Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor

23 Aug

Guest post by Drew Daniel

When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley in the late 90s, S.R. Bindler’s documentary “Hands on A Hard Body” came out. The film is a gripping representation of a Texas truck dealership’s gimmicky promotional giveaway. Sternly coached and heartily cheered on by their supporters, twenty four contestants have to remain awake and standing as they keep touching a truck for as long as possible. With only brief bathroom breaks to relieve the mounting exhaustion, the person who can hold their position the longest gets to keep the truck. At the time of its release, as I squirmed and fretted through my PhD, the film struck me as a perfect analogical depiction of the competitive space of graduate school in the humanities generally, and the dissertation writing process in particular. As I saw it in the darkest hours of my most sleep deprived and over-caffeinated states of despair, grad school was about prolonged and labor-intensive suffering, a slowburn of masochistic commitment to a dubious ideal. More than a little quixotic and doomed given the actual job market that awaited, the squabble to secure the most prestigious graduate advisor and the race to write something that pleased their inscrutable whims was a humiliating competition for a scarce resource in which you sacrificed personal dignity as, year after year after year, you had to just keep on standing there, desiring and hoping, your fingers grazing the surface of something that might one day be yours, but probably wouldn’t be: an academic career.

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Movie still from the film, Hands on a Hard Body

Luck and fate have pried the hold of this analogy loose from me. Contrary to expectations and thanks to a lot of help and support from advisors who proved to be deeply sympathetic and generous people, I actually finished my dissertation, got a job, turned the dissertation into a book, and got tenure. In retrospect, my comparison of grad school to this degrading and grubby competition now strikes me as a bit too much. But I also know exactly how horribly smug my Pollyanna litany may well sound to the ears of people who are struggling to keep it together in grad programs right now, let alone to those working as adjuncts on the other side of filing. Besides, it’s a strained comparison at best: grad school is more like a shop class in which everyone makes their own car and some people’s cars have square wheels and some cars explode and other people realize cars are bad for the planet and ride away on a bicycle, etc.

However infelicitous it may be as a analogy, the stark vision of Bindler’s film has been on my mind as the Avital Ronell case materials have circulated and plunged much of the academic blogosphere into a nonstop reconsideration of the hothouse climate of need, competition, and yes, exploitation and abuse, in which graduate students continue to work and struggle to hold on at present. The Ronell case has attracted all sorts of responses: think pieces, petitions, diatribes, disclosures, jeremiads, apologies, critiques of the apologies, tweets and counter-tweets. Some strike me as smart and thoughtful, some seem opportunistic or inane. Given the seriousness of the charges, the heat is understandable, but in the process, something mundane but enduring has been largely fogged over: the actual everyday emotional and scholarly labor of graduate advising itself.

But before I say anything further about that labor, let me say this loud and long and clear: abuse of advisees is never okay. We can attend to structural questions, neoliberal procedural takeovers and note ongoing cultural surrounds of queer panic and misogyny and, while doing all that, we can still hold living breathing individual people accountable for their actions. So, once more, with feeling: abuse of advisees is never okay. Department chairs and colleagues need to create channels of communication with grad students so that individual faculty members who abuse their power, influence and privileges face consequences. The forms that accountability can take are sure to be messy and complex and the outcomes may well remain arguable, but it’s clear that without such structures in place things have been going very wrong, and will continue to do so until departments change.

Let’s start with another almost-truism: Every professor was once a grad student. This isn’t always true (consider art schools and MFA programs) and it may not remain true in the future, but for now, it is a reasonably consistent institutional norm. Ph.D. Programs that teach people how to get Ph.D.s are staffed by people who once needed to learn how to complete a Ph.D. Accordingly, professors need to remember how it felt to be a grad student, and should draw upon those memories as they work closely with people who are younger, less powerful, and more vulnerable than they are.

Fear and anxiety are the grounding affective conditions in academia because academia is a competitive workplace under capitalism. That’s the “Hands on A Hard Body” scenario: there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and everyone knows it, and whatever solidarity and emotional bonds academia affords must be fashioned in the shadow of that fact. Part of the task of graduate advising against that backdrop is figuring out how to modulate anxiety and live within a draining emotional ecosystem in a humane and productive way. In a best-case scenario, the omnipresent fear that one isn’t “good enough / smart enough” gets sublimated and you write your way through and out of that fear into something more personal and rewarding and particular. The nightmare obverse is that an emotionally manipulative faculty member exploits ambient unhappiness to serve their own selfish ends.

In my first few years of grad school, I took several courses with a distinguished faculty member only to gradually realize that I could not trust that person. While they were never sexually assertive towards me, they seemed cruel, vindictive, likely to demand a narrow sort of obedience, prone to lashing out when challenged. I had the luxury of being in a large department with other faculty members in my area of study and just worked with someone else. But I have never forgotten that experience of having to delicately extricate myself from a powerful person’s orbit of influence at a vulnerable point in my scholarly development. It was a close call.

Graduate advising is intimate and intense. You are forging a bond with someone that lasts for many, many years and has affective highs and lows. Over time, you learn to ride out both the emotional peaks and the depressive troughs. It is a partnership but it is also structurally, fundamentally unequal. One of you is learning how to do something; one of you is advising the other on how to do that thing based on prior experience and presumed expertise. Both parties are catalyzed by the changes taking place in a piece of grad student writing as it emerges in an intersubjective space between unequal collaborators. The advisor must help the grad student bring something new into the world which is the student’s own and which the advisor does not themselves already completely understand.

This is why even a purely scholarly interaction about what is and is not working in a given piece of writing can overheat quickly. Complaints about clarity and structure or criteria of evidence can be par-for-the-course professionalization intended to polish someone for the job market, but they can also impede breakthroughs and stifle creativity. To sing it in the key of Eve Sedgwick, “People are different from each other.” Feedback that is challenging but workable for one person may be crushing for another. What inspires one advisee may repel another. Mutatis mutandis, what bores one advisor may scintillate another. What looks publishable to one pair of eyes may appear deeply unsound to another. It’s complicated.

By divergent means, either party can sabotage the relationship. If a student doesn’t write or stops caring about what they write, the relationship fails. But if the advisor destroys the student’s trust and self-esteem by savaging that writing without holding out hope for improvement, the relationship also fails. There has to be something at stake for both parties, something in the other that appeals and solicits care and investment, some charge or cathexis. While this may not work for some people, in my opinion an advisor needs to be just scary enough to inspire you to write, but not so scary that the relationship becomes sadistic or harmful. Orthogonal to the “good enough” mother in Winnicott, the “scary enough” advisor frames expectations and provides stability without being draconian. Trust is essential, and it’s up to faculty to signal that they can handle pushback without becoming vengeful.

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Describing the perfect student-advisor relationship can verge upon an imaginary recipe for Goldilock’s porridge: too much autonomy and you feel ignored; too little autonomy and you feel suffocated. You need to check in with each other about where things stand: not so frequently that it’s oppressive, but not so rarely that it comes off as neglect or disinterest. When it works well, there’s a cumulative richness to what becomes a particularly luminous and inter-animating mentorship, and someone who starts as your student or teacher becomes, upon the filing of the dissertation and the dust settling after the defense, your friend. When it goes badly—well, you’ve now probably read the transcripts and briefs and press releases.

Ideally, the advisor is there to assist in their own critical supersession. My dissertation advisor Janet Adelman said that her goal as a teacher was to “disappear.” That is, a good advisor offers honesty and support, but also lets the student proceed beyond their reach to somewhere fundamentally unforeseen and new. What is a learning experience for the advisor can become a nightmarish dead-end—or worse– for a student who becomes a target for recrimination in a bleak job market. The essential inequality means that the advisee is more vulnerable and more exposed than the advisor to harm because of the institutional force conferred by their respective roles, the power difference at the core of academia as an institution. It’s a balancing act on a seesaw poised near an abyss.

Advising should be intellectually invigorating, but it can also be emotionally volatile. Janet was very supportive of me but also very hard on my writing when she felt it wasn’t clear or well-organized. She made me re-write one chapter five times, and I essentially spent an entire year on a single chapter. These were the bad/good old days when people could dawdle and take a decade to finish their Ph.D. if necessary, and as she herself joked to me as the demands for adjustments came neck-and-neck with praise and celebration, it was not for nothing that she was the author of a book titled “Suffocating Mothers.” Janet could be extremely tough in the margins of my chapters, but I also knew that she truly believed in my potential and wanted me to succeed. The same is true for Richard Halpern, my previous advisor before he transferred to NYU: not easy to please, but someone who cared enough about you to tell you the truth about where your writing stood, as he saw it. Sadly, a lot of people don’t get that kind of support, and their relations with their advisors are fraught with fear, intellectual theft, mistrust, neglect, or worst of all, emotional or sexual abuse. The Ronell case offers us one example of how quickly and thoroughly off the rails these interpersonal relationships can go. It should also force each graduate department to take a long cold look at its own policies of complaint, redress and inquiry. One way to determine the ethical orientation of a community is to examine how it treats its most powerless members: that is true of thought experiments about hypothetical nation states, but it’s also true of universities and departments.

I know this firsthand because I am a DGS in my department and oversee graduate advising. We make sure that grad students know that they can speak out to me when they are concerned about a faculty member, and that if someone is concerned about my actions they can speak to my colleagues or to my chair. A healthy department ought to be a space where personal accountability and critical honesty and emotional support and intellectual rigor are not seen as mutually exclusive values. That is the goal, and when people fall short of it, they have to be told. It’s awkward for everyone involved when that time comes, and can be frustrating, painful, and shaming in its aftermath, but I would rather there be some occasional awkwardness than for faculty members to feel that they have carte blanche to mistreat graduate students with impunity. No department and no faculty member is perfect, but it’s not asking too much to expect that graduate students be protected from bullying and abuse, and it’s not asking too much to expect that faculty get called out when their behavior is unprofessional. There should be procedures in place for how that unfolds, and plenty of skepticism and critical sunlight upon how those procedures play out too. As Jennifer Doyle’s “Campus Sex, Campus Security” makes plain, professors can become targets of harassment too, and institutional frameworks may be far from benign in how they adjudicate such cases.

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From top to bottom, precarious labor conditions enable abuse: graduate students who have a conflict with a professor are very likely to feel that they can’t afford to speak up because they don’t want to lose what is already a slim chance against the job market’s long odds by arguing with a potentially well-connected and hostile antagonist. There is also, I think, an ambient and understandable generational resentment about ongoing changes in the profession which is surfacing in the midst of the Ronell case and its aftermath. People who are professors now came up during an era in which there was both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a letter of recommendation that was actually strong enough to get someone a job; the stick was the threat of a weak letter or, worse, expulsion if the work wasn’t strong enough. Now that the number of jobs has spiraled downwards while casualization of labor has risen, the carrot has withered but the stick remains. This is why professors can now seem both frightening and ridiculous in the eyes of grad students; they are seen as beneficiaries of a lost Golden Age of employment who can’t help you much but can definitely still hurt you.

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When you realize that it’s not worth it anymore, it’s time to walk away. This is true for car dealerships in Texas, and true for graduate programs, and it’s true for overstrained analogies and dead metaphors. Graduate advising is an asymmetrical force-field of needs and duties, crisscrossed by fear and longing: the fear of scholarly and interpersonal failure, the longing to create knowledge or to assist in its creation. We may not be able to control or predict the outcomes of each catalytic encounter, but we each have to do what we can to reshape the structures in which we work so that people can identify and redress abuse. It is up to all of us as individuals within academia to decide how to proceed in the wake of the Ronell case. But some of us have more power to do something about it than others, and dealing honestly with graduate advising has to start by clearly recognizing those lines of force for what they are. Who is sitting comfortably, and who is about to drop from exhaustion? For those of us who are faculty, I hope we learn to treat our own grad students with the compassion and encouragement that put us where we are today. But we can’t do so if we pretend that the world our students are entering is the same as the world we came from, and we can’t do so if we are tacitly silencing the very people we presume to educate.

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If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention!

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One Response to “Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor”

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  1. Graduate Advising: Drew Daniel on vulnerability and responsibility | Women Faculty Forum at Homewood - September 11, 2018

    […] student-advisor relationships. Drew Daniel (from our English dept) offers a compelling reflection in“Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor.” A brief […]

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