Saturday, January 15, 2011

Someone who has made my life hell

It is hard to choose just one nasty person to talk about here when there have been so many: the childhood bullies, incompetent and rude teachers, people I studied with in graduate school and nursing school, coworkers at a plethora of jobs, ex-boyfriends, frenemies.

Given this bounty, however, I will choose my graduate school thesis adviser. She managed to pull out all the stops to show me that she thought I was a piece of shit, over and over, for nine years.

I went to a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree. It was a supportive environment, and I flourished there intellectually. After I decided to walk the humanities path in my first year of college, it naturally followed that I would go on and get a Ph.D. in whatever I was studying. I arrived at college thinking I would major in French or Russian, but I fell in love with Near Eastern archaeology my very first semester. I set out a careful trajectory through my undergraduate years to make sure I was prepared for graduate school. 

My junior year abroad changed this. I was at Cambridge University, which has an excellent archaeology department. Near Eastern studies was not part of this, but instead in the School of Oriental Studies. I found myself in method and theory courses and thrown back into things Hellenic, which were not necessarily my passion. Bronze Age Greece is interesting, but the later it gets, the less I admit I care. Even today--shame, shame--my command of Greek history is sketchy. But that is off point.

I had an epiphany one cold winter night in Cambridge: I didn't love archaeology, I loved the visual studies aspect of things. Archaeology is the science; digging is wonderful, but it didn't dovetail as nicely with my literary bent as art history did.  

I returned to Bryn Mawr with the new goal of going to graduate school in art history, and decided that I wanted to follow my passion for things English by becoming an expert on Norman art and architecture. My home department couldn't help me with applying to art history graduate school to become a medievalist, so I took a few art history classes to make myself a viable candidate. The art history faculty didn't know me very well, but the medievalist suggested a few places to study that might appeal to me. I didn't realize--naively--when I applied that graduate school is about apprenticing yourself to someone. That someone had better like you and support you, or you will not get ahead. 

I applied to Berkeley, Northwestern, Michigan, and Chapel Hill, and was accepted at all four. When asked for advice on which to attend, everyone pointed me to Berkeley, then the American Mount Olympus of art history. So off I went to California, sight unseen. In retrospect and with better advice, I would have been much happier at Michigan with Ilene Forsyth, who focused on the Romanesque. But my bad luck held. 

I arrived in Berkeley to find myself a fresh medievalist with three other women, none of whom were very friendly. And so the evil game began: competition, backstabbing, jockeying for money and acknowledgment. 

The medievalist at Berkeley at that time was an extremely limited, insecure man who had a love for pretty much nothing except 13th century French manuscripts. When I told him I wanted to work on Norman art, he brusquely said that England was a province and not worth paying attention to. Anything truly worth studying was in France proper. Why look at Durham cathedral, he opined, when there was Caen? I am not one to hold my tongue or opinion when I am intellectually frustrated. I did not get along with this man, and very early in my first semester I decided there had to be a means of escape. 

I threw my lot in next with the ancient art specialist, feeling that perhaps I had overlooked certain charms of Classical art. Well, yes and no. I wrote a very good paper on how certain Hellenistic kings viewed and depicted the Celts in victory monuments, suggesting that there was a missing Celtic component to existing studies of these works of art. That became my Master's thesis, but I was still restless. I had no great longing to give over the next five years of my life to becoming fluent in Greek and Latin and spending the rest of my life contemplating visual and textual minutiae of Greece and Rome. 

In my second semester, I was taking a museum studies class and was confiding in a very senior graduate student about my apparent inability to find an adviser who thought that Britain was a worthwhile focus of attention. This graduate student worked with the Americanist and was completing her dissertation on John Singer Sargent, one of my favorite painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She suggested that I seek the counsel of her adviser. So I optimistically did as she suggested.

I set up an appointment and went to this professor's office. She is an East Coast blueblood, and looks the part. Whippet thin, conservatively dressed in well made outfits, a museum person who had sued the department for tenure on the grounds of sexism, and had won her suit. She had returned to the department and was--I would later discover--almost universally loathed by the other faculty members for her anti-Semitism, snobbishness, and less than exciting research. I would turn out to be a pawn in an unpleasant game of chess over the next nine years. 

This woman took me on as her student but had no time for me in office hours. She eviscerated my writing, told me that I was a second-rate thinker, and hated anything I did that wasn't based on "common sense." When I said something about Oscar Wilde's dress designs, she wanted to see receipts for the materials he had bought. She put me down for knowing things she didn't, didn't help me to prepare properly for my orals (which I passed, anyway), and although I was training to be a specialist in British modern art, she gave the teaching assistant slot for her British art class to someone specializing in 19th century American art--one of her darlings. 

If it hadn't been for Thomenon, who was caught in a similar web of deceit and nastiness with his own adviser, I would have murdered someone or committed suicide. I also found a relatively sympathetic soul in the body of the South Asian specialist, who took me under her wing and helped me broaden my knowledge of the Empire and how the Empire, in turn, affected the metropole. At one point, Thomenon said that I was a chick among the ducklings. I never properly fit in, and no one fought for me, either. 

Years dragged by, I researched without guidance and floundered. My adviser threw back version after version of my first chapter. I felt lost. I was hemmed in by a material culture dissertation that wasn't what I wanted to write. Finally, about five years into Ph.D. hell, I was in London trying to research. An avuncular soul took me aside and warned me that my adviser wrote nastily about me in her letters of "support," and that I would be better off to find people to write for me who wanted me to succeed. I had no idea that my adviser's already questionable ethics had sunk so low. I knew I was the poor stepchild in her intellectual home, but when she took me on, I thought that she would have the balls to back me up and find me a job. Nope. What hope did I have?

I decided that I couldn't drop out without the Ph.D. and let her win. It was a struggle, but at last I found a way to write my dissertation in a way that embraced my literary nature and my engagement with larger ideas of intellectual history. She was also being pressured by the department and university to get her students finished and out the door for statistical reasons. 

Although there was another tense moment on the day I was filing my dissertation--the department had not filed paperwork necessary to allow one of my untenured committee members to sign off on it--a deus ex machina in the form of the Dean of the Graduate School added himself to my committee by fiat and I was finished! At last.

I taught at various universities around the SF Bay Area while polishing my CV and applying for tenure-track academic positions, but I was told, again and again by my adviser, "Oh, no, I can't support you for that job. That's for X other student of mine." Never for me. I did, at last, get two interviews, one for a job at the University College Dublin, and one at Yale. Funny how I could get interviews there, but nothing at Iowa or other small colleges. Maybe it was that I was from Berkeley, maybe it was my "interesting" trajectory. Maybe it was that my own adviser told them that I was a piece of shit. 

So in many ways I really, really despise my "adviser" who advised me not a whit. In other ways I pity her for being piranha in a shark tank with Great Whites who really didn't like her and made her life hell--how awful is that? But I am far enough out of that mess now to see that what while what she did to me was horrible, she never managed to break me. I am still standing. She can rot in the hell she made for herself, all by herself. She will never quite be the superstar she wants to be or thinks she is, and delusion is far worse than knowing and accepting the truth.

I can smile about that. 


Cricket said...

Wow, she sounds like a real peach. ::big ass eye roll::

I think you're brilliant so that advisor can just go fry ice.

Love you.

Unknown said...

Good for you for not letting her win!

sostinkinhappy said...

Girl, I am singing the same song, just a different verse. So much of what you wrote here I could just copy and paste over into my blog.

Fortunately, push came to shove a bit earlier in my PhD path so I was able to jump ship. I lost about two years worth of time because of it, but all in all, I am glad I found a different adviser.

I am sitting here trying to wrap my head around what you went through and crappola...I don't think I would have finished. Actually, I *know* I wouldn't have finished! I am so impressed with you because even in the best of circumstances, that level of work is ridiculously difficult. With an adviser like that? Impossible unless you are super woman, like yourself!