Editor’s Note: This month, that is August 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Campus Experiences, where we invite various articles to highlight the diverse range of encounters we often confront when we are a part of any educational institution or space for learning be it schools, universities, colleges, tuitions and home. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
This article has been a long time coming. I did not know how to articulate what I experienced in the initial years of my doctoral journey and what to call it. But as I inch closer to experiencing self-worth, I think it is important to write about this matter as it concerns not only me but what I hope is a number of other people pursuing higher education. The decision to do a doctoral degree was in part out of curiosity of what it means to do a PhD, and in part because I always thought of teaching as a very glamorous job. One gets to instruct, discuss, shape, engage with and learn from generations of young people and that has spiritual and emotional rewards, I felt, like no other profession.
The present article, however, is about one very specific period in my life as a doctoral scholar. It is a dark period and in retrospect, one where I fell (back) into the trap of being ill-treated in part due to my low self-esteem and due to the way academic workplaces are set up – silences and burials of all sorts prevail. My program was a five-year program in which one was required to do two years of course work. Early on I felt that I do not personally like instructors with disciplinarian, old-school teaching methods. I was well over 30 years old when I started my degree and I did not need to be treated like an 8-year-old and be reminded to study 5 hours a day, do my homework, not waste time and only follow dictatorial instructions of the teacher. After all I had seen minor-league authoritarianism everywhere in life – with parents, with teachers, with bosses and even with aunts and uncles in the family who would rather fix my life than introspect on their own lives.
I never agreed with or liked people who craved fame or authority, because I saw that as a sign of desperate insecurity. This was another reason I felt academics would be better suited, as for the most part I would be left alone to do my own thing as long as I performed on certain fixed parameters (merit for the win – and I say this ironically because half the battle of equal opportunity is already lost when a dominant-caste, upper class woman is claiming “merit”). To my surprise I found a few academics who were not authoritarian and seemed at first, quite friendly, trusting and mature. Cherry on the cake was that they had a politics that was also personal – they seemed open-minded, non-discriminatory, non-judgmental and extremely supportive of intersectionally marginalised people. I began to work with one such person, taking up more credits within their courses and doing a lot of project work under their supervision.
They talked of emancipation and empathy, of understanding subjectivity and encouraged me to engage with feminist literature. They also invited me to some private events and shared any opportunities they thought would be helpful for me. However, through it all I noticed their disdain for everything and everyone who was around us and I felt it had to do with being a “left-leaning” liberal. I do not know what that means anymore but back then I thought it meant having a different kind of politics than the majority around us. It was not mere disdain, it would in several situations within classrooms with doctoral students, alternate between passive aggressive humor, verbal bashing and downright insulting of anyone who did not like this person’s views, did not agree with them or asked questions out of curiosity.
Interestingly this only happened in classes with doctoral students and never with masters students. One very big reason doctoral students can serve as the biggest sources of information for a temperament evaluation of faculty members, is because doctoral students are too close with their advisors and in a manner, truly subjugated. They have to rely on the team dynamics, department dynamics, professorial dynamics and interpersonal relationships with their advisors, to smoothly get through much of their PhD journeys in their campuses. And those relationships with doctoral students are rigorous tests of the humane-ness of academic advisors.
Will they tell you you’re good-for-nothing until you start believing it?
Will they mask their personal agendas as ‘concern’ for you and your career?
Will they oscillate between fairy-godmothers and “Cruella de vil” depending on how much and what kind of allegiance you provide to them?
I do not use the word ‘allegiance’ lightly because in my case (and in many others), a cult like acceptance, approval and aggrandisation is exactly what was expected at every turn. The sad part was the very cleverly cloaked dishonesty of it all.
On one hand, in the courses taught by this advisor, there was continuous discussion of being empathetic, learning to engage with other life worlds and questioning powerful elites who took privilege for granted. On the other hand, there was petty jealousy, rumor-mongering and gossiping about all those whom they didn’t ‘approve’ of or didn’t like for various reasons. It did not strike me at the time but this is the worst example of an advisor-student relationship. I never got any decent feedback on my work, in fact all the meetings were full of personal discussions (read gossip) about other people. Instead of learning how to write better, I was simply learning how to manage the advisor’s ego and thereby their expectations, better.
Academia is a world where I have found love, learning and solidarity on one hand and extreme apathy, petty competitiveness, mean-spirited gossip and terrible ethics on the other. Unfortunately, I learnt through bitter experiences that the left-right political spectrum could not work like some kind of mantra for choosing whom to work with. Gradually other similar “left leaning” people started to reveal themselves. A strange and observable phenomenon was their claim of absoluteness of their knowledge, they were right, their version was the right version, their definitions were the right definitions and their expertise was the only expertise. Michel Foucault himself was probably not as ‘knowledgeable’ about Foucauldian studies, not is Judith Butler as thorough in Butlerian conceptualisations, as some of these angry warring groups of academic “left leaning” experts in campuses.
Upon realizing that I was one of the members of such a sad excuse for a ‘cult’, I was at first very happy because I felt ‘special’. I was told I’d be given special preference in “our kind of” conferences and departments which had more people who “thought like us”. Another sad aspect of such ‘liberal’ camps is their tendency to act as gatekeepers. Because of our limited numbers across most college campuses, our claim to fame is being one or two of the only people who engage with Marxist theory, critical theory and postmodern/poststructuralist theory. There is often a conflation of our egos as ‘representatives’ of social justice.
This ‘representation of emancipation’ syndrome brings us to a self-constructed pedestal, through which we then judge everyone else as being unworthy or easier still, as ‘status-quoists’. This is the biggest pathetic, agonising irony of all time. As ‘liberals’ or ‘left-wingers’ or whatever else one may call us, we use the very language that was created by those much more marginalised than us, to our benefit. So while sitting in high places, being from dominant castes, following all the heteronormative rules of society, earning as well as corporate lawyers or senior bankers, us ‘liberal’ academics in campuses somehow begin to think of ourselves as messiahs who will deliver on some sort of ‘pre-professed’ goals for the emancipation of the ‘downtrodden’.
As I started turning into “one of us”, a long lost and once dear friend reminded me that we are here for nothing but jobs – to get them and to retain them. And if ‘liberal’ academics had even one hundredth of the praxis that we professed in our classrooms, there would already have been changes in the institutions where we are self-appointed “gatekeepers”. This saddens me because I would like to believe that we are doing something more than egoistic self-appraisal. That is where the experiences I described with toxic advisors come in as a ‘show and tell’.
The one intense and personal lesson I learned from engaging with such people, is that we can say and write whatever we want with as much fierceness of voice and intellectual mettle. We can use all the right words and appeal to all the famous people of “our kind” but ultimately we will be evaluated on our praxis someday, by someone who is more marginalised than ourselves. And that evaluation, and how we react to it is more than anything else, the true test of our privilege and entitlement.
If we are not nice to people around us who can do nothing for us, and cannot help us or serve as our contacts or be used in any possible manner, if we can be nice to people when no one is watching, that is worth all the academic conferences where we spoke about ‘emancipation’ while demeaning our own doctoral students back home. If we, when faced with honest feedback, can double back and be quiet and say “alright I need to think about this and change things”, that is worth more than all our A-listed publications, in which we write about introspection and reflexivity, while lashing out at people who share honest feedback.
If we can recognise the problem in being a heteronormative dominant caste person in elite institutions full of “our people”, that is worth more than us teaching and writing ‘thought provoking’ articles, while asking our students to cite ours or “our camp’s” publications. It is time this stopped. There are no camps, just campuses. And there is no “glory promise land” for ‘left-leaners’ or ‘liberals’ or ‘vampanthis’. We have to work and take a kick once in a while, without making other people’s privilege, an excuse for our bad behavior and entitlement.
Featured Image Source: Student Struggle