When They Come For You — And They Will! A Survival Guide.
An edgy essay by A.S. Urvivor
APP Editors’ Note: A.S. Urvivor, aka ASU, is a serious philosopher, over 30 and female, who teaches at a public university somewhere in the English-speaking world.
When I was tipped off about your movement (by a subversive friend) and began reading your edgy posts, my heart leapt for joy as I began to recall feelings I’d had about doing philosophy a long long time ago…
In the acute and take-no-prisoners analysis offered in your post:
I am option iii).
For better or worse, I am currently “inside” academic philosophy, living a double life.
Occupying this position poses particular dangers.
Jeff Schmidt in the excellent book Disciplined Minds comments on the particular hatred one can attract in the modern University by serving not the institution’s petty potentates, but a higher calling of one’s own choosing.
They will notice, and they will hate it, and don’t think that putting your head down, doing great work and earning international recognition will save you.
In some places, this will make the situation much worse.
All this happened to me, which culminated in a concerted and wildly expensive campaign on the part of my University to separate me from my employment.
What goes on behind the scenes in some Universities under the shield of HR “confidentiality” is truly shocking and disgusting (and illegal, but to prove it you’ve got to go to court and spend a WHOLE bunch of money….).
Yet unlike some others, I managed to survive and keep my job.
I’ve decided to post my story here, for two reasons:
1. Though I have the utmost respect (and on some days envy) for the barricade-storming, “fuck you”-shouting clarity of those who choose option ii) (exit professional philosophy and pursue real philosophy outside the academy), not every serious philosopher is able to do this for financial reasons, or at least do it at the present time.
So I offer this as a practical resource for option iii) people who truly love philosophy.
If “They” do try to get rid of you — and believe me, “They” might — here are some tips to survive to live another day, continue to get paid and do the philosophy you were born to do.
2. Though I find Mr Nemo and his mysterious co-writers incredibly articulate and dazzlingly funny about the general fucked-up nature of current professional philosophy, so far the narrative has mainly centered around men who want to do real philosophy and how much crap they have to deal with.
To my mind, even more needs to be said about the even more infinitely mountainous piles of crap women who want to do real philosophy have to deal with.
Here’s my story.
When I joined University X I thought the professionalism in my work area was not what it could be in a number of ways, particularly regarding gossip and (ahem) staff-student relationships.
As an idealistic academic, in my first tenure-track position, I endeavored to make suggestions for improvement.
These were met with a series of increasingly critical remarks about my (female) personality, e.g. “I know that you have very strong views about certain issues, but that is just not how we do things around here.”
Over time, tensions built up within the Pseudo-Family from Hell to the point where my relationships with a number of students had been seriously undermined by colleagues gossiping with them about me.
Suggestions about ameliorating this unhealthy pattern for the benefit of our department were not met favorably either.
I felt a lot of despair but turned my attention to publishing, communicating with colleagues outside the institution and building up an international reputation.
This only seemed to make things worse.
Things came to a head when I questioned a decision made by a manager, overturning a previous undertaking she’d made to me, in favor of another colleague who was much more the “in-crowd.”
She refused to discuss it, then some hours later marched into my office and delivered a torrent of personal abuse.
I “needed to be told” that I “thought I was better than everyone,” and everyone in the team hated my personality and were complaining about it constantly behind my back.
I was devastated — the overtness of this attack seemed to cross a new, scary line.
I’d heard that if one received abusive comments in the workplace one should write them down.
So I did that, and put them in a letter of complaint to the manager’s manager, citing the University’s policy on bullying and harassment, which the behavior seemed to clearly fall under.
This action began a major ordeal for me.
My letter was passed to HR, and a large process then began to spiral.
I met with HR and was encouraged to make my complaint informal rather than formal.
I was initially happy to do this, trying to resolve the behavior with least damage to all involved (BIG MISTAKE!).
Then I was offered a 3-way meeting “to resolve things.”
To my shock, the manager was completely unrepentant for her behavior and delivered even more personal abuse!
I felt I had no choice but to walk out.
A stand-off ensued.
I was then offered mediation with the manager, which I accepted (BIG MISTAKE! Mediation, as voluntary, is not effective to address bullying in the first instance).
That process was unsatisfactory in a number of ways.
To obtain any mediation agreement outlining better behavior, I was required to retract my letter of complaint.
I felt uncomfortable about this, but did it in good faith.
I was not told by the mediators that I had a 90 day legal grace period to reconsider this decision.
A week or so after those 90 days were up, to my shock, I received 3 formal complaints about absurdly trivial, contrived matters — from the manager and two close colleagues, while all the comments I had recorded in my letter were now nullified by my retraction.
At this point, HR initiated a formal investigation — of me!
They hired an external legal expert.
I also hired a lawyer, which I should have done much earlier (BIG MISTAKE).
The investigation went on for almost a year.
The complainants were given free rein to invite parties to testify concerning anything at all they didn’t like about me.
They invited all of my current colleagues, an adjunct who was bitter as he didn’t have a permanent job, and a student who’d complained about an essay grade I’d given.
Everyone, bar one principled colleague, encouraged by the complainants, went in to be interviewed and put on record a string of negative personal remarks about me.
These included “She is concerned with her own professional status,” “She thinks she’s better than our University”.
(GOT SEXISM — YOU BUNCH OF SNIVELLING ARSEHOLES?)
It was a textbook example of “mobbing.”
Meanwhile I had to work alongside these people and not put a foot wrong in my own work performance.
After 9 months I received a “draft report” upholding 2.5 of the “complaints,” for reasons I couldn’t understand.
My lawyer advised that my employment was now in serious jeopardy.
I was then invited by HR to a disciplinary hearing, with possible outcome of “Final Written Warning” (after which one more complaint can result in termination).
The disciplinary hearing was run like a Star Chamber in the bowels of the HR building– all confidential of course!
I had no choice but lawyer up and make arguments that all of these supposed highly serious issues were without foundation (which they were).
The thing took a whole afternoon, after which it was obvious to all in the room the University had no case.
[N.B. In retrospect, this was a key moment.
Once I had survived this far, if the University wanted to take the matter further, they would have to go to court.
Although they had been threatening and frightening me with complaints and investigations all along the way, this was actually the very last thing they would want.
If we went to court, at last the veil of confidentiality they had draped over their behavior would be lifted, and who knows what the public would make of what had transpired so far.
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND!]
3 months later a finding of no disciplinary outcome was emailed to me, I was $35 000 out of pocket, and the manager never received the slightest sanction for her original abusive behavior.
Yet in an important sense, I had won.
WORKPLACE BULLYING IN THE PROFESSIONAL ACADEMIC STATE: A GUIDE FOR WOMEN.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED AND WISH TO PASS ON:
- Never underestimate how much it pisses people off to see a confident woman doing really great work. This applies to female colleagues as much as male!
- Most academic philosophers will be utter cowards when they see a colleague being victimized, even (I’m tempted to say especially) if they work on issues like “virtue” or “justice.”
- The true enemy of the highly talented woman in academia is not the high-flying male power-broker. It is the mediocre man. This man might have gone to a very “good” school, worked on all the “right” (safe) topics, and yet his work is boring as shit and at some point it becomes clear his career has ‘failed to launch’. If our profession ever starts appointing more on merit, this man is going to be the first to drop off the twig, you will take his job, and he knows it.
- The rule of law in the employment arena may be weak to a degree that truly shocks you.
- Yet at the same time the rule of law in the employment arena does exist, and impose some constraints. It is extremely important to learn exactly what these are. Details vary considerably in different jurisdictions and yet they are vital to what will happen to you on the ground. Hire a good lawyer, and hire early, if only for advice. The fees will make your eyes water.
- Never ever ever (ever) resign, if you have no other job to go to. Once you take that step it will be seized on instantly and there is no reversing it. Why do the bullies’ dirty work for them?
- Part of how this game is often played is to create a situation where the target feels they have no option but to resign, for their mental health. (This is called “constructive dismissal,” which amuses me somewhat: surely this is one of the least “constructive” things one can do to a person).
- Mental health is not to be trifled with, and everyone has a point where they must get out of a situation for psychological safety. But consider very carefully where exactly your breaking point is. Could it be further than you think? What if…you came in to work despite everything that is happening, and laughed at how everyone is running around, hating you, filled with drama? Because this behavior really is quite stupid and ridiculous. Meanwhile you kept drawing a salary and using it to do great philosophy? On my good days I managed to do that, and I survived to get another academic job (eventually). YMMV.
- If you choose to challenge bullying behaviors, even behind the scenes and confidentially, there will be a significant counter-reaction. Retaliation towards you is, sadly, just something you should expect. This was my largest area of naivety. It turns out no-one likes being described as a bully! The irony is that people who are not bullies will probably be horribly upset, and try and sit with you and resolve the matter, but people who are will go ballistic. (You’d think they’d be embarrassed or afraid to, because it would make it so obvious that your allegation was true. Trust me, that’s not how they think.)
- Don’t go into mediation with the bully unless and until there have been some sanctions, or ownership of the problem on their part. Otherwise you will be put at a significant disadvantage, as mediation settlements are voluntary.
- Practice self-care in every possible way you can conceive of (physical, emotional, spiritual…) This will be a long game, if you decide to dig in and survive.
- Finally and most importantly: your moral high ground must be maintained at all costs — it’s one of your only weapons in this situation. So don’t do anything back to the bully, or they will cry wolf and the situation will quickly descend into murk. Don’t even speak to them unless you absolutely have to. Keep right away until you know you are safe.
For more excellent reading on workplace bullying — this site was a lifeline for me.
Good luck, and keep doing philosophy!
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Monday 22 May 2017.