Shaming Our Graduate Students

Photo by ttarasiuk

Photo by ttarasiuk

I have been quite open about the traumatizing impact of my graduate training. Here I am, on research leave during my fourth year on the tenure-track, still griping about this soul-crushing chapter in my life. In working through the trauma, and attempting to answer questions that haunt me — Why me? Why is this still affecting me years later? — I have uncovered many layers to the trauma that was grad school. Most recently, I have identified one of the most impactful factors of graduate school that explains its lasting impact: the use of shame to train me.

From my own experience, I would define shame as an intense, prolonged feeling of anguish or angsts over who I am (or who I was or who I fear I may become). I will quote Brené Brown here to state more articulately, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love belonging” (p. 69 of Daring Greatly). It is crucial to distinguish the shame that we feel over who we are from the guilt we feel because of what we have done. You can apologize and, hopefully, be forgiven for doing something wrong, but it feels as though you can never apologize enough or be forgiven for being something wrong.

Graduate training is just as much about teaching graduate students what to do (research and, if you’re lucky, teaching) and even how to think as it is about who to be. My graduate program required a three-semester sequence of “pro sem” (professional seminars) in which we learned about navigating graduate school and academe more generally. Though this is the only explicit training centered heavily or exclusively around professional (rather than intellectual, scholarly, or pedagogical) training, so much of graduate school is professional socialization. Professors are in the business of resocializing their students to become scholars, not simply to do scholarship. Unlike undergraduate education, grad students aren’t simply learning from their professors; they are learning to become (like) their professors.

The attempt to actually socialize grad students is where the problems begin, particularly for students who are radical and/or marginalized. With little training for advising graduate students, many graduate professors default to what their professors taught them; thus, they continue the legacy of creating clones of themselves rather than independent and autonomous scholars. For some, this is intentional, owing to their intellectual arrogance; for others, they don’t know of any other models and do not have the time or interest in finding or devising them. Interestingly, this sounds a lot like parenting; you either do what your parents did or you don’t because you hated the way your parents raised you. Indeed, my main advisor’s approach was to be invasive and overly hands-on in my training (sometimes spilling into unsolicited personal advice) to compensate for the neglectful training he received from his own grad school professors.

Like parents, I found that some grad school professors resorted to attempts to shame me for my decisions, my career goals, my priorities, my health status, my politics, and (at least implicitly) my identities. At the time, I simply assumed my professors just had a bad habit of making passive aggressive comments.

One professor, in an effort to make me feel bad (or shame me) for prioritizing activism, remarked — “what… too much service?” — when I revealed to her that I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I did not bother to justify that service was one of the few outlets I had to keep going in grad school. Rather, I simply said that the pressure to publish (which I started feeling as early as my first semester) was beginning to take a toll.

Another professor snidely responded, “OK, ‘Mister Activism’,” when I proposed a collaborative conference session on the social psychology of sexuality between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association. You would think I proposed a queer kiss-in at the conference to protest the discipline’s legacy of devaluing research on sexuality and LGBTQ communities.

A third interrupted my practice “elevator speech,” to ask — “we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” — after only one sentence of my introduction, that I came to academe by way of activism. Her humor did not indicate exaggeration or fiction; another professor’s public message to me confirmed her assessment of the goal of graduate school: deradicalization.

Short of concerns about limited time, I still do not understand these professors’ deep commitment to eliminating activism from my career as a scholar. I have them to thank for my record of “objective” publications. Activism has never posed a problem to my work as an academic; if anything, it has enhanced it, steering me into research that I actually care about and see myself in.

I suppose their concern is purely philosophical or epistemological (or, really, political). Unlike learning my subfields via classical theoretical pieces, debates in the field, and classical and contemporary empirical pieces, they did not offer evidence of the evils of activism. They took the approach of “trust me on this” or “don’t do activism because I said so.” They did not use the tools of scholarship to train the activism out of me, or to convince me to compartmentalize it. Rather, they resorted, from the start, to the use of shame. And, to a fair degree, they were successful in forcing me to learn to hate, be suspicious of, and feel bad about my activist spirit – the consequences of a fragmented, traumatized self. I am still struggling today to see myself as a legitimate scholar because I cannot help but be a scholar-activist. Shame on me!

I am not alone in being the subject of shame-based “training” in graduate school. For example, I know of others who were, like me, shamed for taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts school, thereby “wasting” their advisors’ investment in their careers. Professors aren’t relying on scholarly theorizing or findings to convince their students that jobs at Research I universities are the superior career path; rather, Father (or Mother) Knows Best, and you should feel bad for not wanting that life.

I have directly observed or heard about fellow graduate students being shamed for prioritizing their health, family, or personal life in general over their training. I have noticed an awful trend in the academy broadly to shame women who desire to or actually have children. Despite the possibility of balancing school with family life, some professors (or colleagues and administrators) resort to questioning mothers’ commitment to their academic careers. Mothers are left to feel ashamed if, in the end, they are not able to succeed in the academy; of course, they are discouraged from interrogating the motherhood penalty, sexism, lack of family-friendly policies, and excessive demands to publish as barriers to their ability to succeed.

Graduate programs, I believe, are using the unspoken tool of shame to force graduate students to conform to the ideal academic career. It is an incredibly effective strategy, for grad students will adopt the tendency to self-police for years after they earn their PhDs. But, this shame reflects conformity into a certain way to be a scholar — essentially, the detached and unattached (read: “objective”) middle-class white heterosexual cis man without disabilities who can put his career above all else. Shame on you if you dare to be someone else.

4 thoughts on “Shaming Our Graduate Students

  1. Yes. Thank you, I have felt this in multiple departments in differing forms. Eric, you bring the truths of my queer disabled heart to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SHAME on the shamers. Can’t we expect a higher level of conscious behavior from educators? We can – and we must. Keep calling them out.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”


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