School Without Really Trying (which I wrote while I was still in grad school).

I thought everyone in this group was tired of me talking about why grad school is a mistake ;) For me, grad school turned out not to be what it says on the tin. That is, I went (to two different Ph.D programs) thinking I was going to learn how to be a researcher. Instead, I found I was being evaluated on things that had nothing to do with ability to do research. My first program had a prelim that was basically filtering out anybody with any degree of impostor syndrome. My second program didn't want me there because I wouldn't tolerate sexual harassment (I wrote about that at length).

I also found that graduate programs -- compared to anyplace I've worked that wasn't a university -- are very unforgiving of, basically, any sign of humanity: chronic illness (regardless of whether it's coded as "physical" or "mental") that interferes with work or causes you to need extended time off. In my experience, if a company hires me, they value me and, all other things being equal, don't want to lose me. So they have a reason to accommodate me (not that companies are perfect about this, of course; the job I stayed at the longest, I left because my manager there made my disability the focus of my annual performance review). In a Ph.D program, though, you're disposable and interchangeable; you're paid very little, so in the same way you might throw away something cheap you bought at Target whereas if you invested in an expensive piece of furniture, you'd fix it, your department generally has no reason to keep you around when they see a way to replace you with somebody healthier.

Don't underestimate the effect of spending 5-6 years or more -- which are, for most other college-educated people, the very years they spend building their careers (often, the years when they can just focus on work and don't yet have a lot of family obligations) being severely underpaid. Of course, this is something that varies a lot by field, and if somebody is in (say) sociology I realize there aren't a surfeit of high-paying jobs outside academia. But for me (I'm in computer science), if I went back to grad school today, that would cut my pay to a sixth of what it is now. Even if you don't care about money (and I didn't think I did when I was starting grad school), it's easy to underestimate the psychological effects of being paid fairly vs. being grossly underpaid because your employer hopes you'll fall for the promise of jam tomorrow (that is, a tenure-track job, which in reality is all but unavailable anymore) and give them your labor for practically nothing now. It really changes the relationship between you and your employer when they're paying you enough that they value their investment in you and won't kick you out the door the first time you show you're human.

When you're considering opportunity costs, also make sure you understand the real costs of grad school. Obviously, don't go anywhere that won't pay your tuition in full and give you a stipend for living expenses. But also know what the cost of housing is where you're going to be going to school; whether you can afford to live near the university or whether you'll have to factor the costs of commuting in (both economic and psychological; having any length of commute to work is apparently a major cause of stress and unhappiness in people's lives); whether or not your program will cover your health insurance or will add insult to injury by claiming you're not an employee (at the university I left, I had to pay thousands of dollars a year out of pocket -- a huge percentage of my stipend -- because they deliberately hired research assistants at 0.45 FTE to avoid paying for benefits); and whether or not you'll have easy access to mental health resources (which some of the most stable and well-adjusted people I know needed after a couple years in grad school).

And then there's the question of what you're going to do afterward. I originally wanted to be a professor. After my second experience in grad school, I no longer did, because I didn't want to be like the professors in my department who defended a grad student who sexually harassed his colleague while blaming the victim. But even if that hadn't happened, I doubt I would ever have been able to find a tenure-track job; even though there are still some TT jobs in computer science (although they're disappearing like in every other field), they're reserved for only the people who scored highest in the privilege lottery and have a monomaniacal focus on work. One or the other (generally) doesn't cut it. In grad school, I never wanted to spend all my waking hours on research, which meant that if I'd graduated, I would have had at most 2 or 3 publications; when I read CVs for tenure-track faculty candidates who were coming to meet with grad students, they had as many as 20 publications straight out of grad school. I realized that I didn't like research enough to spend that much time on it, and in fact, I don't like *any* one thing enough to spend that much time on it. I'm passionate about more than one thing, and I'd even like to start a family sooner or later. I've talked to one too many people who had to choose between going hard for tenure and watching their children grow up, chose the former, and regretted it.

(edited to add:) If you already know you don't want to be a professor or work at a research lab, and you get a Ph.D, be prepared to have to remove it from your résumé to get a job; at least in computer science, a Ph.D actually lowers your expected salary compared to a master's. Be prepared to enter every job interview on your guard, explaining why you're not overqualified or why you won't be bored at a job that your interviewer is already assuming is "beneath you". (This is, at least, the experience of some of my friends with computer science Ph.Ds.) Some people describe a Ph.D as a "union card" to teach at a university -- if you already know that's not what you want to do, think especially hard about why you want to get one. At least in my field, everything else you can do along the way (teaching, learning, reading, writing) is work you can do outside a university -- often, as part of an industry job, while getting paid a lot more for it.

Now, just because grad school is essentially a huge scam that promises much in order to extract extremely cheap labor from grad students and make them feel like they're getting an education, that doesn't mean it isn't the right choice for some people. If you read all this and think "hmm, I really still want to go," then you should probably go. Some books you should read first, though:

Leaving the Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts: It's about why Ph.D students leave grad school (spoiler: the reason is usually structural in that a huge number of departments systematically identify a few favorites among each incoming cohort of Ph.D students and actively neglect the rest; but faculty take credit for their successful students while placing all the blame on the individuals who don't succeed).

Getting What You Came For, Robert Peters: very readable, and describes what you need to be doing to get through a Ph.D program. It won't help if your advisor is determined to defend sexual harassment, of course, but if you read this book and more-or-less do what it says I think that you'll avoid some of the major mistakes that are avoidable.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I wrote this comment on a LinkedIn forum thread a few weeks ago for alums of my undergrad school, and I wanted to save the comment somewhere less ephemeral. Most of it is replying to another comment that I won't quote directly since it was posted to a private forum, but it's from a faculty member who I respect very much.
I haven't read the blog post Daniel linked to yet, but I would suspect that the reasons based on humanities/social science apply to us as CS people more than you might think.

As far as [REDACTED]'s points: I don't know of any CS Ph.D programs that will put you into debt either... well, sort of. I went from having ~ $5000 in student loans post-Wellesley to having ~ $40000 in student loans after being a Ph.D student at Portland State for 4 years (and not graduating). Why? Because my grant didn't pay for health insurance, so I had to pay for that out-of-pocket (and the cost of student health insurance went up from about $1200/year to $4000/year over that four years). I had a lot of other expenses, mostly medical, that I couldn't pay for just out of my grad student stipend either. So while a CS Ph.D program may seem like it's not going to cost you anything, you also have to think about the opportunity cost of spending 4-10 years making $15K-$25K/year, most likely with no benefits (since RAs and TAs at many schools are hired at 0.45 FTE so the university won't have to give them benefits -- the exception is schools where RAs and TAs are unionized, which anyone looking to go to grad school should seek out). Especially for CS majors, those 4-10 years could be critical in your career -- people who don't go to grad school spend them developing and gaining experience that you're likely going to have to start over with anyway if/when you leave or graduate and can't or don't want to work in academia.

I agree that being your own boss is very appealing, and it's a big reason why i once wanted to be a professor. But it's not quite right to say that professors get to decide what they work on, and especially not grad students. Applying for grants limits what you can work on and also means you have to do a little or a lot of "spin" to make your work sound like something that will "help the war fight" (at least if you're applying for defense funding, which is what a lot of CS funding is). For some people, this may feel dishonest.

Teaching and mentoring are also appealing. There are many jobs that have mentoring as a component.

I think there should be more women in CS, but I also wouldn't want to make any individual woman deciding on a career feel like she *has* to do something that's difficult, costly (financially and emotionally), and will likely expose her to various kinds of harassment just to further the cause of equality. Ultimately, it's men's job to stop driving women out of CS.

In the end, I think if somebody reads all of this stuff and makes an informed decision that they still want to go to grad school, then they should go. That's why I went, two separate times! I won't exactly say that I wish I hadn't, but I also wonder how it could have been if I had spent those years working on projects with clear goals and expectations where I would have been compensated fairly.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the last part in a 4-part series on impostor syndrome. (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3)


At this point, I know someone will ask: "what could computer science departments do differently?" Well, more involved advising and mentoring would be a great start! That is, it isn't enough for an advisor to just say "come by if there's anything you need", because if you have impostor syndrome, you may not know what you need and you certainly won't want to admit that you need help. What if departments expected advisors to be ready to support all grad students, not just the ones who look exactly like themselves? This isn't to say that every faculty member can or should try to be an expert on every identity, but knowing what they do and don't know would be a start. Any outright acknowledgment of impostor syndrome would be a great start too. At Berkeley, there was nobody who stood up and said that most of the time when people look like they know what they're doing, they don't. I'm not sure I would have believed it even if they'd said it. Oh, sure, other people might be fumbling, but not as fumbling as me. We did have a required class on teaching techniques at Berkeley, since all grad students were required to TA for at least one semester -- in my head, I called the class "Geek Support Group", but it was actually really helpful because it was one time during the day when we got to put aside the pretense that we were all rational beings made of pure logic. So maybe a required class on how to be a grad student would have been helpful (required because I suspect the very people who needed it the most would have brushed it off if it was optional.)

Encouraging socialization in a way that includes everyone would also be helpful. Of course, most departments already have social events. In my department at Berkeley, when I was there, the CS grad students' group organized a weekly reception. However, faculty members rarely attended; the professor who I saw there most frequently seemed to stay just long enough to snag some free food. I was part of the CS grad students' group at Portland State, and over time, students stopped attending our events, even when we offered free food; it's not clear why. In contrast, in my ex-partner's department at Berkeley -- mathematics -- the department had a tea/coffee hour every afternoon, which a department assistant organized (the job wasn't pushed onto students) and was very well-attended by both students and faculty. Just having social events is not a be-all and end-all, since some students won't feel comfortable in large groups and some people always get left out, but it's a start. Of course, offering free food can help, and provides an excuse to go for someone who is reluctant to socialize.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the third post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1, Part 2). Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!


When a department admits students from "minority groups" but doesn't do anything to address impostor syndrome, how different is that from categorically rejecting everyone who isn't a het cis able-bodied white man from an middle- to upper-class background? This way, the administration gets to boost their diversity numbers and gets plausible deniability when those students (as it were) "self-deport". "We tried to admit women and students of color, but they just didn't like it here! They must just not be interested in science." As if interests are developed in social isolation and don't depend on a network of social support telling you -- implicitly, usually -- that you belong. It's not as if everyone who's in a minority group experiences impostor syndrome, but the experience of someone who gets treated like they belong and someone who doesn't is so different that I don't think it's too strong to say "you might as well just reject everyone". I also don't mean to say that diversity decisions always get made in bad faith, but I've had some personal experiences that make it difficult for me to believe that there is any genuine institutional commitment to diversity at the universities I've attended.

In my experience, it seems that being told you're welcome and that you belong is sort of like water if you're a fish: when you have it, you don't notice it. It's only when these things are absent that you do notice. I blamed myself for their absence, because that's what I've always been taught to do. I attributed my failure at Berkeley to my own incompetence, and it didn't occur to me until years later to think about how my environment contributed to my failure to thrive there. I got ignored. The other grad students in my group and cohort socialized with each other; I just got left out. Since I was being perceived as female at the time, I think this had something to do with the fact that I was perceived as not a peer (because I wasn't male) and not sexually available (since I was married) -- therefore, to most of my fellow students, I was useless.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the second post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1). I'll be posting one installment per day.

Berkeley 2001-2003

"it's cool to discover someone
it's hard to support them
everyone is playing life
like it's some stupid sport"
-- Ani DiFranco

As for most new Ph.D students in the US, my first year at Berkeley consisted mostly of coursework, and that was what I was used to, so for the most part it went smoothly. At the end of the year, it should have been a warning sign when nobody wanted to be my advisor. One professor I talked to -- the one I'd mentioned in my statement of purpose as who I wanted to work with, and who encouraged me to come to Berkeley when I visited during prospective student day -- said "no" outright, saying he wasn't interested in what I wanted to study (functional programming languages). Another one didn't say no, but had a reputation of being someone who didn't answer email; I was hoping for someone who actually seemed interested in having a student. I ruled out two more professors who seemed close to retirement, and one more because she did scientific computing and that pushed my "I went to a liberal arts school and don't know anything" buttons too much. I ended up with an advisor who told me he was willing to advise me, but given what I was interested in doing, he wasn't going to be very involved and he would basically just be there to sign paperwork. At the time, I thought that was fine. Remember, I didn't like talking to people. I thought I would just work on my own, and that would be easy. Easier than getting up the courage to talk to somebody, anyway.

Later on, I saw it as a personal mistake to have chosen this advisor rather than looking harder for a more involved advisor, or even changing research areas. But part of why I made that decision was structural. I was socially shut out, as I'll discuss, which meant that I wasn't getting any tacit knowledge that would have helped me understand that I did need an advisor who was involved. I know this is a structural factor and not a personal issue because Barbara Lovitts talks about it in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower. That is, she discovered that a major component of grad students' success or failure is the extent to which they can use informal social networks to attain the tacit knowledge that's essential to completing almost any graduate program; faculty and staff rarely communicate this knowledge to students in any systematic way. Official lists of graduation requirements stick to course requirements and the specifications for what constitutes a dissertation -- they don't talk about the unofficial things, like having an advisor you can work with (and who has time for you) and which advisors are likely to be compatible with which kinds of people. Thus, people who find themselves misfits and outsiders in the (figurative) lunchroom in any particular department tend to get pushed out, even if they're just as able as the insiders to complete the academic requirements.

So here's where my impostor syndrome really began. Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the first post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome. I'll be posting one installment per day.

"Compare the best of their days
With the worst of your days
You won't win..." -- Morrissey

I can't remember exactly when I first encountered the term "impostor syndrome", but I know I was less than ten years old at the time, and I know where I read about it: a book called The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide. I don't think it made much of a mark on me. And knowing what it was early on didn't stop me from developing it later.

This essay is about my experiences with impostor syndrome. One of the reasons why I want to talk about these experiences is that I had them while most people in the world were seeing me as female, though I'm not female. Sometimes people tell me that my experiences are un-representative (of, I guess, anyone except me), but I think they're wrong. My experiences represent those of one person who spent 26 years moving through the world while generally being perceived to be female, albeit (often) gender-non-conforming. I say this not to lay claim to any sort of female socialization, which I didn't have; or to deny that I have male privilege (and probably had some even before I knew I was male); but because if I can say something that helps people understand what cis and trans women, as well as many trans men and genderqueer people, face in trying to find a place for themselves in male-dominated spaces (which is to say, in the world), I want that message to be understood. At the same time, I'm speaking from my position as a white trans man who doesn't have visible disabilities, was raised lower-class, and has a graduate degree and works as a software engineer. I've had it harder than some people and easier than many others, if it even makes sense to compare.

Ideally, I would like to change how historically male-dominated institutions -- specifically in this essay, computer science graduate programs -- try to integrate and welcome women as full participants. While one little blog post can't change the world, it might show a few people that the situation isn't as simple as it may look, and that has ripple effects. So I'm simply going to recount my personal history as a non-traditional learner, then undergraduate, then graduate student at Berkeley, and wherever possible try to draw connections between my experiences and larger social structures. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember that when grad programs admit more women as students, it's not enough: to do so without extra attention to structural inequalities sets these students up for failure and actually reinforces sexism. I'll elaborate on that point in the rest of this essay.

Read more... )

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
"There’s a theme here: that silence and secrecy are the paramount values, and open discussion is to be avoided. It’s a basic function of institutions, but often of informal social networks as well, to protect the body from reputational damage. That’s what colleges do with rape: they use nondisclosure agreements so that whatever the result, nobody can talk about it. When I was in college and there was an accusation of a sexual assault on a woman I sort of knew, I got the account from her, and she said it happened and I believed her, so I told anyone who would listen about the perp. So the administration told me I’d be punished if I didn’t shut up. That’s how it happens. Not talking about it is rule #1."

-- Thomas MacAulay Millar, There’s A War On Part 3: A Fungus Among Us (TW for descriptions of rape and of personal and cultural abuse)

This makes me realize that when I was at Portland State and I ended up getting kicked out because I requested to not have to work with the guy I witnessed making a "joke" about raping another student, I didn't just get kicked out because the faculty didn't like having their authority questioned. It was also that if I had been granted that exemption (an exemption that was, of course, granted to every other graduate student -- nobody had to work with someone they didn't want to work with), I would have also talked about *why* that was. Especially if there were new students who were women, or who were non-heterosexual, or who were gender non-conforming, I would have told them that this guy was a creep, that he was still in the program, and that it's best to avoid him. And that would have undermined their confidence in the ability of the department and the university to create a safe working environment. So rather than addressing the problem and making the environment safer, the answer was to kick me out so I couldn't tell.

(It was Thomas Dubuisson, I have it on good authority that he's not sorry, and I hope he never works in a position where he'll have power over anybody.)

I am still assuming that universities, churches, and other social institutions have a purpose other than to shelter the abuse of vulnerable people... but I'm also still having a hard time seeing what it is, on a practical level. And I think the passage above points out how secrecy and silencing aren't to protect the victim's privacy, because the victim doesn't usually get asked for their say in the matter. No... it's to protect the institution so that the institution can keep on hosting abuse.


Oct. 2nd, 2011 02:38 pm
tim: 2x2 grid of four stylized icons: a bus, a light rail train, a car, and a bicycle (travel)
As I drive from your pearly gates
I realize that I just can't stay
All those mountains, they kept you locked inside
And hid the truth from my slighted eyes

I came to you with a half-open heart
Dreams upon my back, illusions of a brand-new start
Can't I carry the load
Is it my fault?
I can't reap what I sow
Did you give me half a chance?
With your Southern style and your hidden dance away
And you dance away and you dance away

All these voices, they whisper through my walls
They talk of falling fast, they say I'm losing it all
They say I'm running blind to a love of my own
But I'll be walking proud, I'm saving what I still own

I fell on my knees to kiss your land
But you are so far down, I can't even see to stand
You forgot the human race
You see with half a mind
What colors hide the face
I'd like to know your fate
I'd like to stay awhile
but I've seen your lowered state today
I've seen it today, honey
I swear I've seen it today

Now I'm leaving, I got all these debts to pay
You know we all have our dues, I'll pay 'em some other place
I never ask that you pay me back
We all arrive with more
I left with less than I had

Your town is made for people passing through
A last chance for a cause I thought I knew
Tell me what you are gonna do
With all your Southern style, it'll never pull you through
I can't place no blame
But if you forget my face
I'll never call your name again
No, never again
Oh, never again

I fell on my knees to kiss your land
But you were so far down and I can't even see to stand
You forgot the human race
You see with half a mind
What colors hide the face
I'd like to know your fate
I'd like to stay a while
But I've seen your lowered state today
I've seen 'em today, honey I swear I've seen 'em today
I'm running away, I'm running away
I'm running, I'm running, I'm running away

-- Amy Ray
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
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


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.

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Part 1

Part 2

"There's a difference between blaming the community and not the attacker, and holding the community accountable for enabling the attacker to be there."

-- "I Wish I Could Safeword Rape Culture"

I'm not returning to grad school this fall. This would have been my fifth year in the Ph.D program in the Computer Science department at Portland State University. I've been employed by the university as a research assistant for all four years (which means getting paid for the work you would do as a grad student anyway). I passed my Research Proficiency Exam two years ago and was second author on a conference paper a year ago. If I were returning, I would probably be defending my dissertation proposal sometime before the end of 2011, and assuming that my committee didn't see any major flaws in my plan, then I would achieve all-but-dissertation (ABD) status. But now that's not going to happen. I've written to the Office of Graduate Studies to request a leave of absence, and I already have the approval of the chair of the Computer Science department. With that said, I don't know if I'll be returning when that leave of absence is over. For me to return, some serious problems will have to be addressed, and honestly, I don't see anyone who has both the power to address them and the desire to do so.

I don't feel like returning was a serious option for me. On August 12, my advisor told me that if I returned, I would have to fulfill a set of conditions that would make it impossible for me to do my job. I can't fulfill these conditions because to do so, I would have to spend so much of my time doing emotional labor to compensate for others' lazy, self-serving attitudes, I wouldn't have any time left to do research. He then closed the letter by saying he hoped I would be able to finish my Ph.D. So I have to assume that his intentions were good -- see, there's that word again! -- but that doesn't really help me. In fact, that makes it harder, because when I know someone hates me, I know where I stand. On the other hand, if I have to untangle a mixture of malice, fear and laziness, well, it's just yet more unpaid work for me.

But let me explain.

On February 8, I witnessed Thomas Dubuisson, another grad student in my department, make a sexual advance towards a third student in our group, "Alice", in our grad student office. ("Alice" is a pseudonym. Yes, I'm withholding the victim's name but not the aggressor's name, which seems fair, since the victim got victimized whereas the aggressor didn't. What also needs to be said -- because it's relevant to the story -- is that Alice prefers gender-neutral pronouns now, so I'll use those pronouns to refer to them. However, at the time when the incident happened, they were identifying as a woman and had requested that feminine pronouns be used to refer to them. This was nine months after Alice came out to the department as trans and publicly announced their preference for a chosen name and for feminine pronouns.) The advance was unwelcome because both Thomas and Alice were and are married; while there is certainly space in this culture for dating a person who is married to someone else, it's best dealt with delicately and not in a workplace. By the "reasonable woman" standard used in sexual harassment law, Thomas's remarks qualify as something that a reasonable woman would find unacceptable. I think so, Alice thinks so, at least one independent expert thinks so. So let me be absolutely clear: Alice should not have been expected to say, pre-emptively, "I don't want you to make a sexual advance towards me at work." Thomas should have known that it would be wrong.

This incident followed a series of inappropriate remarks by Thomas -- mostly directed at Alice -- that began even before Alice came out as a trans woman, but escalated after that happened. While I also don't enjoy being told (during lunch at work) that I'm not normal because I'm not heterosexual, the incident of February 8 was the most blatantly inappropriate one that I witnessed. I'm going to be very clear here and say that I didn't even respond appropriately myself at first. But, after talking with Alice, and upon more reflection, I slowly realized what had really happened. In the only conversation that Thomas and I had about it, Thomas told me "I just thought it was funny." This is another example of disparate expectations for emotional work: in-group members are allowed to excuse any of their behavior under the umbrella of "humor", whereas if out-group members don't find jokes at their own expense to be funny, they need to "get a sense of humor". They need to do the work to improve their senses of humor (that is, to learn to treat themselves as worthless except as fodder for the meanest, most mocking sort of putative humor -- actually, that's one of the things marginalized people often least need to work at).

Now, I hope it should be obvious to you that an unwelcome sexual advance doesn't become acceptable in a workplace if you say it was just a joke. In general, you can't say something completely wrong and unacceptable and justify it with "I was only joking". Right?


Just in case it isn't, let's review some basic feminism. (People who have taken Feminism 101 or done equivalent independent study can probably skip the next paragraph or two.) Sexual harassment is frequently misunderstood because people think it's about sex, or about being offensive or crass, or about hormone-crazed men (trans men are always absent from the picture, of course) who can't control their behavior. In reality, sexual harassment is just a form of bullying for people who've gotten tired of sticking gum in the other kids' hair. Sex has very little to do with it -- it just so happens that using sexual references or behavior to reduce a woman to the status of a sexual object is a pretty effective way for a man to bully a woman. It's about putting an uppity woman in her place (reminding her that women are good for sex, and nothing more, and if you're good for sex, you can't be good at anything else); it's also a threat. I think anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes being perceived as a girl or woman over the age of 11 understands that "I want to fuck you" turns into "I'm going to fuck you" pretty quickly, and from there the jump to "whether you like it or not" can happen in no time. Many women are never raped, most women who are raped experience it only a handful of times, but in a sense it doesn't matter because the threats are constant, and women are trained to live in a state of hypervigilance of these threats. (Again, it doesn't really matter whether you were socialized "as a girl", or "as a boy", whatever that means; if you know you're female, you know these messages are addressed to you. And if you're a man or a genderqueer person who doesn't identify as male or female, but people regularly see you as a woman, you know these messages are addressed to you, too.) This is called "rape culture", and it's a labor-saving device for men who need to show that they have power over women. They can simultaneously avoid actually raping (usually), while accomplishing much of the work that rape does (keeping women in a state of fear), by stopping at "I want to fuck you" or at comments, looks or gestures that communicate that message.

Now, when someone who's socially recognized as a trans woman is involved, what happens is an intersectional cluster-you-know-what, because to the extent that a person is seen as a woman, that triggers rape culture; to the extent that they're also seen as trans, that triggers discomfort and desire to intimidate, especially on the part of heterosexual men who feel threatened by the presence of someone who they find attractive, but who they also believe is pre-equipped with a penis. For guys with a heteronormative, cisnormative worldview, what that often turns into is intense desire to get them out of the way -- sometimes through intimidation, sometimes through less pleasant tactics. Finally, popular culture -- when it represents trans women at all -- represents them as sex workers, porn stars, or in other roles where they are seen as purely sexual objects. Even more so than for a cis woman, bringing up a trans woman's presumed sexual receptivity is a way of telling her she doesn't belong here (whether "here" is at work, at school, in church, or so on).

(I am, by the way, not particularly interested in debating those last two paragraphs. If you're tempted to argue with those particular points, please familiarize yourself with the last half-century of thought within various schools of feminism, and then we'll talk. To quote Chungyen Chang again: "if you don't know... then you've chosen not to". If you chose not to because you found other things more interesting or because you think violence against women doesn't affect your life, then that's still a choice.)

Furthermore, faculty members later told me things like: "he's just clueless, he didn't know how to act around a trans person, he was confused and had never dealt with someone who was transitioning before." Well, let's think about some of the things that bullies do:

  • They wait to do their bullying until no authority figures are present; when authority figures are around, they can behave like perfect gentlemen. (They know how to behave appropriately, in other words -- they just choose not to do so when they're not being watched.)
  • They choose a target who's terrified of complaining to authority figures, and is unlikely to let anyone know what's being done to them.
  • They choose both the target, and any witnesses, from politically marginalized groups (like women and trans people), so that if the target and witnesses complain, their stories won't be believed.
  • They exploit people's triggers.
So no, I don't think Thomas's behavior was clueless: I think his behavior shows that he's a skilled bully, and possibly an experienced one. Explaining it away isn't acceptable.

You might also say that two grad students are equals, so it's not possible for one of them to sexually harass another. I think the ending of this story shows how false that is: two people might have equal occupational rank, but if one of them is a member of social groups that everyone in charge is inclined to identify with, and the other is in groups whose members are widely considered to be subhuman and undeserving of empathy, there's a power imbalance. There's also a power imbalance insofar as we're all -- even, especially those of us who grow up gender-variant -- taught to consider gender and sexual minority members to be undeserving of empathy. We learn to do it so well that we do it without even thinking about it. And that's another reason why intent doesn't matter. To paraphrase Samuel Delany, there's no need for anyone to make a transphobic decision; all the transphobic decisions have already been made, and all it takes to perpetuate them is to do nothing.

Accordingly, I would also think that if a grad student feels it's appropriate to bully another student in this way, he did not come up with this idea in a vacuum. If somebody thinks that it's appropriate to act this way in a workplace, and that they can get away with it and keep their job, that has to be a problem with the environment. Ph.D students are supposed to be intelligent, mature people. This isn't grade school. People only do things like what Thomas did if they think there will be no consequences for themselves.

And... it turns out he was right. There were no significant consequences.

Alice took an immediate leave of absence, beginning a couple days after the 8th of February. They were on leave for the Spring term and missed the once-a-year opportunity to take the RPE, which Ph.D students at PSU take in their second year. As a result, they will be a year behind other students who started at the same time. Thomas was not required to take time off. He took the RPE. He was able to make academic progress. He didn't even have to have his working relationship with his academic supervisor disrupted. As far as I'm aware, the only consequence to Thomas was that he was asked not to approach Alice again or talk to them at all, about anything, even work. (I've been told that for privacy reasons, I can't be told all of the details of what action was taken. I can only conclude from this that nothing was done, except for the one request that I know about. I wish I could have been excluded from the events of February 8 in order to protect myself and my privacy -- not to mention my emotional health -- but since that didn't happen, it doesn't seem fair to me to not know what kind of justice, if any, was done to the person who did the harm.) Thomas ignored this request, and as far as I know, no consequences arose from his violation of the request. The only thing that's different in the department now is that I won't be in it.

Part 3

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".

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)


I haven't been posting much in the past few months. My time has been occupied being angrier than I've ever been before in my life. Besides the minimal energy I've been able to spare to do my paying job, most if not all of my intellectual energy has gone into composing (in my head) what you're about to read. I haven't worked on my dissertation or read research papers, much less worked on any hobbies. I haven't worked on any open-source projects for the fun of it (besides the one I'm getting paid to work on). This has been it.

Part 1

"I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action."

-- Audre Lorde

Today is Labor Day in the US. I want to write about the emotional labor that I have to do just to do the usual things people do -- have a job, have friends, study -- and be a trans person. When I say I'm trans, it means -- for the purposes of this discussion -- that people don't, universally, recognize my sex and gender as valid. And the more power someone has, at least in the place and time where I live, the less they tend to recognize my sex and gender as valid. The number of fucks I would ordinarily give about this approaches zero asymptotically, but unfortunately, when people have power over you, you have to care what they think. Because what they think affects what they do, and what they do affects things like whether you can get a job, board a plane, or walk down the street without getting assaulted. Caring about they think is emotional labor, too, and it's unpaid labor.

So call today Emotional Labor Day, and let's talk about how, at work, some people can simply do the job they're supposedly being paid for and be accepted, validated and recognized for their achievements; others of us have to do just as well at the job (better, usually, in fact) -- and do a litany of emotional tasks. We don't get paid overtime. (I originally learned the concepts of "emotional labor" and "emotional work" from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis. Sometimes "labor" gets used to refer to the stuff that has economic value attached, like smiling and saying "have a nice day" when you're a cashier at Starbucks, and "work" gets used to refer to the stuff that doesn't, like pretending to be interested in "Star Wars" because your significant other loves it. As I hope I'm about to show, though, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.)

As a trans person, as a queer person, as a -- to use an umbrella term that's less offensive than some such terms, gender and sexual minority group (GSM) member -- part of the emotional work I get asked to do involves assuming good intent. It happens all the time. Someone does, or says something hurtful, and maybe one out of twenty times when it happens, I say something about it. Like "that was hurtful to people like me." Like "don't do it next time." (The other nineteen times out of twenty, I silently rage while convincing myself that saying something would cost energy I can't afford to spend. That's emotional work, too.) Almost all the time, the answer is "well, I didn't intend any harm." The person being critiqued seems unconcerned as to my intent, which is to educate them so they can learn. So really, when they say that it's the intention behind your actions, and not your actions, that matters, they actually mean to apply such a rule selectively. They really mean that privileged people -- people who are white, or who are affluent, or who are men, or who are cisgender, or who have cissexual bodies, or who are heterosexual, or who are able-bodied, or preferably all of the above, get a free pass to do or say anything oppressive, and get out of it because their intent was good. Having meant well is the excuse that becomes the reason not to take criticism, not to listen, not to apologize, not to do better next time.

The tyranny of good intentions really has very little to do with intentions (rarely are people consciously aware of their intentions), but it has a lot to do with power. Specifically, it has to do with the power to make other people do your emotional work for you. When someone tells you, "It invalidates me when you say that trans men were born female but became male" (example taken from an actual recent Twitter conversation; my take on the foundation behind this), and you say you were only trying to be helpful, you are dodging the emotional work of having to admit you made a mistake, having to admit that you don't know everything. You are shifting the work onto the other party -- the person who got hurt. You are asking them to suspend their disbelief and assume that you meant well, even though you didn't do the work of showing that you meant well. You are also shaming the other person for lashing out against a person who is -- the magical silencing word -- an ally.

And you are discouraging them from speaking out next time. If telling someone "You hurt me" gets met with "fuck you, I was trying to help but because you were so rude to me, I'm going to hurt you worse now", well, as a defense mechanism, next time you're probably just going to suffer in silence. This is the point that [personal profile] lightgetsin made recently about asking web site owners to make their sites accessible. It's a double bind: if you complain, you get shamed for complaining. If you say nothing, privileged people complain that they don't know how to respect people in minority groups because those people don't speak up enough about oppression.

Power can impose double binds. And the kind of power I'm talking about -- the kind that involves using language to control reality rather than using outright physical violence -- is very effective. When you've been taught to defer to people whose identities are more socially valued than yours is, you tend to internalize that education. You accord the benefit of the doubt. You learn to suppress your pain in favor of considering how painful it must be to be criticized for using a slur.

If I'm to be charitable (see, there I am again, being a good little marginalized person and doing the privileged people's work for them!), I could assume that this phenomenon doesn't just occur because privileged folks are lazy motherfuckers. I could think about how difficult it can be to be told that something you were doing without really thinking it was hurting somebody.

But I don't really know why it would be in my interests to be charitable towards people who already have more privilege than me. I doubt anyone always likes being told they're wrong, but in a situation where I'm on the low end of the power scale (and power and privilege are always relative), what seems to happen more often than not -- even after years of raising my own consciousness -- is that I get recruited into doing the high-privilege person's work for them. I remain silent. I ignore opportunities to call someone out on using language that reinforces and reconstructs systems of oppression and hierarchies of value. Because what I've been taught my entire life is that whatever job I'm being paid to do, I'm always expected to do the work of helping the privileged people around me maintain their self-image. Usually, that self-image involves thinking of oneself as a nice progressive person who's an ally to all members of disenfranchised groups. One of the privileges a person has, then, if they occupy a coveted position in the network of social hierarchies, is low-cost narcissism. If you're poor, or a person of color, or disabled, or a GSM member, you're not going to get self-esteem for free. It's going to involve actually doing good things -- and not doing bad ones -- in order to get people around you to validate you. (And even then, they might not.) But privileged people can maintain narcissism for a low, low price -- all they have to do, instead of doing good deeds, is say those magic words "I meant well", and an entire class of people will sing "Yes, sir, you did" like a chorus. Because they've been taught to work for free, and because they know that the price of demanding reciprocity is social banishment. Or else the price is the deployment of the dreaded tone argument, which is how the privileged person gets to resist the odd bit of criticism that makes it past the "good intentions" filter: they say you're being rude and angry, which gives them a license to keep hurting you as much as they want.

In the words of Chungyen Chang: willful ignorance is just as bad as action with intent. (Add emphasis on "willful"; I understand the word to mean not just ignorance through intentional -- see what I did there? -- aversion to learning, but self-serving passive ignorance as well. In other words, if you're unaware of a truth that would be inconvenient to you, you might be willfully ignorant.)

(If you haven't read "Intent! It's Fucking Magic!" already, go read it now. I'll wait.)

Part 2 | Part 3

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".

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
"There's a difference between blaming the community and not the attacker, and holding the community accountable for enabling the attacker to be there."

-- "I Wish I Could Safeword Rape Culture"
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
How To Fail Out Of Grad School Without Really Trying

by Tim, Aged 29 3/4 (10th-year grad student if you count the time since I started my first Ph.D, which I don't)

There's a saying that you should never take advice from the survivors, and I felt that way reading this list of reasons Ph.D students fail. If I interpret this article as advice, it's good advice. But if I interpret it as a compendium of reasons why students fail, it doesn't really capture my experience or that of other people I know who left grad school. One reason why is that the author attributes failure only to individual students, ignoring the important role that unsupportive faculty members and indifferent institutions can play in encouraging failure. As Barbara Lovitts shows in her book _Leaving the Ivory Tower_, there are disciplinary and institutional patterns to grad student attrition, suggesting structural reasons for why Ph.D students fail that cannot be reduced to random individual variations in character.

I thought it might be interesting for a person who has failed a Ph.D -- namely, moi -- to compile a list of reasons why people in general might do the same. If you're also excellent at failure, feel free to contribute your own reasons too.

Most of the reasons on this list are probably specific to grad school in science, math, or engineering, just so you know.

  1. Be a member of a minority group that's underrepresented among faculty in your department.

    For maximal effectiveness, be a woman in a math or hard science field. In fact, you don't actually have to be a woman -- you just have to be perceived as one. When failure is your goal, being a woman has many advantages. Male grad students will either spend all their time hitting on you if you're single -- thus sapping the energy you need to save for reading papers and waiting in line at the bursar's office -- or ignore you totally if you're in a relationship, thus denying you the social support you need to survive emotionally and gain tacit knowledge about your program. Male professors will pay less attention to you and decline to take an active role in making sure you're getting what you need in order to progress -- and good luck finding any female professors. The little signs you're not really welcome are what clinches it, like faculty members who won't close their office doors to block out the corridor noise because they see you as a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen rather than as a person.

    I've heard that being a person of color -- in some fields, specifically being a person of color who was born and raised within the country you're attending school in -- also helps, but I have less experience with that; I also can't speak to the experiences of my fellow grad students who were domestic-born people of color, because there weren't any.

    This is a particularly useful item because graduate programs need to boost their admissions numbers for people in underrepresented minorities, but don't always need to boost their retention rates similarly. So they have a strong incentive to admit members of minority groups and then just not bother to support them. Everybody wins! At failure, that is.

  2. Attend the wrong undergraduate institution

    Who knew that you could potentially determine your own success in grad school at age 17 when you decide which undergrad institutions to apply to? Everyone loves to talk about well-roundedness, but if you don't attend an undergrad school that made sure you did 85% of your coursework in your major subject (and the rest in math), expect to spend all of your energy just catching up with the other kids. Nothing says that failure is on its way like being a grad student having to take an undergrad class where you get warned about how simply being absent for the final exam will not ensure that you will receive an F in the class. So don't go to a liberal arts college unless you want to get a Ph.D in half-caf venti soy lattes.

  3. Attend the wrong graduate institution.

    For best results, pick your graduate program based on: location; weather; proximity to a school that your significant other(s) is/are attending; proximity to family; progressive political environment; likelihood that you will be beaten in exchange for walking down the street; overall institutional prestige; overall departmental prestige; or simply "it was the best school that I got into." Best results if you want to fail, that is. A school that has faculty who will commit to your success if you're admitted, and who share research interests with you, is far less likely to set you up for failure than is an on-paper prestigious school where the prevailing attitude is that students are so lucky to be admitted that they would be wrong to ask for any support after that point (sort of like the theory of human life that says it ends at birth). But who tells that to undergrads?

  4. Have social anxiety

    It doesn't really matter whether your social anxiety is clinically diagnosed; all that matters is whether you have deep-seated issues that stop you from attending faculty office hours, choosing to do class projects as a group with other students rather than individually, and talking to your advisor other than when it's time to fill out the once-a-term paperwork. It's easy to be fooled into thinking that just because you can graduate from a very good undergraduate institution with a good academic record, and be accepted to numerous graduate programs, without learning how to seek out help when you need it, that you can get through a Ph.D program that way as well. It's so easy that you just might fail based on that quality alone! A related characteristic is love for working on your own, which is generally just another shape that fear of working with others takes. You might be able to pull this off if you're a genius, but let's face it, if you were one, you probably wouldn't go to grad school.

  5. Pick the wrong advisor

    Choosing an advisor is sort of like proposing to a potential spouse, or at least that's what my first grad school advisor told me back when I was a newly married first-year grad student. Eight years later, I'm divorced and attending a different grad school. What was pertinent about the advice is that in both personal and professional relationships, the opposite of love is indifference. Picking an advisor who says they'll let you do whatever you want but they won't think about it in their spare time, and will serve merely to sign your paperwork, may seem like a great idea at the time, and it is -- if you want to fail. Of course, in this case, it takes two to fail. Advisors are supposed to advise; to learn how to be a researcher, you need to be able to observe people who already know how to do it. These people don't have to be your advisor, but if you're the sort of person who picks an advisor you don't have to talk to and doesn't talk to anyone you aren't being forced to talk to, you're in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane on the freeway to failure.

  6. Attend a school that doesn't evaluate Ph.D students on research ability

    Ph.D programs are meant to prepare you to do research, so some schools evaluate your research when deciding whether to let you make progress towards the degree. Other schools do things like distributing a list of 50 papers in your subdiscipline and doing a closed-door oral exam on any papers that are either on or not on the list. It's an excellent way to fail if your aptitude for original research exceeds your ability to stay poised and understand spoken information without succumbing to anxiety, or if somebody just doesn't want you around. Being a member of a minority group can also help, since it's likely to mean that you haven't learned the aggressive communication style that benefits takers of such exams. For extra failure points, attend a school where if you fail the aforementioned exams, faculty will tell you that you shouldn't even bother applying to other schools, because if you were smart enough to get a Ph.D, you wouldn't have failed. A lucky grad student who aspires to fail will find themself a student in a program that prioritizes ability to pass specific kinds of tests over motivation to succeed at research -- tests that they happen to be bad at, of course.

  7. Lack both confidence in yourself, and the confidence needed to seek out support from others

    This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you never really believed you were smart enough to finish grad school in the first place, and you're in the categories mentioned above that make it unlikely that anybody will bother to tell you otherwise, failure is more or less a given. You don't *have* to be a member of an underrepresented minority for this one to apply to you, but it sure does help. This ties in with most of the other items on the list too, since if you pick the right school, you'll be studiously ignored as long as you don't arrive already in possession of all the preparation and confidence you need. If your lack of confidence extends far enough to stop you from admitting to other people -- even other students -- that you don't know everything, that's even better, because tacit knowledge of the sort that can only be learned from other grad students in your program is essential to learning the unofficial rules you have to follow in order to make progress, and if you're afraid to talk to them, that's all for the better!

  8. Have a personal life

    If you don't know how to have a personal life, then congratulations, you will probably succeed in grad school. But if you need ideas, consider being married or otherwise being in one or more committed relationships -- spouses are likely to finish sooner than later than you are, interfering with the absolute mobility that's necessary to finish your degree on schedule and cope with institution-hopping advisors, as well as providing a tempting alternative to departmental socializing. Another effective tactic is developing a chronic illness. Sleeping through lectures not only prevents you from absorbing the material therein -- it's demoralizing and makes you question your own ability to ever learn anything. For bonus points, develop an illness that everyone else will believe is fake, suggesting you're just a lazy malingerer -- anything that's generally categorized as a "mental illness" is a good bet. The great thing about getting sick is that even though many chronic illnesses can be treated with medication that allows you to function like a normal person (or at least one who can stay awake long enough to read a paper abstract), there's no cure for being blacklisted due to your consolation master's degree.

  9. Have an external fellowship

    You'd think that free money for doing nothing -- excuse me, I meant doing whatever you feel is necessary to further your own education -- would be a good thing. It is, if you want to fail. Being employed as a research assistant for a specific professor or research group integrates you socially and binds you to a commitment to deliver a particular kind of results -- a commitment that motivates you to finish your task by any means necessary, including collaborating with others. Having a fellowship empowers you to fuck around for almost three years and never get called on your shit. This is great if you came into grad school knowing exactly what your research agenda is and what you need to do to carry it out, but let's face it, if you were that smart, you would probably start a company or something instead.

    (Note: This is actually true; Lovitts's book presents evidence.)

  10. Be too accustomed to success

    Sounds paradoxical, right? The only way to avoid failure is to have failed before. If your academic life until grad school has been a series of unqualified successes, if you graduated cum laude without much effort and wrote most of your papers in a single Earl-Grey-tea-fueled night, you're a great candidate to fail out of a Ph.D program. If on the other hand you've tried to learn material that didn't come easily for you and eventually succeeded, if you've been in situations where you could not succeed without learning how to ask other people for what you need, and you've occasionally gotten less than a C on an exam, you might just end up with the patience to keep trying even when your experiment or code or proof doesn't work the first time. And then, you might just not fail.

    But wouldn't that be boring?

tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
The International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP 2010) program
committee is delighted to inform you that your paper #64 has been accepted
to appear in the conference.

Title: A Certified Framework for Compiling and Executing
Garbage-Collected Languages
Authors: Andrew McCreight (Portland State University)
Tim Chevalier (Portland State University)
Andrew Tolmach (Portland State University)

Uh, so, yeah. We're going to Baltimore!!!!111 And for those who didn't know, this is my first academic publication, ten years after attending my first ICFP and nine years after entering grad school for the first time.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I've been reading (or re-reading) various examples of the genre of Grad Student Self-Help Books. (You'd think such books would be very short and consist of "don't be a grad student".)

"Tattoo this list somewhere you won't forget to look. (1) Publish academic papers. (2) Go to conferences. (3) Get on committees. If you dive into the administrative pool, you can swim around with your professors and get to know them on a collegial level (a cynical colleague refers to this as 'amplexus,' which is the mating embrace of frogs."

-- Robert L. Peters, _Getting What You Came For_
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
As of yesterday, I have been a graduate student at Portland State for longer than I was a graduate student at Berkeley.

That also means that I've been at Portland State longer than I've had any other job.

Shooting for thesis proposal by my 30th birthday (December 2010) and graduating in 2012, btw.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

September 2016

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