Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared over at The Consulting Editor blog following the #BurnItDown Twitter action the last weekend in September. “An Adjunct Catching Fire” was a two-part guest post by “Adjunct Mockingjay.” We are reposting “An Adjunct Catching Fire” on Raging Chicken Press as part of our “Lives on the Line” series to serve as a reminder that some of the most intense battles normally take place away from the light of public scrutiny. The participants in #BurnItDown and the conversation that continues concerning the exploitation of adjunct faculty are turning that light on every cobwebbed corner of higher education. Please take a second and give The Consulting Editor some love and tell him that Raging Chicken Press sent you.
I’m one of the Katnisses of the world: I stand up for myself & defend others, but then go PTSD in a closet.
As a grad student, I had my research stolen by a rockstar scholar who yelled at me while calling me stupid. During her office hours.
That yelling is literal, not hyperbolic. A fellow class member walked in during the tirade and Rockstar apologized for yelling at me—she was smart enough to apologize in front of that student.
But maybe I should begin at the beginning.
I went to a Top 20 university for grad school where I took a Women in Media class from a rockstar scholar (hereafter, “Rockstar”). I had quoted her in papers as an undergrad, so I was excited to take a class from her.
It began innocuously enough: Rockstar said she was giving us the power to direct and teach the class. I am now instantly skeptical of any professor who uses this approach because the way Rockstar employed this pedagogical method exploited our class in two major ways:
- as a knowledge mill so she could rip off our ideas for her work;
- as a way to avoid actually teaching; and when she wasn’t pleased with what a student had to say during their presentation, she humiliated them in front of the entire class.
During the first class, we brainstormed a list of topics we wanted to cover, then we had to be responsible for “teaching” the class that week. The responsibilities included: finding readings to distribute to the class at least a week in advance and giving a 20-30 minute talk about the topic and leading the rest of the discussion.
We had enough material to get us halfway through October, because students were to present their topics each week (to fill the three-hour class). Rockstar said after that point, she would take charge of the course. Sometimes there was more than one student assigned to a topic, so what ended up happening was the class got so far behind because only one or two students had the chance to present. Another student and I were literally the last ones scheduled to go on October 19th. But the class ran so far behind that she and I did not get a chance to present until the last day of class. In December.
This may not sound so bad, except when you know that our class was scheduled to run once a week, 4:00pm to 6:50pm. But we never got out on time. Class ran until 9pm at a minimum, and sometimes we were getting out at 10pm. Once, we got out at 11pm. (But only once.)
That’s right, she kept us in class for two additional hours—sometimes three hours—every single class. (I can’t even fathom doing this to undergrads.)
After a few weeks of this happening, and being harassed, without fail, at the bus stop while I waited in a sketchy part of Los Angeles at 10 o’clock at night, I politely said at the beginning of class the next week that, after a particularly scary bus stop encounter, I needed to leave on time because the bus stopped running regularly after 7pm.
Rockstar was aghast that I would suggest such a thing and demanded that someone drive me home after class.
Now, maybe it wouldn’t have been so awkward if Rockstar hadn’t issued this order as an angry command, but putting me in the position where I couldn’t be self-sufficient made me uncomfortable regardless. Also, this was my small way to foment a polite rebellion. I thought that other people would jump in and back me up about ending the class on time; or, at the very least, the professor would be mindful about our class time once it was brought to her attention that I was being harassed at night, especially since we were forbidden to allow our classes to go long when we taught our undergrads during the day.
Instead, Rockstar used this as an opportunity to officially announce three hours was “simply not enough time to cover the material every week,” and that we needed at least an extra hour. She joked that she had asked for a longer time slot but was told that the university didn’t have longer class sessions for grad students. To her credit she did poll the class right then and there. She asked someone—anyone—to disagree. I was not surprised that no one did. I reiterated my bus dilemma as one last desperate measure.
But, by an essentially unanimous “vote,” it was decided that class would officially go at least an extra hour every week—and I ended up being carted back home on a weekly basis by a number of rotating classmates who said it wasn’t that far out of their way and could give me rides.
In addition to the weekly stress of our “bonus” class, the practice of having students run the class didn’t go smoothly. Rockstar would be silent during the presentation, and often would tear the student apart in front of the entire class afterward. One week, a student presented on Something’s Gotta Give. She spoke about Nora Ephron, pleasure, and problematic feminism, and posed a question: How can we recuperate problematic work such as this one?
After the student was done posing her questions to the class, we were all silent (as was normal) while we formulated our thoughts, and Rockstar went on a tirade about how we were no longer allowed to use the words subversive, problematic, or recuperative for the rest of the semester.
Another student gave a presentation about fashion, using Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette as an example of fashion as text–I want to say the argument was about visual excess and hyper-consumption, but I can’t quite remember what the presentation was about, per se, because all I can remember is what happened after the student was done. In a tone of voice that sounded like she was smelling dog shit, Rockstar said, “That’s it?”
After sitting in class with these kinds of scathing critiques from Rockstar, and after a speech she gave at the beginning of one session where she specifically said that students were not doing a good enough job at running the class, I went to Rockstar’s office hours six weeks before I was supposed to give my presentation on women in comics.
(Not this kind, unfortunately.)
I asked for advice on what my approach should be for my presentation: representation of women in comics, women comics writers, or an ethnographic study of women who read comics? I said I was leaning towards representation of women in comics, and, in particular, romance comics because Harlequin started publishing their most popular romance novels as manga, printed entirely in pink or purple ink. I thought this might be the way to go because we’d already covered romance novels and soap operas, so it’d be building on things we’ve already discussed in class, and I could also talk about globalization and hegemonic femininity.
But trying to talk about the intention of women comics writers felt impossible without tracking down creators to interview, and doing an ethnographic study of readers felt beyond the scope of the presentation–and like a burden of reading for the other students–so I needed to narrow it down, but didn’t know how to choose. I brought in the Harlequin manga titles I wanted to talk about.
Rockstar called me stupid for not knowing more about comics, and she called me stupid again for needing help.
Yet she asked to borrow the Harlequin manga.
I kid you not: she called me stupid. But I left out that she yelled at me for needing help and she yelled at me that I was stupid.
I let her borrow my manga. (I still don’t know why I did that.)
I went to her office hours the next week–because I’m a glutton for punishment–with alternate presentation ideas. Maybe I should do TV instead, since we were doing TV the week before I was scheduled to go? Could I switch my topic since apparently comics are obviously not the way to go?
She yelled at me again. But a fellow student walked in while she yelled at me–because the door is open during office hours. Rockstar made sure she apologized in front of the other student. Probably not for yelling at me, I suspect, but for being seen yelling at me.
I went back a few weeks later to pick up my manga, and Rockstar told me that she was putting my ideas in the revised introduction to the second edition of her book.
I was struck dumb and after a few seconds said, “Okay. Glad I could be helpful.”
She didn’t yell or call me stupid. But I also didn’t ask for help. I collected my manga and left without sitting down.
Did she just tell me she was stealing my ideas? Is that supposed to make it okay?
Rebellion should never be polite.
A rockstar scholar stole the research of someone she called stupid.
Just let that sink in for a moment—not because it’s especially heinous, but, in case this, or something similar, has ever happened to you. In academia, know that usually if someone doesn’t like you, if someone abuses you emotionally or verbally, it’s not about you. It’s about their insecurity.
And it should be reported.
As a survivor of abuse, I don’t always have the impulse to tell others. I tend to internalize the abuse I experience because I start thinking I must have deserved it.
The more I thought about the intellectual theft, the longer we stayed in class every week, the more she systematically humiliated every student who wasn’t a “favorite,” I started getting angry. But I wasn’t necessarily getting angry for the reasons I just listed because I didn’t know it was okay to be angry—no one would say a word against Rockstar, not even when we were outside class, so, being a new grad student, I couldn’t put into words what I was angry about, per se.
I became suicidal that semester. Rockstar triggered all of the insecurities about being worthless I was trying to suppress from childhood. I had worked so hard to prove my father wrong, that it was nearly the end of me when someone I respected zeroed in on that vulnerability and tried to blow me to pieces.
The only thing that kept me from going through with it was that, for the first time, I realized that I was angry. But I didn’t understand where the anger should be directed. As my husband and I sat and talked on the kitchen floor, I realized I wasn’t angry with myself.
I was angry at Rockstar.
Getting angry was the only way I had of not going through with killing myself that semester. So I started complaining to fellow students in my creative writing class before class would start, but no one told me to report Rockstar—reporting her was not even something that was on my (our?) radar! That is so embarrassing to admit, but reporting was a huge blind spot for me precisely because I was indoctrinated to accept abuse.
Never accept abuse.
I should’ve reported Rockstar. I just didn’t know where to go. In retrospect, I should have written a formal complaint to the chair of the department, used the same letter for the Dean of Students, and I would have forwarded it to Rockstar so she could know that I was reporting her abusive behavior. If I were the same person at 25 as I am at 33, I would have brought it up during class–even if it meant no one joined me in confronting how she was treating us, but just so they would know that someone was calling her on it and they weren’t alone.
Other things that happened in that class:
- Rockstar held the final class at her house,
- which meant the PowerPoint presentation I spent weeks making was useless (and I give really good presentations—no reading off slides nonsense) because
- the Other Student and I had to give our presentations in Rockstar’s cramped living room, and
- a large portion of the class was noticeably tipsy because the schedule transpired thusly: Other Student’s presentation, then dinner with wine, then me, so
- it was 9:30pm when I gave my presentation, and
- a large portion of the class was tipsy, so
- there was basically no discussion of my presentation.
The way the assignments were supposed to run was: you give your presentation, the following week you submit a 5-page paper on your topic, revised from class discussion, Rockstar provides feedback, you use these 5 pages for the basis of your final 25 page essay.
Since Other Student and I were giving our presentations on the last day of class, our 25-page papers due 5 days later, I made sure I handed my 5 pages over to Rockstar at her house.
During dinner I asked Other Student what she had planned to do, and Other Student informed me that Rockstar told her to turn in her 5 pages weeks ago so Rockstar could give her feedback ahead of time. Rockstar never made a similar arrangement with me.
After my presentation, I gave my 5 pages to Rockstar and she said she would email me comments. She emailed me the following two sentences on the day the 25 page paper was due:
The only thing I wanted to say about the five pages, which were well written and on the right track, is to push yourself a bit to think about the issues raised in the relevant readings. But over all, I thought you were off to a good start.
She gave me a B- for the class, which is the grad school equivalent of failing because anything lower than a B doesn’t count toward your course credits.
In the Amazon preview of Rockstar’s book, the one where she told me she was stealing my ideas to my face, I see a friend’s classroom contributions plagiarized as well.
So it wasn’t just me.
I should have reported her. Silence is not the ally I need. And rebellion should never be polite.
The following semester, I am happy to report, I got myself into therapy and it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I am convinced it’s why I’m still alive. If you come from a similar family culture where the phrase, “You need therapy!” turns the option into a pejorative, try to fight against your programming and get the help you need. And if you are ever abused, or witness the abuse of others, report it—even if you have to do it anonymously to feel safe. You and your classmates deserve to feel safe, and to survive and thrive.
That same semester, for the first two weeks of classes, I bounced around trying to find a critical class where I felt safe. Being on the creative track, as opposed to the critical track in my department, compounded my issues of being a fraud from that heinous fall semester—but I found a gender studies class taught by a wonderful professor who changed the way I thought, opened the door for what my dissertation would be about, and showed me the kind of professor I wanted to be.
Near the end of the spring, my professor mentioned in passing that she had a conversation with Rockstar about me. She didn’t go into the details of that conversation, only that it was surprising. When I checked my grades, I noticed Rockstar had changed my grade from a B- to a B.