I recently posted about the practice of demanding that female students explain why there aren’t more women in the field. In one such incident, there was a command performance: another student called me at about 7am because a professor (we’ll call him Homunculus) insisted that she get other students to show up to some secret mini-conference in which all the old established guys in the field (and people from the younger generation who happened to be in the area so there was no cost to invite them) met to discuss the future of computer music. They’d kept the conference a secret from students, but at the last minute expected us to show up. In the end, there were just the two of us. We sat around for hours until about 4pm, when we were asked to explain why there weren’t more women in computer music. Fun.
The othering was pretty obnoxious. But what really bugged the most was that this was a command performance by Homunculus. The more women in the field I meet, the more I find that Homunculus has a pretty longstanding reputation as a sexist jerk. But the context of the conversation didn’t actually allow me to even mention Homunculus and his issues with women.
Homunculus certainly did everything he could to make my life miserable as a student. He gave everyone else in his seminar an A and me a B- but couldn’t explain why. My colleagues and I brainstormed and couldn’t come up with anything I’d done wrong that one of the guys (yes, they were all guys) hadn’t done to a greater degree. We pretty much all thought Homunculus had a problem with me being a woman. Homunculus just didn’t give me lower grades on his own. Another faculty member did the same thing and told me in confidence that Homunculus had insisted on it. That faculty member told me that I was the best student in the class. But what with not having tenure yet and Homunculus wielding tremendous political power and putting his foot down, that faculty member didn’t feel comfortable sticking their neck out.
When some amazing performers decided to perform a piece I’d written for them at a student organized concert, Homunculus stepped in and insisted that my piece be pulled. He couldn’t give a reason for that either. As near as I can tell, Homunculus picks a student from every incoming class and bullies them mercilessly. Somehow I’ve never seen him go after anyone who wasn’t a women or an openly gay man.
The uncharitable interpretation of Homunculus’s pattern of behavior is that he just really loves the thrill of abusing power. Maybe that’s so, but let’s assume the charitable interpretation.
The charitable interpretation of Homunculus’s behavior is that he simply takes the classic double standard to the extreme: When men do original things, they do them because they’re smart. They’ve thought about the history and context and their originality is a sign of brilliance. Men don’t write serial music because they’ve thought of something new and timely. When women do original things, it’s because they just don’t know How It’s Done. Women don’t write serial music because they don’t know how to construct a proper tone row. Unless he’s just seeking out easy targets for abuse, the notion of women innovating is inconceivable to Homunculus. Innovation from a woman is proof of incompetence rather than proof of originality. The best a woman can do, in Homunculus’s world, is re-invent the wheel with really great craftsmanship.
In this situation and this power imbalance, I as a student couldn’t explain that guys behaving like Homunculus were a problem. Homunculus was sitting right there and he’d just stopped actively trying to destroy my academic life a semester or two earlier. So I opted for pointing out what some other fields were doing better. I thought no one wanted to hear anything negative, but they might bite if presented with cheap effective things that other disciplines did that ours wasn’t doing. I went for the lowest hanging non-blaming fruit I could think of. Homunculus dismissed this out of hand as beyond the scope of what anyone might imagine doing. I don’t know where he imagined the conversation would go. I can’t think of anything that would’ve pushed buttons less than the answer I gave. But I’d hate to think what would have happened if I’d explicitly pointed out his behavior.
It could be a generational thing. The support from my colleagues when everything went down with Homunculus was pretty amazing and unanimous. I’ve actually met several other ex-computer-musicians who had similar problems with professors like Homunculus at other institutions. Maybe there will always be faculty like Homunculus; maybe they will die out and this won’t be an issue in 30 years. I really don’t know.
But Homunculus didn’t create this problem all by himself. I could’ve handled just Homunculus. What I couldn’t handle was everyone else on the faculty watching Homunculus target new students year after year. The excuse is always academic freedom. But what we are talking about isn’t academic freedom. Academic freedom is to protect the right of faculty to pursue research whether or not it’s politically expedient. It does not exist to protect bullies.
If you’re tenured faculty and you’ve got a bully in your midst, you’ve got an ethical obligation to do something about it. I get sitting back and doing nothing when it happens once. You don’t want to rock the boat. You’ve got to work with this person for the rest of your professional life. But after it’s happened several times, you’ve got a pattern. And if you don’t rock the boat, for the rest of your professional life, this person will target your students over, and over, and over.
So do something about it already. Censure them. Mentor students through filing official complaints with the university. Document abuse and create a paper trail to make future action easier. Do whatever it takes to blunt Homunculus’ political power within your department and university. Doing nothing is an implicit endorsement of bullying. You are contributing to the problem. You don’t get to do nothing and still be perceived as a nice person.