Revisiting “Grad Students: What Would You Tell Your Prof(s), But Can’t?”


About a year ago I asked, “Graduate students, what would you like to tell your professor(s) right now, but can’t?

As the new school year begins, I would recommend professors and graduate look over the comments on that post. Graduate students, feel free to add new comments. Professors, see if you see yourself in any of them.

A slogan I try to remember is “philosophers are people, too.” This helps in meetings and other events, it helps in philosophical conversations, it helps when providing written comments and criticism, it helps when putting together a talk—it helps in pretty much every professional context. And, judging from many of the comments on the post we’re revisiting, it could improve our interactions with graduate students.

For example, students noted that some professors:

  • used unnecessarily harsh or insulting language
  • neglected to inquire about known significant events in the students’ personal lives, especially ones that might affect the students’ performance
  • failed to note how the power imbalance between professors and students makes it difficult for students to respond honestly to some questions
  • treated the aims of the students as unimportant compared to their own, for example, by neglecting their teaching and mentoring responsibilities
  • did not take seriously the financial constraints on graduate students
  • were great at showing how grad students’ work was deficient, but, in failing to also be constructive, were very discouraging
  • acted and talked unprofessionally with graduate students, involving them inappropriately in their personal lives or in intradepartmental conflicts
  • did not realize how ignorant graduate students are (compared to professors) about how academia works.

There were also several positive comments from grateful students who felt that their professors were responsible, encouraging, and caring. The whole post is worth a re-read.

guest
16 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Theodore Parkin
Theodore Parkin
3 years ago

Dear Professor,

Please don’t pretend that there aren’t problems climate for women and other minorities, or that some of your colleagues aren’t known problems. If you haven’t heard about the problems, that’s because you’re not asking. Ask.

Please bring in a confidential external review committee — not other people in philosophy, because we all know that philosophers talk — to guarantee anonymity and help bring problems to light.

Please don’t text and call me at all hours of the night about the problem, and please don’t try to talk to my friends to see what they know when I don’t want to talk any more.

And, above all, please offer real protection from defamation by the philosophy bullies, instead of telling me that if I report the problem my career will be ruined.

Sincerely,
A (not “Your”) Graduate StudentReport

DocF
DocF
Reply to  Theodore Parkin
3 years ago

Seriously? You have professors who do not acknowledge problems for minorities and women?? In 2017?? And professors who call in the middle of the night??? What school are you at and do the professors do drugs. I suspect this comes from someone who needs to get a better perspective, or else provide some evidence of such abuses.

Please believe that, if such things are true, I am not on the side of the grad students. But on the other hand, I have a need for actual evidence to believe these profs are as unethical as stated. And, what school, please? These are dismissible offenses and ought to be dealt with.Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  DocF
3 years ago

Correction. I AM ON the side of grad students if such goes on. Sorry for mistyping.Report

Grad197
Grad197
3 years ago

Giving me comments on my work is not a supererogatory act. It is your job.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Grad197
3 years ago

Actually, I was surprised to find out that, at least in my PhD program, providing feedback on grad student work (including dissertation work) outside of classes is not formally a part of the faculty’s duties. Still, most of them do it anyway.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Ben
3 years ago

It is highly probable that Grad197 is partly referring to class work. If you are fortunate enough to be in a program where term papers are always returned with feedback, congratulations. But get under the hood at a few other departments and you might hear some pretty appalling stories.

Next, I seriously doubt that any dissertation advisor could deny, in good faith, that it is “formally” part of their job to comment on their dissertator’s work. Even if an institution doesn’t explicitly write this duty down in a handbook, philosophical feedback is virtually constitutive of the advisor-advisee relationship. Any faculty member who shirks this duty while still maintaining that they are an advisor is either an awful person or clinically self-deceived. (I’ve met one of these people and it’s the former).Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  Ben
3 years ago

I wonder if anything on this line is a technical requirement of faculty. Certainly it is what I would consider my duty and obligation. But is it a required by contract duty? Maybe not. But I agree with Joe, above, that any dissertation advisor who said it wasn’t, “formally”, their duty to comment on a student’s dissertation, ought to be fired. But, on the other hand, I cannot conceive of an advisor who would make that claim and tend to think maybe the grad student is fudging what happened. Seriously, what supervisor would say this? Maybe they screwed off and didn’t respond as expected, so I get that from the grad student side (I never heard from her in x months), but lazy isn’t the same as “I don’t have a duty to respond”. I’m just saying that without details who knows what went o/n here. Report

Tom
Tom
3 years ago

Dear faculty,

If you work at a private research university, your graduate students may be currently involved in an effort to unionize. If so, your administration is almost certainly conducting a counter-campaign, under the guidance of a hired union-busting law firm like Proskauer Rose. One of the administration’s tactics is to recruit faculty members like you into active or passive support of their anti-union campaign. Any unionization campaign has two sides: workers and bosses. But as a faculty member, you can go either way. It’s really up to you whether you act as allies to the students in your department and in other departments, or as middle-management enforcers for the university and its legal firm.

You have probably already received “information” emails from your Dean warning you that unionization may work elsewhere, but it just isn’t right for the special, unique environment of [your institution]. Some of these emails may have presented you with a script the consulting legal firm would like you to follow in your interactions with students about unions: you may have been instructed to warn them about dues, distribute pro-administrative materials about previous stipend increases, or make vague intimations about how your advisory relationship might change under a union. You may be asked to hold a meeting in your department where you go over the administration’s talking points for your students.

Before you contribute to the administration’s scare-mongering, ask your students what the unionization drive is focusing on. Unions necessarily campaign on issues that affect all graduate workers: that’s how interdepartmental solidarity gets built. This means that nearly all the central goals of the union will concern issues dealt with above the department level (at least at most universities). The union is trying to negotiate salary increases, better healthcare plans, student fee waivers, parental leave, childcare support, and housing subsidies. It’s not trying to mess with you, how you run your department, or your advising practices (unless you’re sexually harassing your advisees). Unionization is a battle with the administration–it’s not a battle with the faculty. We see you not as bosses, but as teachers, mentors, senior colleagues: people who share our fundamental concerns and commitments, who wish, like us, to improve the situations of all scholars, especially those entering the field.

If you have doubts about graduate student unionization, talk to your friends working at public universities, where grad students have been unionized for decades. Ask them whether the graduate student union has any significant impact on their advisory relationships or department culture. Talk to the students organizing in your department about why they want to unionize. (Remember that they are volunteers working against a multi-billion dollar institution and a hired law firm, and that their hours have to go towards organizing other graduate students: if you want to hear what they have to say, you’re going to have to seek it out.) Finally, consider that graduate student unionization is an opportunity to institute in your university a democratic association made up solely of scholars and teachers, with legal recognition and bargaining power. Ultimately, are your interests more likely to coincide with your colleagues’–the junior scholars working in your department–or with those of your administrators and Board?

Finally, if you support organized labour, speak up! It makes a big difference for grad students to hear that they have friends among the faculty, and that fighting for input into the conditions of their employment will not make enemies of their teachers.Report

Sikander
Sikander
Reply to  Tom
3 years ago

I agree with this and would like to extend my solidarity to the author of this comment and to all other academic workers seeking unionization and labour empowerment in general.Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  Tom
3 years ago

You need to get the hell out of this school. If it is as bad as yoyu describe, why are you there???Report

Yon
Yon
3 years ago

Dear prof

Respond to my emails. That’s all I ask. Just respond. I beg of you to answer my reasonable questions. Silence kills me. You’re nice in person, but your lack of communication is frustrating and angering. You suck.

Sincerely,

Annoyed student.Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  Yon
3 years ago

When I was a working prof, I loved email and always responded to students and agree that to not do so is a major failing amongst profs. Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  Yon
3 years ago

On the other hand, telling a prof he/she sucks is pretty immature, grow up. If you want respect, show it, too.Report

zalvane
zalvane
3 years ago

Dear Advisor,

I don’t know if you’ll ever know how much you changed me. You are the most intelligent and hard-working person I have ever met. The fact that you even gave me the time of day I still find bizarre.
I didn’t tell you, but while we were working together, I went through a number of personal crises. I struggled with drug use, suicidal thoughts, and with my sexuality. I never spoke a word of this to you. But that you would work with me and listen so enthusiastically would help me through the hard days. I owe you so much.

Sincerely,
Your Former Graduate StudentReport

DocF
DocF
3 years ago

I would say this to 90% of my grad school profs. The 10% were not terrible, but lacked a bit in the charisma and focus of class departments (scattered lectures, unorganized, vague on assignments — but very definitely knowledgeable and, if I put in the effort, I still got things from the class. Maybe I was lucky, but I can’t think of a prof I didn’t respect, learn from big time, and if I put in the effort, made me a better student and eventually, a philosopher.Report

DocF
DocF
Reply to  DocF
3 years ago

Interesting that no one responded. I guess the claim that I (you) have to put in effort isn’t popular any mre. Sad. Or maybe responders only read their own responses? Sign me a voice crying in the wilderness. Report