Fawning Sycophancy Is Unprofessional, Gross, and if Ongoing, the Professor’s Fault


“I only now [received] your beautiful and exquisite message… I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure.”

Those are the words of Nimrod Reitman, in an email to his Ph.D. advisor, Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. As many now know, Ronell was found by NYU to have sexually harassed Reitman.

I’ve avoided posting about the Ronell case largely because Daily Nous focuses on academic philosophy, and Ronell does not hold a position in academic philosophy, nor is her work especially significant to those who do. [Correction: Ronell holds a position as a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School; the latter point stands.]

I’ve also wanted to avoid contributing to the opportunistic  “Ah ha! Feminists are such hypocrites!” narrative that arose in the wake of revelations about the case and the horrible letter that certain academics wrote in Ronell’s defense (most feminists I know were outraged by that letter), and other “weaponizing” of the affair.

However, some discussions of the case, and now Ronell’s own defense, raise a matter that I was curious about: the culture of fawning sycophancy that appears to surround certain academics.

Such academic sycophancy is unprofessional, unintellectual, revolting, a danger sign, and ultimately the fault of the professor to whom it is directed and the colleagues who allow it.

I began with a quote from Reitman not to blame him, but just to provide a clear example of the phenomenon. Ronell quotes the same line (and many similar ones) in her “press release.”  One of her defenses (!) is that her participation in this kind of communication is not uncommon: “the type of language Ronell used in her emails to Reitman is no different from the language that she used with many others and that Reitman used with her.” (See also this description of the culture surrounding Ronell—though it is anonymous—-as well as the allegations in Reitman’s lawsuit against Ronell and NYU.)

Colleagues, if you are the kind of person to whom people you have power over regularly communicate in this way, then you are the problem. Being on the receiving end of such ongoing obsequiousness is substantial evidence that you are a terrible person.

It’s also evidence that you are acting unprofessionally, both by cultivating a dogmatic intellectual environment inconsistent with the open inquiry of academia, and by cultivating an uncooperative work environment that’s inappropriately burdened with tasks related to maintaining your sense of self-importance.

Many commentators on social media have expressed familiarity with the kind of dynamic at play in the Ronell case. Yet I did notice that many of these commentators were not in academic philosophy.

I suspect that the culture of argument in academic philosophy helps counter tendencies towards sycophancy. We show respect to each other by posing the best challenges we can to each other’s ideas. Putting tough objections to philosophical heroes is something we are trained to (love to) do.

Despite this, it would be fantastical to think that the kind of sycophancy on display in the Ronell case is absent in academic philosophy today. After all, we have had our share of sexual harassment cases and some of the harassers in those cases must have been (or currently are) protected by cult-of-personality hero-worship and fear.

Even when sexual harassment is not involved, it is good to be vigilant about ongoing obsequiousness. Correct students when they display it, call colleagues on it when you hear of students acting that way towards them, and keep department chairs or university administrators in the loop, if need be.

Gate at Versailles

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D.C.
D.C.
2 years ago

Excellent point; sycophancy is just obnoxious as well as being contrary to good academic practice.
I was fortunate enough to have an advisor who hated that sort of thing (and preferred an informal and jokey relationship), but some people really do seem to go into academia primarily because they like having their ego stroked. I am reminded of Mark Bauerlein’s deplorable lament because he wasn’t getting the kind of “disciples” he thought he deserved: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/opinion/sunday/whats-the-point-of-a-professor.html
Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

I’m really glad you brought this to light, and it’s an issue that we do need to face.
However, I want to sound a much more critical tone here. There are structural reasons for this sort of thing, and neither the supposed intellectual virtues of analytic philosophy nor any personal development of virtue on the part of individuals are adequate solutions to the problem. Thanks to rankings systems like U.S. News and the Leiter rankings academia is afflicted with a star system. Rankings mean a lot to most colleges and universities, especially to research focused institutions, and getting and keeping perceived “stars” is pretty much the only way to move up the rankings. This gives everyone on the institution’s side of things from presidents down to individual faculty members reason to cover for bad behavior on the part of “stars.” (Or “geniuses” or “talented” philosophers as we are wont to call them).
And there are reasons the abuse disproportionately falls on graduate students. If an undergraduate gets harassed or abused by a “star” he or she can usually just avoid that person from then on. (They likely don’t need his classes to complete their major and if worse comes to worse they can just switch majors). Undergraduates don’t need the academic stars in the way graduate students do. This also gives them ways to respond like filing a grade appeal that graduate students just cannot realistically avail themselves of. Moreover, for all its many flaws the customer model of higher education gives those in power all sorts of incentives to protect undergraduates, who are after all paying customers. There are few if any such incentives to protect graduate students. The only two I can actually think of are fear of lawsuits and public relations disasters.
Now I don’t mean to be dismissive of what Justin says. It is very helpful to realize how much power we have over students and how cowed they might be by anyone in authority. There’s a lot to be said for being aware of how easy it is to be a bully (even unintentionally). And by doing that well intentioned people can make themselves better teachers and make students’ lives much better. But not everyone in academia is well intentioned and they never will be (there’s no profession at all populated entirely by decent people after all). The only way this sort of thing will stop through structural reforms. I’m not sure what those are or how to implement them, but it is a question we should be asking. Report

moron in grad school
moron in grad school
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 years ago

I totally agree with this. I think ‘understand that you hold enormous power over your grad students that doesn’t go away and that they’re constantly aware of, no matter how they address you, and wield it as transparently, benevolently and sparingly as possible’ is a better course of action than ‘make it clear to your grad students that if they flatter you too much over email you’ll think they’re unprofessional,’ which is really just another way to flex on them/another superior’s finely calibrated personal preference that they have to learn.

Not to suggest the post is misguided or anything, just that it could be framed with a bit more sensitivity to the grad student’s vulnerable position.

Re. this particular case, Ronell may or may not genuinely believe Reitman showered her in purple prose and adopted her ‘queer dialect’ voluntarily, but it’s clear from his complaints, other people’s testimony and the available emails that she most likely threatened and coerced him into meeting her stylistic expectations. (Now her supporters are claiming he only did it to get her to read and comment on his work, like that’s supposed to discredit *him* instead of the advisor who demanded love letters in exchange for doing her job… truly delusional, but anyway.) So this is not merely a case of a difficult, self-centred academic needing to be handled with kid gloves–I’ve TAed for one of those and while I spent a lot more energy learning, anticipating and inducing his responses than he did mine, he was not, consciously, interested in taking over my life–but in fact of an active and toxic abuser.Report

sahpa
sahpa
2 years ago

I can’t help but think this kind of thing is probably more pervasive in the more feeble humanities, which lack the standards and rigor of philosophy. (Gonna catch it for this, but fine.) In the absence of such standards, individual minds get propped up as “visionaries” and the cult begins. And while there is certainly hero-worship in our discipline, it’s not usually where people wish it were.Report

phil sci grad student
phil sci grad student
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

I’m curious as to which humanities you regard as being “feeble (a term deployed within the last 48 hours on another blog)” and if you could provide an example of behavior or standards that reflect the applicability of that label. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  phil sci grad student
2 years ago

“another blog”? I don’t see the point of this parenthetical remark.

Oh, I’m thinking of the many presentations I’ve sat in on in lit and “critical” anthro departments, particularly the way people comport themselves in Q&A. Typical is free-association, what-about-my-stuff-type comments, and broad-stroke praise or derision (depending on whether the presenter’s conclusions and values match the “questioner”‘s). And answers are usually vague, peripatetic, and self-referential (i.e., repeating oneself). No arguments. No questions about methodology. (And then there’s the prose!)Report

Luisa
Luisa
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Seriously? Do you feel qualified to judge the standards and rigor of other disciplines? Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Luisa
2 years ago

Yes and yes.Report

T
T
Reply to  Luisa
2 years ago

Have you never heard of x-phi? 😀Report

moron in grad school
moron in grad school
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Self-congratulatory waffle about the superior rigour of philosophy is its own form of cultish behaviour.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  moron in grad school
2 years ago

Not if it’s true! And anyway I think there are lots of enclaves of cultism in philosophy–ask me about Kantians or ethicists some time!–so its not immune if that helps grease the self-congratulatory waffle griddle for you.Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

“Not if it’s true!”
It’s not.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Sahpa so let me guess though whatever area it is you specialize in is completely free of sycophancy and cultism and one’s reputation and prospects are decided only on the strength of arguments. What subfield is this exactly? I’d like to gaze on this epistemic promised land even if I might not be able to enter it. Irony aside this “Thank you dear Lord that we are not like the other disciplines” line is exactly the sort of denial that keeps us from addressing the problem. (If you think that things like the Ronel scandal don’t happen in analytic phil boy have you not been paying attention). Also this dogmatic sense of superiority and disdain for those outside the fold are pretty telltale signs of a cult. And this sense of superiority does not really play too well outside the cult. If you ever wonder why other disciplines often dislike us look no further than this sort of thing. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 years ago

“whatever area it is you specialize in is completely free of sycophancy and cultism and one’s reputation and prospects are decided only on the strength of arguments”

Good thing I never said that! It would have been blatantly false–and even self-contradictory, since I work both in ethics and Kant-adjacent stuff.

My sense of superiority isn’t dogmatic, but based on my own experience both without and within the fold.

Also I don’t hold *all* those outside the fold in disdain, just people in the feeble humanities.

Finally, there’s nothing about philosophy’s not being like these humanities (in these respects) that would immunize us from the problem (though you didn’t really say what THE problem is, I’m assuming you mean sexual harassment). We are less cultish, which does perhaps help us address the problem more freely. But that still requires us to address the problem. I never said otherwise.

This “no you’re a syncophant and a cultist!” line of response I keep getting is really pitiful. It’s cheap, and it isn’t backed up with much beyond very vague, general charges. Lastly, if I hold these fields in such disdain, why would I give a rip whether or not their practitioners dislike us?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Sahpa just to be clear I never called you a sycophant. From what you’ve posted here I think you’re arrogant and self-deceived but I’ve no evidence one way or the other sycophancy. As for why we should care what the other fields think…. Well here are a few good reasons. If your dean or university president is from say English or theology and you’re on record crapping all over those disciplines as “feeble” your department is going to lose out to the “feeble” ones when any decisions have to be made about funding, hiring, and the like. We briefly had a chair who had your attitude in my PhD program and he alienated everyone outside the department. We got treated like a poor stepchildren until the next chair repaired our relations with the other departments. And who do you think makes decisions on say Fulbrights and NEH and ACLS grants? It’s not all philosophers by a long stretch. In fact way more scholars from the “feeble” disciplines are likely to be involved. As a field we do very badly in getting grants like those. We sometimes get them yes, but we really punch below our weight. There are doubtless multiple reasons for this but I can’t help but people like you poisoning our relations with the other humanities can’t help. Which is why your sort of self-congratulation really irritates me. It harms us all in myriad ways. Finally do you think tearing down the humanities helps us? In this era of cuts to humanities I can’t think of anything more counterproductive. If the powers that be get it in their mind to cut support for the humanities they’re not gonna draw your fine distinctions between the “feeble” ones and us. We can’t really afford the luxury of preening arrogance at the moment. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Sam I’ll allow that there are pragmatic reasons not to broadcast my disdain for the other humanities. I’ll keep my expressions of it to anonymous posts on professional philosophy blogs, as I have done so far 😉Report

philphysgrad
philphysgrad
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

I don’t really see how sapha is being a “jerk” or saying anything that isn’t relatively obvious. Unless you have a hyper-psuedoKuhnian view of academic standards, some disciplines will be less rigorous, etc. than others (which may be more or less fine depending on their internal goals). The fact that philosophy may fall short of other disciplines (I think physics and the sciences problematic cases, they are more rigorous in some ways and not in others, cf. phil. math) in the same regard is not an objection. It would be an objection if we then note that their is more sycophancy in physics and other lab based sciences, but this is easily explained by the stronger dependence on advisors/PIs (as opposed to departments) and the generally higher prestige of these disciplinesReport

philphysgrad
philphysgrad
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Meant as a reply to Fret-a-physics. Apologies for the typo(s).Report

Fret-a-physics
Fret-a-physics
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 years ago

Here’s a little argument against sahpa’s philosophical chauvinism:

(1) Assume that philosophy is intellectually superior to the other humanities because it’s more x (rigorous; difficult; ‘deep’; whatever)
(2) If (1) then this justifies sahpa’s y (chauvinism, superiority, whatever you want to call it; getting bogged down in finding the right description is unnecessary)
(3) So sapha’s y is justified.
BUT
(4) For any x in virtue of which philosophy is intellectually superior to other humanities, many sciences (e.g. pure mathematics, physics, many fields of engineering, chemistry, etc.) are superior to philosophy in virtue of x
(5) So sahpa should accept practitioners in those fields as being y-like viz. philosophy
(6) But sahpa won’t want to accept (5)

You can nitpick with (4), but I think that’s dishonest. (Come on: theoretical physics is way x-er than Kant if x = hard; technical; rigorous; etc).

(Admittedly there is room for discussion here about what x really is: if it’s ‘profundity’ than I’d be willing to say Plato is more profound than chemical engineering; but then I’d be willing to say that Wordsworth is as profound as Plato, thus putting pressure on (1)).

Why (6)? Nothing airtight, but just the sense that sahpa’s y’ is at least partly based in arrogance, and (5) cuts that arrogance down, making sahpa hesitant to sincerely embrace it.

So I think that (1) and (2) are where the action is here. Personally I accept (1) in some cases, but reject (2) in all.

TL:DR: don’t be a jerk about your discipline. Report

driftincowboy
driftincowboy
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Speaking to sahpa’s point: I once participated in an interdisciplinary seminar with theologians. They accused the philosophers in the room of being “monological” and bullies because the philosophers insisted on hearing arguments for claims. So these theologians quite explicitly disavowed the use of arguments. They replaced arguments with establishing liberal credentials (“I live in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood!”) and authoritative-name-dropping galore. I’m sure not all theologians are like that, but those were the norms in that group.Report

Thinker
Thinker
2 years ago

I imagine these sort of exchanges are ripe with self-deception. Reading the quote at the top, it read as patently cheap. I imagine the writing of it felt even cheaper.

I’d say the problem is one of students fawning over and trying to get on their advisors’ good graces, but perhaps something that should not be overlooked is that academics (especially at “elite” institutions), I’ve noticed, don’t really communicate like regular people — there are often whiffs of pretension. It seems as if many try — and fail — to make every exchange some grandiose and simultaneously heartfelt display of wordsmanship — and it almost always seems cheap.

Academics might benefit by hanging out with real people* — they might become a little less pretentious and tone-deaf.

*Before anyone jumps down my throat, I don’t mean by my appeal to “real people” to imply that academics are less-than-human. Rather, I mean to emphasize the disconnect between academics and people who, as opposed to living primarily in the towers of the academy, live more “down-to-earth”, working what we might consider regular jobs (bars and restaurants, to give an example), and grappling with everyday struggles (as opposed to, say, spending 5 years worrying about what a letter of recommendation might look like).

If academics would get some “real” friends, they’d probably be a lot more humble and down-to-earth. Not that the academy doesn’t already have humble, down-to-earth people, but they’re few compared to the pretentious wordsmiths always trying to better position themselves with empty (yet always wordy, of course) flattery.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
2 years ago

I’ve not personally seen anything as over-the-top as what is quoted at the beginning, but I did encounter lots of more subtle sycophancy on social media. One sees a lot of flattery on facebook, for example (“Your dog is so cute!”, “I hope I grow up to be as cool a professor as you!”, the liking of every single comment or post, etc.) . Do you think professors should do anything about this kind of stuff?Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Recent grad
2 years ago

If your relationship isn’t one wherein you make fun of each other’s hairdos, you’re doing it wrong. That’s my philosophy.Report

realemail_fakename
realemail_fakename
Reply to  Recent grad
2 years ago

I see this a lot in my circles — senior figures in philosophy who cultivate a wide audience on social media, which audience then strokes their ego regularly. I try not to judge the flatterers. The more obsequious philosophers on Facebook, I notice, tend to be untenured or kicking around in VAPs and the like. Perhaps they are responding reasonably to a difficult situation. But I do harshly judge the senior folks who tolerate and cultivate all this; and I actively refrain from signaling approval (likes or shares). I also occasionally make fun of those senior folks in more egregious instances. Sahpa’s got it right — many of us would do well to be taken down a peg or two!Report

Louis
2 years ago

I spent a decade in grad school, and while not an academic myself, I’ve spent quite a bit of time around academics over the years. I’ve occasionally witnessed some less-than-ideal behavior (humans being imperfect, that’s not surprising), but I never encountered anything like the atmosphere and behavior that emerge from the documents in this case (i.e., Reitman’s complaint in his lawsuit, the “press release on behalf of” Ronell, and the linked Facebook description of the cult [I think that’s probably a fair word] surrounding her). I find the whole atmosphere of abject flattery and sycophancy disgusting. Report

Dirk Baltzly
Dirk Baltzly
2 years ago

Perhaps it is time for Plutarch’s little essay on flattery to make a comeback. “It is because of this self-love that everybody is himself his own foremost and greatest flatterer, and hence finds no difficulty in admitting the outsider to witness with him and to confirm his own conceits and desires.” Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
2 years ago

“I suspect that the culture of argument in academic philosophy helps counter tendencies towards sycophancy….” #NotMyGradSchoolExperience.
Kicking around a visiting speaker in question-time after their paper and conducting a gleeful post-mortem at the next morning tea-table about every “loony view” the speaker allegedly put forward is, in context, also a form of sycophancy. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Professor Apricot
2 years ago

I don’t at all see why that’s a form of sycophancy. (“sycophancy” and “cultism” [see the exchange I’m having with others above] don’t just refer to any ritualistic social activities that the speaker doesn’t care for.) Could you elaborate?Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Professor Apricot
2 years ago

Agreed with sahpa. How is being disrespectful to X, except in rare cases, a form of being obsequious to Y? Perhaps the aim is in part to impress one’s colleagues, but I think that rather neglects the extent to which collective mocking is enjoyable for the mockers.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Daniel
2 years ago

I can fill in what Professor Apricot says here. I never saw too much of this in my PhD program at UVA, where the faculty were pretty much all decent people, but hoo boy did I ever see it when I studied in Germany. And for the record the professor I was studying with took a pretty self-consciously analytical approach to issues and, despite the occasional dalliance with the German Idealists mostly stuck to names like Kant, Hobbes and Aristotle. And his seminar was one of the most revolting spectacles I’ve ever sat through. You’d give your paper and then the room was dead silent while he pronounced whether it was good or not (you could literally figure it out by whether he said “und” [and] or “aber” [but] after his ritual pronouncement that what you were writing on was “ein interessantes Thema”.) If he thought it was good you got softball questions from the other members of the seminar if he thought it wasn’t… Well the only thing I can liken it to is watching chickens line up to peck an injured chicken to death. You were definitely not expected to defend or try to explain yourself in light of his criticisms. The one time I presented I got the “aber” but since I really didn’t need the guy I politely responded that it was likely due to my deficiencies in my own German, but he seemed to have understood the main point of my paper and that my actual point wasn’t vulnerable to that particular objection. I cannot adequately describe how flabbergasted the other members of the seminar were at my reaction. I actually didn’t get many tough questions after that since I think they were so unsure what to do in this particular situation.
I also saw this in a lesser form in seminars in my MA program, which is an analytic program in the states, especially in classes taught by stars. If you raised a point or objection just how hard a time other members of the class would give that point was largely determined by the star’s reaction. If he liked it you were fine and if anyone said anything it was just to develop your idea. If he didn’t then there was a good chance of a pile on, especially if you persisted. And for the record I’m certainly guilty of taking part in some of this sort of mobbing myself as an MA student. My only excuse is that I was 22 and didn’t know any better. The 50 and 60 year olds leading the classes should have though.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 years ago

Yes this is exactly what I’m talking about. The “kickers around” are grad students who are at a very vulnerable point in their careers (explanation but not exculpation), and they’re endeavouring to impress the Professors. And it’s important to note that those Professors did go on to shower those grad students with accolades which enabled them to rise to the highest level in this particular academic community, whilst those who didn’t participate in “defending” the party line were pretty much ignored.
Thanks Sam. Report

Prof. X
Prof. X
2 years ago

I wonder if we also need to talk about how this type of relationship is propagated over time and several generations of academic mentorship. Ronell expected no less from Reitman than was expected of her by Derrida. See for example: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/appointments/deconstructing-derridas-will/news-story/79fe029bbc97c567900afef09977e098

“Ronell had known Derrida for a quarter of a century. They met when she was in her 20s, a budding scholar: “a nobody”, as she puts it. At that first meeting, Ronell, a former performance artist with a youthful dramatic flair, told him her name was Metaphysics, an introduction so odd and memorable that Derrida later wrote about it in one of his many books. ”
“She became something of a surrogate daughter to Derrida, or, in her words, a pet.”
“Serving as Derrida’s live-in therapist was not always easy or pleasant”
“Ronell would massage him and tried to convince him to hire a professional masseur, but he refused. “He didn’t want a stranger to touch him,” she says.”
“Ronell would spend a couple of hours a day meditating with him, trying to soothe him. One day she remembers he woke up numb and panicked. Not sure what to do, she suggested that she brush him. “I didn’t even know what I meant,” she says. Derrida, perhaps not knowing what she meant either, agreed. She went upstairs, found one of his wife’s hairbrushes, and brushed him until the feeling returned to his body.”Report

Fret-a-physics
Fret-a-physics
Reply to  Prof. X
2 years ago

Ugh. So this suggests that Ronell was a master sycophant herself. Somehow I’m not surprised. I’ve been in academia for 15 years and am well acquainted with this kind of performance art.

It’s in part led me to the following conclusion: I don’t care what your post in life is, if you’re down to earth, willing to laugh at yourself/don’t take yourself too seriously, the chances are you’re really enjoyable to be around. And that’s all I’m really looking for when I try to connect with people.
Report

Christopher Couch
Christopher Couch
2 years ago

“Colleagues, if you are the kind of person to whom people you have power over regularly communicate in this way, then you are the problem. Being on the receiving end of such ongoing obsequiousness is substantial evidence that you are a terrible person.

It’s also evidence that you are acting unprofessionally, both by cultivating a dogmatic intellectual environment inconsistent with the open inquiry of academia, and by cultivating an uncooperative work environment that’s inappropriately burdened with tasks related to maintaining your sense of self-importance.”

I am not a professor of philosophy, but I did recently take an MA in the subject. I never spoke to my teachers like this (in fact, I took the opposite attitude most of the time!) but to suggest that academics are commiting some kind of moral abuse for receiving sycophantic praise and, oh goodness, even enjoying it, is a bit over the top. My experience of the post-grad world was of an incredibly competitive environment which was, as a result, ridden with anxiety. Surely, students might take to sending these kinds of messages in a desperate attempt to secure themselves a career? Perhaps, the recipient should be more honest about such flattery being unlikely to garner real-world rewards, but the failure to divulge that can hardly be considered ‘substantial evidence’ of them being a ‘terrible person’.

Bear in mind: I am not making any claim here about the case which was raised at the outset of the article – I do not know the details or what was going on behind the scenes. My point relates simply to the idea of academic obsequiousness reflecting some immorality on the part of its beneficery – I think that’s a strong, and likely incorrect, claim.

Report

Christopher Couch
Christopher Couch
Reply to  Christopher Couch
2 years ago

And I should add: the assumption, I think, is that the sycopantic behaviour results from some abuse of power e.g. a teacher creating an environment which requires obedience and flattery lest once be cast out the inner circle. Now, if that were true in the case raised above, or in any case one might care to think of, that might well change matters, but my point is that the academic job market is in such a state that flattery of this kind could be received, and even received frequently, in a desperate attempt to curry favour with the local authority figure. No doubt this is a sad state of affairs, but it is harsh indeed to suggest the fault lies with academics who desire no such praise, or, at the very least, do not know think to reproach when such gratuitous praise is forthcoming. Report

Christopher Couch
Christopher Couch
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

I misread your otherwise fine essay on this most pertinent subject and ended up with a view which was surely quite contrary to the overall intention of the piece. For this, I can only offer my sincere and wholehearted apologies. The regularity of the sycophancy most certainly determines the severity of the issue, and I thank you for pointing this out to me.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Couch.Report

Darth
Darth
2 years ago

Thanks for this excellent article!!! Part of Ronell’s misconduct was in her expectation that her students would relate to her in such a way and that she would relate to them in the same unprofessional manner. Heck when a student addresses me as Dr. xx, i correct them. When they say it in person, I correct them. Not unkindly, but in my discipline it’s uncommon for all but the most insecure or narcissistic to expect to be addressed as such. I want my students to understand that we are all ‘equals’ of mind. At the same time, I want them to understand the boundaries of mentor/mentee. I don’t want them sucking up at all, even to use my title. I’ve never had a student attempt obsequiousness, it’s not terribly common in my discipline, but if it happened i’d correct it, as I would feel it was my obligation as a mentor. As well I’d be a bit repulsed and perhaps at least slightly alarmed. Depts that promote or allow this type of culture should do a hard double take at their behavior. The 18th century called and wants their policies back.Report

Darth
Darth
2 years ago

Ok i went back and read the other comments. Shocking how many of them minimize and justify obsequiousness as both the problem of the student, and somehow ‘necessary’ for advancement. And how we as mentors should be understanding of their ‘need’ to make us value them by… being obsequious. I especially disliked one commentor’s post that students have a wide array of structured university defenses at their disposal, and heck if they don’t work, well the student can just avoid the professor, or heck, change majors. REALLY?! Did you REALLY say that? Are you Avital Ronell by chance? You’re defending abuse by professors and pretending they don’t have the power they do, by saying someone can just, oh, change their career path???? THAT’S NOT POWER? The power to force someone, through harassment, to change their actual career path? I’m suspicious that the commentor writing these things has spent some amt of time abusing students and is desperate for an ‘out’. Anyone who’s ever, as a student, attempted to report sexual assault or harassment by a professor (as I have) is well aware of the massive resources that are mounted against the student. The professor has the money, he/she represents the investment. The grad student is the mosquito. That represents the power only to hurt the university. Universities, sadly, look to their own defense. Honestly I have never seen an instance, though i’m Sure they must exist, that a university investigated not because they felt it was the morally correct thing to do, but it was the legally expedient thing to do. And whatever the outcome, whatever their findings, they were arrived at in a manner that provided for the least legal liability by the university. It’s why when there’ s more of a he said/she said abuse, universities often side with the professor, even though it is not possible for a professor and their student to have a consensual sexual relationship. The power imbalance is too great. The energy and mental calculus the victim must always keep up, to make sure their professor feels ‘secure’ is huge. Even then, there is zero guarantee of a decent letter. Especially when it’s in the best interest of a professor who’s committed wrongdoing to burn the student. If they disappear from academic life, they can never hope to attain the academic power of the professor. They’ll never be ‘in the club.’ I’ve seen abusive professors do this time and again: a student stands up, they suddenly don’t have lab space. They’re hounded out of the dept. they are not allowed to author papers and their research is stolen by the professor, given to another to publish. NIH will not investigate ‘authorship disputes.’ Yet this is a powerful tool by which a professor can tank a student’s career. I have personally seen this happen, personally seen the email communications between NIH, the journals, and the university, though i was not the victim in the case. I’ve seen this more than once, with more than one professor. Any mentor who believes students have an array of defenses at their disposal is either shockingly naive, sheltered, or an abuser attempting deflection. Educate yourselves before you speak.Report