Before getting to my main argument, I want to highlight two things:
- The term ‘asshole,’ as I understand it, is gender-neutral. To make sure it is, I googled it and found this convincing post by redw6452. FYI: it’s quite difficult to google ‘asshole for women.’ Most hits explain how to be a perfect asshole to impress/get/etc. a woman. Disgusting. (Also: porn, anal bleaching, explanations why women prefer assholes, contrary opinions—thank goodness, that’s something!)
- I don’t like swear words. Abusive language in general. But sometimes, there isn’t a proper alternative. So: sorry for the foul language.
There are tons of nice people in academia. People who want to collaborate with you, who want to support you. But every once in a while, we meet ‘the others.’
I think we can group them in three main categories, with probably millions of subcategories. (This post seems to be a list thing.)
- The super assholes. They (sexually) harass and abuse seemingly everyone they come across. Many of us met them, as the current discussion of this year’s SAA (Society for American Archaeology) conference shows (cf. the #SAA2019 discussion on Twitter).
- The supervisor assholes. They use their hierarchical power to turn our lives into hell. As if a PhD (or M.A. or whatever we are working on) wasn’t enough. ‘Let’s give them another challenge!’
- The peer assholes. And I think these sadden me the most. We face enough challenges. Why add another one? I am not saying that experiencing this one is worse than experiencing (sexual) harassment or abuse. There’s not a lot worse than that.
Today, I want to tell you one (roughly) asshole story from my time as a PhD student, covering category 2. I’m sure many are familiar with stories like mine and I hope it consoles to know (at least a bit) that you are not alone. (Hoping that sharing will change anything seems to be too much. But maybe it does. Let’s try to hope.)
I was so excited when I started my PhD. Highly motivated. I love anthropology. I love doing fieldwork. And I was going to do a loooot of fieldwork. Most of the professors on my committee weren’t familiar with my chosen community, but seemed to be supportive. (U-oh! She said ‘seemed.’)
One of them was supportive during the entire process. And I cannot complain about her at all. Thankfully!
One of them was supportive, but not very responsive. I usually work independently and honestly, I don’t like supervision which is too close, too authoritative. I appreciate feedback, I appreciate critique, but please don’t impose your ideas on me. He didn’t do that. Thankfully. But: at times, it was next to impossible to reach him. Dozens of emails remained unanswered. Once, he sent his letter of recommendation too late. (Another letter was full of mistakes and inaccuracies.) Over time (after I submitted my dissertation), I learned how to work with him. I learned that he indeed is supportive. But, at least for some occasions, this was too late.
You probably figured that I was building up to the grand finale. So, here it comes.
One of them was a proper asshole. I had known him for years. He was very supportive in the beginning. Communicated very clear ideas. (This could and should have been my clue. But well … Learning is a process.) I had heard about his short temper, but never experienced it myself. I had heard that he crosses boundaries. I experienced that a few times. I hadn’t heard about his inability to have an adult conversation when his PhD students make decisions he doesn’t approve of. And I’m not talking about reading or not reading a book. I simply decided to not follow one of his suggestions during fieldwork because it didn’t feel safe. (Doing fieldwork as a man is so different from doing fieldwork as a woman. But as an anthropology professor he should be aware of this difference.) He seemed to be okay with my decisions. Then weeks of weird behavior followed until I confronted him. And I found out that he was not okay with my decision because he initially hadn’t understood my decision. But this was only a prelude. The real ‘fun’ began towards the end. He tried to impose ideas. He tried to change my work to make it his. He wanted me to rewrite the entire work–despite very positive evaluations from everyone else. For months, I tried to make a compromise. Unsuccessfully. My funding period was over and I got nervous. During this period, I considered leaving academia. More than once. I finally decided to stick with what everyone else liked. Consequences followed. Delays. And silence. Ever since.
Maybe I should add: Stop being such a child.