I have stories. I think most people I know who went to graduate school do. Stories of abuse and predation of grad students by professors.

And what’s always been deeply troubling to me – I mean, beyond the pervasiveness of the harassment, of course – is that many of the professors perpetrating the abuse were the very same ones whose work was about theorizing and even dismantling systems of power and hierarchy.

I’ve watched the story of Nimrod Reitman and his former NYU grad school advisor Avital Ronell unfold in the pages of The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The Dangerous Intimacy of Grad School,” one headline read.

I left graduate school over a decade ago – not because it was too intimate, but because it was at once too controlling and too callous. So I think, as Corey Robin has written, that these discussions often get caught up on the sex and ignore the issues of power and domination – “Ronell’s largest claims were on his time, on his life, on his attention and energy, well beyond the legitimate demands of an adviser on an advisee.”

I do not believe this sort of behavior is exclusive to academia. Nor do I think that it’s particularly new.

Indeed, reading B. F. Skinner’s autobiography – I’m now on Book Two, which chronicles his time as a graduate student at Harvard and as an early career professor – it is so apparent that the “star system” has long, long roots. And as I think about Skinner’s own influence – how his name has become synonymous with teaching machines despite the others (inside and outside of academia) who were working in the field at the same time – I am certain that these systems of prestige and power deform the development of disciplines and skew the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Audrey Watters


Audrey Watters


Back to Archives