Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Holy Hierarchy, Batman! Dissertation Defences and Food?

A few weeks ago, this thing became a topic on twitter and it just got new energy:

When I first heard of this, I was flummoxed.  Grad students are, pretty much by definition, poor.  Asking them to pay for the food and drinks at their dissertation defenses (I hate using the word thesis for the big hunk of research written by a PhD student) is just awful.  The inequality here is stark, as the grad student has both little money and little power.  The tenured profs (if you choose untenured profs to be your supervisor, well, damn) have both money and power, at least more than the grad student.

So, adding financial pressure to an already potentially fraught relationship is just ridiculous.  And wildly inappropriate.  I have never seen this "custom" where I was trained or where I have worked (three Phd granting institutions).  This may vary by discipline and/or by institution, but it is simply unfair and abusive.

This week, thanks to my trip to Normandy earlier this summer, I have been re-watching Band of Brothers.  In a scene taking place just before the big jump into Normandy, the beloved Lt. Winters is seen castigating the soon to be beloved Lt. Buck Compton.  For what?  For gambling with his men.  Buck thinks this is a great way to learn the new guys, since he just got assigned to Easy Company.  Winters argues that he should never put his men in the position where they are giving stuff, that they are in debt to, a superior officer.

While academia is not usually seen as hierarchical as the military (I have been disobedient to more than one department chair in my time--with mostly modest consequences), the relationship between adviser and advisee is not that dissimilar from officer to enlisted, as there is a wide gap in between in terms of money and power in both relationships.  I don't hold the lives of my students in my hands, unlike a military officer, but I do hold their careers in my hands.  I may not think about that much, but I am pretty sure the students do.  That is what privilege is all about--those who have it tend not to think about it, those who don't tend to feel threatened or insecure. 

Which goes to something very basic, identified by a dear departed uncle: with great power comes great responsibility.  While academics may not think they have great power, they very much do so over the PhD students they supervise.  I try to pay the bill whenever I have coffee or beer or lunch or dinner with graduate students (sometimes I forget or they move quickly).  I damn well never expect them to pay for me. 

So, I hope my fellow academics in other disciplines/regions start to consider exactly what they are doing with this tradition and end it.

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