Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

The Overlooked Lesson of the Ronell-Reitman Case

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

It shouldn’t take a case like Avital Ronell’s to make us pay attention to graduate advising. Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University, was recently suspended from teaching for a year for the sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her former Ph.D. advisees. Reitman, who had brought a Title IX complaint against Ronell after he graduated, has further claimed that Ronell’s lukewarm recommendations have hindered his search for an academic job. Ronell disputes all the charges.

This case is strange for many reasons. One is that Ronell is female and Reitman is male — an inversion of the usual pattern for sexual-harassment cases. Further, Ronell is a prominent scholar. And the kicker: Ronell is lesbian, and Reitman is gay. The two have been flinging he said/she said barbs at each other since his accusations went public. More than 50 scholars signed an open letter of protest of NYU’s investigation, and now that the university found that he was sexually harassed, Reitman has sued NYU for damages.

"What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?" asked The New York Times."Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic," said Britain’s The Times. The public fascination is no wonder. This is bizarre stuff.

The Ronell case is also not an outlier at all. It illustrates the typical structural problems that attend graduate advising, especially of the doctoral kind. Educators don’t talk enough about those problems. Even now, when they flare into view, we join the general public in gaping at the burning tree rather than considering the dry, crackling forest it’s part of.

Graduate advising is institutional. That’s definitionally true: Students get their degrees from a university, not an adviser or a committee. Yet in practice, we treat graduate advising as personal — the private property of the individual professors who do it.

That combination of the personal and the private makes graduate advising a potential tinderbox.

Consider a deliberately unsensational scenario. Let’s say a professor is engaging in questionable advising practices — like putting a dissertation student through 18 drafts of an article that was ready to be sent out for publication months ago. If a colleague in the same department read the manuscript and saw the student losing traction, do you think that colleague would take the professor aside and offer some friendly suggestions? In practice, that conversation rarely happens. Usually the colleague decides to mind his or her own business.

But whose business is it, really? Graduate education is the responsibility of an entire department — or, to view it on an even wider scale, of the university itself. When a student chooses an adviser, it’s not as though the student is withdrawing from the department’s common culture to enter the adviser’s private world. So why do we act as though that were true?

The roots of this habit of thinking — and of the resulting practice — lie in the American university’s European past. The founders of American research universities were mainly inspired by German models. And in German universities during the 18th and 19th centuries, the learned professor radiated with power and intellectual allure, an effect that the historian William Clark calls "academic charisma." The charismatic professor was more of a master instructing acolytes than a mere teacher advising students.

American research universities imported that straitened and hierarchical worldview into the culture of graduate education here. Laurence Veysey points out in The Emergence of the American University that the rise of "cults" around "magnetic" professors in the United States coincided with their general withdrawal (along with their students) from the public sphere, to live behind the walls of the ivory tower.

The opposite is true today: Graduate students have to think about their career options outside of academe as well as inside it. Yet the insular view of doctoral advising as the personal and private realm of an individual professor has persisted. Sure, every doctoral student has a committee, but many (if not most) of its members do little, and defer to the main adviser in charge.

Given the inherent conservatism of American academe, we shouldn’t be surprised that this model remains in force. David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, has written: "The heart of Ph.D. training is the relationship between mentors and students." The question is how that relationship should be structured.

The Ronell-Reitman affair "may be a weird case," as one scholarly editor put it, but by omission, "it highlights the fact that the professional duty of a professor is to prepare grad students for their careers and help them get jobs."

That instrumental view makes sense, of course. For advisers to prioritize that goal, we need to work together, and in the open. Graduate advising is, after all, a form of teaching, and teaching is inherently public work.

With the public face of teaching in mind, we need to escape the thrall of the European past and remember what we’re supposed to be doing — here and now.

That means we should develop institutional — not personal — models of advising. This is especially so at a time when the implied idea of replication (that the student will get a job like the adviser’s) holds less true. In the words of Thomas Bender, a history professor at NYU, writing in 2006 as part of a collection of essays, Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education, the "master" and "apprentice" model "needs ventilating."

When professors work openly and together on advising, it inhibits eruptions like the Ronell case. But more important, collaboration harnesses our collective expertise to help our students advance toward their professional goals. A graduate student can still have an adviser — but that central professor should be part of a team, not a lone wolf who separates the student from the pack.

Some graduate schools and programs have published guides to advising practice. Such documents can help to build social norms within a department — but only if people read them and take them seriously. Organizing your department’s (and institution’s) advising in a thoughtful way matters more than instructions posted on a website. Faculty members need to identify the goals of advising and then set up a collectively maintained structure to meet them.

There are any number of ways to open doctoral advising outward. We already do it at the job-market moment, when students typically enlist the help of a department "placement director." But we need to lift advising out of its black box well before that point. Bender calls for "a plurality of advisers at all stages."

Columbia’s English department, for example, relies on three-member dissertation committees in which no one faculty member is the student’s primary adviser. In practice, a de facto go-to person may emerge, but power is shared, and access is supposed to be equal.

Less formal moves may also help to change the culture of graduate advising. For more than 20 years, Yale University has staged a Feast ("Free Eating Attracts Students and Teachers"). The mechanics of the program are simple and inexpensive: free lunch for a graduate faculty member who meets with one or two graduate students in the graduate school’s dining room. Feast encourages informal interactions in which students talk about their work with different professors, so the program creates an advising community that implies something more than the traditional adviser-student dyad.

The Ronell case is worth our attention not because of its gossip quotient, but because it shows the model of advising we must escape.

In the end, students benefit from a mindful consideration of their needs in the workplace. The day has long since passed — if it was ever here — when one adviser could meet all of a graduate student’s professional needs. It’s time that we, their teachers, acknowledged that fact.

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