The ethics of graduate advising

Over at the Leiter Reports, there’s beena lively discussion   about irresponsible (or even abusive) advising and teaching in philosophy graduate programs.   But the larger question is what is to be done?

First,  it would be valuable to have some idea of whether such abusive and irresponsible behavior is close to the norm or whether it’s at a level we might expect in any discipline or profession. (You can’t weed out every bad apple, I expect.)  There are plenty of anecdotes provided in the
comments there, and I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories (or perhaps
we’re the ones telling said stories!). Yet to my knowledge, no systematic intradisciplinary study of graduate student experiences or of teaching and advising practices has ever been undertaken.  This would be a worthwhile project for one of the standing committees of our esteemed professional organization to tackle.  In recent decades, ‘accountability’ has been a buzzword in higher education, but graduate teaching and advising appears to be one section of the academia that’s hardly subject to accountability at all. And there can’t be accountability without systematic information about the habits and practices within various graduate programs.

So PEA Soup readers: How big a problem is lousy and/or unethical graduate teaching and advising, and what can we do about it? We here at PEA Soup are fond of standards of professional conduct.  Is it time to create a set of standards for graduate teaching and advising?

4 Replies to “The ethics of graduate advising

  1. The Leiter link is wrong, Michael — one extra occurrence of “http//”.
    From the remarks there, I get the feeling that the problem isn’t something that could be tackled by a set of standards. It’s more a matter of people not living up to the standards we all understand already.

  2. I think the problem is (as was pointed out) largely to do with the great imbalance of power: Grad students can’t complain when their career depends on their supervisor recommending them.
    However, the only reason that grad students can’t complain is because they can’t do it anonymously – obviously an anonymous letter wouldn’t help because the supervisor is bound to be able to guess who it is.
    Maybe staggered reports in order to ensure anonymity: If an assessment of gradute tutoring occured every 5 years (for example), then it might be easier for graduate students to complain without having the backlash, since their own report would be mixed in (anonymously, naturally) with everyone other student of the last 5 years.
    Thinking about that further, I would’ve thought a specified number of reports rather than a time period would make more sense – but I’m sure you get my point: make students report on their supervisor anonymously by delivering the reports in batches so that individual students cannot be identified.
    Just my two cents anyway.

  3. One thing that bothers me is that many professors seem to be aware that some of their colleagues are acting like miscreants, being abusive, falling down on the job, etc. Yet, few faculty seem willing to stand up and confront the situation or the individual.
    The bit about power skewed power relationships is a good point. However, it grad students should feel free to speakup like they would in most work places, and they shouldn’t have to fear retaliation. The problem with this though is that it appears that professors have all the protections. Given what I said above the appear to be protected by their peers, and with tenur they appear to be protected from the administration.

  4. I think that the fear of retaliation in philosophy is being greatly over-estimated, though I think in the sciences it may be more worrisome. In most departments I have had any dealings with if a student does not get along with his or her adviser, accommodations are made.
    In one case I know of at Princeton when I was there as a grad student, a student who would not take his adviser’s advice was actually funded to go to another institution and work with another adviser who was a top person in their field. My opinion of the case in question was that the underlying problem was actually the student’s fault and yet the faculty went out of their way to accommodate him. It is actually surprising the contortions faculty go through in order to not undermine a student’s chances at career success, including trying to stay off committees where they are pretty sure they would be unable to write a letter that helped the student get a job. And I know of multiple instances where faculty who thought a student was being ill-treated by another faculty member went out of their way to protect/help those students. So my claim is not that bad behavior does not happen, but that in general students are more worried about complaining than they need to be.
    I think partly this is a result of the way grad students are used by the University in philosophy vs. the sciences. In the sciences students tend to get bound to particular advisers and projects with their funding dependent on being part of a particular person’s grant proposal. By contrast in philosophy, students work for the department as TAs, and often do not TA for their advisers. Their funding is generally a departmental matter, and if the students are competent there will be some faculty member who willing to have them TA. To the extent students are badly treated, it is more likely to be through neglect than active animosity. And generally there will be other fair-minded people around to work with if they pissed off some particular faculty member.
    I also think that complaining to the person who is in fact screwing up may have more force than reporting the person to some third party. I think the primary motivator for most of us is a sense of pride in doing a decent job. Telling me that I’ve let you down is more apt to speed my attention to your paper than hearing that you’ve complained to my chair. If I do it regularly, my chair already knows. In fact, it may be that students would be surprised at how much the rest of us already know about our colleagues who are not pulling their weight. This may because students do in fact talk to one another and because at most decent departments students are at least partly colleagues to most of us and hence we wind up hearing the gossip eventually too.
    But the general advice on the Leiter site — talk to the grad students at the programs you are considering — is surely correct. While I don’t think the problem is widespread (probably every department has someone who is a bit of a problem, but most departments are not mostly like that), it is always good to find out about local conditions.

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