Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: How to Discourage Sycophancy in Graduate School

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Question: A recent sexual-harassment case in academe has inspired talk about how academic culture relies on sycophantic behavior from advisees that encourages all kinds of abuse, sexual and otherwise. How can I, as a professor, discourage my graduate students from thinking they should behave that way toward me?

That’s an important question, and one that requires a nuanced answer.

It’s absolutely true — for some abusive power-tripping advisers — that sycophantic behavior is part of the dynamic. They demand hyper-deferential conduct and affect from their graduate students, who know they have to comply if they want things like feedback on their chapters and good recommendation letters for the job market. That sort of "transactional sycophantism" is hard to eliminate as an isolated behavior. Unfortunately the professors who engage in it are not self-critical or self-aware, and are unlikely to be asking themselves this question, or reading this column.

But in my experience, graduate-student sycophantism is often a sum of behaviors that are, if not innocuous, then at least not nefarious. This is a different dynamic — one that results when students idealize their adviser, seek to view their adviser (often subconsciously) as a role model or a parental figure, or seek what they see as a "transgressive" or "authentic" intimacy within a hierarchical relationship.

American culture has a longstanding and beloved trope of the charismatic, iconoclastic teacher, the rule-breaker pedagogue, whose behavior flouts professional boundaries in ways that enable authenticity and trust. In the usual plot, this teacher proves transformative for students, igniting their passion and helping them on their path to self-actualization. Think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. Some storylines subvert the trope: In Donna Tartt’s novel, The Secret History, idealization of the eccentric brilliant classics professor at a fictionalized version of Bennington College leads to his students committing murder. Whatever the angle, the Teacher Who Changes Lives is a powerful archetype in American movies, television, and literature. Harry Potter is another rich source for this trope.

In academe, a large part of the over-enmeshment between graduate students and their advisers originates from a desire (on both sides) to flout hierarchy. This is gratifying for the student, who experiences this as authentic and generative, and for the faculty member, who is flattered to be seen as the "Charismatic Inspiring Hero," and not the "Uptight Professor," let alone the "Clueless Administrator who Just Doesn’t Get It."

So as a professor, when you encounter a student who seems overly emotionally attached — to the point of sycophancy — you are surrounded by cultural narratives telling you that this ego-gratifying dynamic is, coincidentally, a pedagogical ideal. It's not. It's actually a staging ground for lack of autonomy, overdependence, and codependence, all of which can lead to abusive relationships.

What should you do when you see that dynamic emerging?

In a sycophantic relationship, power disparities are hyper-articulated and fetishized. Language is the medium where this occurs, and thus the medium where it can be best corrected. In short, I see sycophancy as a speech act. Guarding against linguistic grandiosity is a practical way of guarding against sycophancy.

Longtime readers of The Professor Is In column will know that one of the cornerstones of my philosophy in advising Ph.D.s on academic-career issues is that emotional language — or as my clients come to know it, "weepy" language — has no place in academic professional settings. I discourage weepy language for pragmatic reasons: It generally lends itself to telling, rather than showing, which weakens a candidate’s job documents and self-presentation. In addition, gender bias means that hiring committees tend to discount a candidate who is perceived as "emotional."

But emotional language in the advising relationship carries other dangers. It is a conduit for relations that stray from the kind of proper professionalism that protects the student as the more vulnerable party. As a graduate adviser, you should model measured, professional language in how you speak with your students, and discourage overly superlative, emotionalized language when it is directed at you.

Believe me, I know this is hard. It’s fun is to be flattered. You might be tempted to respond in kind. Don’t. When a student praises you excessively — "You are so brilliant" — deflect it immediately. It might result in an awkward moment, but you must preserve any boundaries that your student may be pushing up against, because overstepping boundaries is how toxic power relations in the academy begin to flourish.

Certainly praise has its place in the adviser-advisee relationship. What you want to avoid is the creation of a mini cult of personality around you. Think of it like this: Separate the intellectual work being produced from the person producing it. If a student expresses gratitude or praise directed at who you are rather than what you do, therein lies the issue. "This is brilliant" and "you are brilliant" are very different statements, and send very different messages.

So, instead of "You are a remarkable teacher, and this university is incredibly lucky to have you," encourage students to offer you substantive feedback. A gentle corrective shifts the focus away from you and on to your pedagogical techniques or to the student’s accomplishments: "Thank you. I was glad to see you grow as a writer over the course of the semester, and your final essay makes it clear that you are now able to think critically and in-depth about the material." That kind of response indirectly models the desired and appropriate scope of positive feedback. You are aiming for feedback like, "I want to thank you for this class. Your detailed feedback helped me to become a better and more confident writer," and not "You are a genius! It was an honor to learn from you."

Finally, one of the most transformative interventions you can make is to always insist that academe is a workplace — not a holy order. It’s bound by professional interactions — not by reverential passions. The more elite the institution, the harder it is to push against that oulook. But if your students can remember that a Ph.D. is intended to lead to a job, not a calling, they will be far less likely to hyper-idealize you, and far more likely to treat you like the boss that you are. The Ph.D. is an economic transaction involving labor and HR rules. The person in charge of making sure those boundaries are preserved is you, the faculty member. This is your task, and your responsibility.


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