Making Academia Safe

On Tuesday, Science published a lengthy and detailed article by Michael Balter about “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology.” The whole thing is worth a read to understand the latest in a series of sexual harassment or assault incidents in academia in general. Just last week molecular biologist Jason Lieb finally resigned amidst accusations of misconduct, and the subject has been gaining more scrutiny as people continue to push for better policies and mechanisms through which victims can seek redress, abusers can be held accountable, and departments can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

The recent anthropology case stems from a research assistant who has accused paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of taking advantage of her in his hotel room while she was drunk in late 2014. Richmond, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (and a former professor at George Washington University), has been placed on leave from the museum while investigations are under way. The entire story is very much worth reading, but I want to highlight one thing that stands out in the article: the decision by some academics to directly respond to the allegations. All of the details below draw from the Science article, linked above.

While the incident with Brian Richmond is still playing out, I want to highlight the article’s focus on the institutional response by GWU. Some people involved have not hesitated to take action to ensure that other targets of harassment can come forward, to signal to students that these issues are a serious matter, and to, as the article puts it, “do battle against sexual misconduct”.

At AMNH a lawyer reached out to anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann to help investigate Richmond’s actions. She found three undergraduates who gave accounts of inappropriate behavior. AMNH is still investigating him (he was placed on leave after the initial investigation, and no other punishment was added when Ackermann submitted the other three accusations).

Richmond had already left GWU, but continued to teach at the GWU-run Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. According to the Science article, immediately after finding out his former co-worker and pupil was accused of sexual misconduct, GWU professor Bernard Wood decided that he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s presence at GWU was not marked by the same type of activity:

In St. Louis [at the conference where the research assistant first came forward], Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond.

Wood continued asking questions back at GWU’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) that yielded similar responses. Rebecca Ackermann, an anthropologist asked by AMNH’s lawyer to help investigate Richmond’s history, found three undergraduates who gave accounts of incidents of harassment and unwanted contact that occurred at the field school.

The CASHP faculty informed Richmond that he was “no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it.” Wood penned several blog posts and op-eds about about sexual misconduct in academia, one of which was published at the same time that Richmond was vying for a seat at a scholarly association’s governing board, and refused to chair a panel that Richmond was supposed to speak on. In one of the op-eds, Wood sketches out his motivation by saying that “male professors have a special responsibility to be strong allies of the women affected by sexual misconduct [and] we should not wait for traumatized junior colleagues to demonstrate the greatest courage before those with the greatest power show any.” He continued:

At the very least, any scientist should think twice before collaborating with those who use their research reputation to harass female colleagues, and before inviting them to conferences. Why? Because every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused. If perpetrators are made to pay a professional cost, their influence will wane, depriving them of further opportunities to prey on women. More importantly, male faculty must report concerns to institutional authorities. The more frequently a department head or a dean learns of concerns, the more likely it is that behaviors will be recognized as a pattern of misconduct.

Sexual harassment in the sciences occurs in many circumstances and settings, but the silence of the past must be replaced by action. The untenured are brave to speak out, but powerful male voices must join in to make sure we level this particular playing field. Alpha males are the problem. Alpha males need to be part of the solution.

Wood’s actions, and his thought process behind them, are really important. It is vital for professors to help make campus safe for students. And this means more than passing a resolution or appointing a committee. It also means standing against those guilty of abusing the power and influence they have over their students.

Compare this to the situation that unfolded at Northwestern: in an article ostensibly about her university’s ban on sexual relations between professors and students (and the implicit acknowledgement of the power relations involved in such a relationship), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis described the misconduct accusations that philosophy professor Peter Ludlow faced as mere “melodrama.” Kipnis ridiculed students and activists for suggesting that a professor-student relationship might carry with it unequal power dynamics, arguing that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of” Ludlow. (For more, see this overview of the Ludlow case).

This was an instance of several failures. Ludlow’s punishment for misconduct was a pay cut and a denied promotion and little else. The graduate student’s information was not kept confidential, and she faced harassment because of her actions. The university failed to protect her or sufficiently deal with the incidents. And Kipnis’ framing of the situation was misleading and the graduate student involved has stated that the article felt like retaliation for filing a complaint against Ludlow. When the university failed to respond, student activists intervened, making it impossible for him to teach and even preventing a job offer, eventually forcing his resignation.

When UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was accused of repeated harassment and misconduct, his university did very little. His colleagues, however, responded swiftly by punishing him professionally by un-inviting him from conferences, publicly naming him, and pushing for his ouster. He eventually resigned. When the university failed to respond, other astronomers stepped up.

Looking over the current situation with Richmond, I’m glad that George Washington University’s Anthropology Department – a place I currently call home – has taken the actions that it has. It’s critical that faculty stand behind students in such positions, and it’s critical that those who abuse power face consequences.


Thesis: Complete

Dear readers, the time has come.

Yesterday, I handed in the final draft of my M.A. thesis in accordance with my degree requirements. I then promptly went home and fiddled with the headers and added an acknowledgements section, so really it’s doubly finished.

I didn’t have a senior thesis in college, just a slightly longer class paper. I also spent all of my senior spring in a high school classroom student teaching. Therefore, this is the first time I’ve had the just-finished-a-giant-project-and-am-about-to-graduate-what-do-I-do feeling. It’s kind of weird.

I first drafted grant proposals for my thesis in October/November 2012. I went to Uganda and the Congo in June 2013. I read a lot for my project between then and now, and talked about it a lot too. And here I am, May 2014, handing in a 150 page declaration that I think I know what I’m talking about.

I haven’t decided what to do with it just yet. I’ve spent the last six months stitching a bunch of disparate parts together, but I will inevitably crack it like an egg and try to make some scholarly omelettes out of it.

As for now, I have some papers to grade, and then I will busy myself with other kinds of tinkering since thesis-tinkering is a now fruitless hobby. But, I leave you with one common artifacts: the abstract. Hopefully it’ll pique your interest for things to come.

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Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.


Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [‘Do What You Love’] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.

Summer Plans in Africa

Greetings, dear reader. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry for inundating you with only weekend reading lists and none of the usual amateur commentary that usually comes along during the week. Things have been busy here – I’m halfway done with my time at Yale now, and final papers this semester were a wreck for me. Now that school’s out, though, I have a small group of draft posts waiting in the wings. Until then, though, I thought I’d give you an update on recent occurrences in the House of Backslash.

This summer, I will be abroad for about two months, spending time in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (and maybe South Sudan) to conduct thesis research. I’ll then be spending a short bit of time in Benin with my BFF who is a PCV there. A short note on my thesis, for those interested:

In the early 2000s, a radio station in Gulu, northern Uganda, ran programming that urged defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is comprised predominantly of conscripted youths. The defection messaging promoted the Ugandan government’s amnesty program and encouraged rebels to surrender and be reintegrated back into their home communities. There has been a lot of fanfare about the defection messaging, but it hasn’t been without criticism. During the mid- to late-2000s, the LRA moved westward towards northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Central African Republic (CAR). Since then, radio stations in both of those countries and South Sudan have been using similar tactics in urging defections. Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Relief Service and Invisible Children have helped patch together a network of HF radios that function as an early warning system for villages that are in danger.

My research plan is to better understand how radio is used in the LRA conflict and how it affects people in the region. I hope to be conducting interviews in Gulu about radio’s use in the early 2000s, and then doing the same for contemporary usage in Yambio, South Sudan, and Dungu, DRC. The goal of these interviews will be to get a clearer picture of what the radio programs said, who was in charge of determining the programming, and how radio stations dealt with outsiders’ (NGOs or the government) involvement in their work.

I will then (hopefully) visit villages in DRC, most likely in Haut Uélé district, to learn about the HF radio stations. Similar to the first phase, I hope to learn more about how the messages function, who is in charge of operating them, and how villagers interact with those who help establish the stations. I would also like to look into how the messaging system affects the daily lives of civilians in these areas, and am interested in learning if the radios are used for anything beyond the NGOs’ intended purpose. Lastly, I’d like to evaluate the effects of the defection messaging in terms of actually encouraging defections. Both of these sections will depend on my resources and the situation on the ground, so I’ll provide updates once I’m there.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this over the course of the next year. I’ll try to post research notes from the field, and I’m sure that I’ll use the blog as I plod through the thesis-writing process, especially in preparation for any presentations I have to give. If you have any questions or comments, go for it. If you’ll be in any of these places, we should chat. As I prep for my trip, I should probably thank the Lindsay Fellowship, the Coca-Cola World Fund, and my parents for their financial help, my wife and my friends for the emotional support, and a host of grad students and professors for their intellectual help. I have never done a lot of the things I’ll be doing, and I’m glad I’ll have all three kinds of support throughout. As we get closer to June (I’ll be leaving at the beginning of the month) I’ll let you know more about my plans. Until then, keep on keeping on everybody.

Living Cheaply

The campaign this year is asking students to think specifically about whether they’re “living cheap enough,” Ainsworth said, and encouraging them to forgo immediate gratification for the payoff of graduating with minimal debt.

“I understand that it’s poverty wages,” he said of many students’ budgets, “but [they] have to understand what [they] do now, [they’ll] pay for later.”

That’s A. Jerald Ainsworth, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, quoted today over at Inside Higher Ed, on making sure poor people are acting poor enough. The article gets moderately better later on, when discussing other options such as limiting fees or raising loan limits, and makes a less than passing reference to maybe providing more assistantships to graduate students, but that quote is a kicker.

Graduate students work a lot, and are paid very little. Ainsworth even acknowledges that we’re talking about poverty wages. But his solution isn’t to provide more support, instead it’s making sure students continue to be poor, but do it better. But we all know that living cheap takes its toll on those doing the living, and when the very same people are doing the researching and the teaching, it’s students and work that are dragged down too. And if you put impoverished grad students alongside impoverished adjuncts, you’re talking about a bulk of the work being done on most campuses being a casualty to a lack of support or even adequate pay.

Living cheaply means pretty much everything is more time-consuming and life-draining. It’s difficult to teach at your best when you had to wait half an hour for the bus before sitting in the bus for another half hour to get to class on time, all the while lugging your bag full of assignments you had to grade while sitting at the laundromat. And since living cheaply means cooking instead of eating out, you might have to make that return trip for lunch. And keep in mind that amidst all of this, you’re trying to do top-quality research in order to move forwards, all the while trying to excel at living cheaply.

I’m curious how cheaply these people expect graduate students to live. I’m lucky enough that I have a manageable, rather than unbearable, amount of debt thanks to help from my parents with tuition and my wife working all of the time. Meanwhile I walk a couple of miles a day and frequently devise plans to get free food. I suppose that Ainsworth’s campaign might tell me to assess my utilities and turn the heat down a little, but they could make the required hospitalization insurance cheaper or provide more teaching positions or provide better notification of scholarships. And these are mostly PhD students we’re talking about. In some ways, they have it far better in that they receive tuition stipends and are first in line for teaching fellowships. Often times, MA students are self-financed and (if they’re lucky) get the leftover teaching assignments. Only one in my cohort of eleven are teaching this semester, and only some of us received funding for tuition.

Rather than teaching graduate students to be better at being poor, maybe provide a little more support for them?