The NASEM report on gender harassment has generated well-deserved attention and conversation, including for us at JHU (WFF@H co-chairs will run a workshop on the report at this year’s DLC conference on October 19, for example). One core message of the report: that “the most potent predictor of sexual harassment is organizational climate” (x). Along these lines, Recommendation #5 reads: “Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty” (7).
Meanwhile, the lawsuit against NYU German and comparative literature professor Avital Ronell has pressed us acutely on the conditions of these power structures, particularly in the context of a crushing job market for humanities PhDs.
Rather than gawk at wreckage surrounding the Ronell situation, here we consider how to approach “diffusing” the hierarchy and dependency built into graduate student-advisor relationships. Drew Daniel (from our English dept) offers a compelling reflection in“Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor.” A brief excerpt:
Graduate advising is intimate and intense. You are forging a bond with someone that lasts for many, many years and has affective highs and lows. Over time, you learn to ride out both the emotional peaks and the depressive troughs. It is a partnership but it is also structurally, fundamentally unequal. One of you is learning how to do something; one of you is advising the other on how to do that thing based on prior experience and presumed expertise. Both parties are catalyzed by the changes taking place in a piece of grad student writing as it emerges in an intersubjective space between unequal collaborators. The advisor must help the grad student bring something new into the world which is the student’s own and which the advisor does not themselves already completely understand.