image courtesy of Adil113 on Flickr
I am fairly public on the internet about giving MFA-related advice, and people send me emails. I am fairly gossipy, and so I hear a lot of depressing details about everybody’s program rapists, their abusive faculty members, etc.
Of course, many people choose not to report their program rapist or abusive faculty member because the personal consequences of doing so are too great. Reporting would anger an administrator who controls further funding, for example, or cause an already out-of-control classmate to escalate. Maybe other faculty members do not believe their colleague is “that sort of person,” and will no longer feel inclined to meet with any student who registers an official complaint.
Indeed, bullying and other harmful behaviors within graduate programs poses unique challenges: think of a typical sick workplace, and then take away all the safeguards. Grad students are at such a crucial juncture in their academic careers. The field is so competitive, the stakes so high, the scraps we are fighting over so few. Departments or programs, especially creative writing programs, are often insular and shut off from outside interference, even interference of the just and desperately needed variety. MFA students are much less likely, in my experience, to read professional publications like Inside Higher Ed, which has some helpful advice about bullying, or attend conferences like the MLA, which has a session about bullying in academia this year. We might not hear about Tumblrs documenting abuse across many disciplines, because, well, we are artists. We get cliquish. And then in two three years, not the five or six that many PhD students spend, we are gone.
All of which makes us uniquely vulnerable. The MFA writing students I have spoken to often have no idea how to go about reporting, even when they are trying to do so, and cannot create plans to support themselves emotionally through this taxing process. They often graduate before working up the nerve.
Rule #1: Pick your battles.
This can be especially important for POC and other marginalized groups. Will complaining about this particular issue result in all-out war within your department? Will you become even more of a target for harassment? Maybe that stuff happening already, you’re just in denial about it, and you may as well go nuclear. Or maybe you need to wait a year or two to report certain behaviors without experiencing dire consequences.
Consider as well how immediately reporting each minor infraction impacts your long-term goals. Will reporting one infraction alienate the people who can help you fight another? Strategize the things you choose to report, and the order in which you report them to avoid putting off the people whose help you will need in the near future.
If you need to wait a long time, I suggest marking on your calendar the exact date at which you can safely rat out your program rapist, abusive advisor, etc. When you’re feeling down, look at the calendar. Notice how time is passing, and you are getting closer to a day when you don’t have to keep secrets for anybody.
Rule #2: Document fucking everything.
Unfortunately, a lot of complaints do not go forward because the arbitrating parties perceive them as he-said, she-said situations. Even the most patient authority figure is not likely to take your word for it.
If a classmate is sending you inappropriate texts, then you need to find a way to print them out and hand them over. If someone sent you an inappropriate email, then don’t delete it. Forward it. It can be very painful to hold onto the terrible things people have said to you, and you may want desperately to clear the entire incident from your mind, erasing all evidence. Fight this urge if you can. Hell, record in-person conversations and phone calls if you have to. You need this stuff if you want to be taken seriously.
Next you will want to disclose to the right person. The right person is none of the following people: the faculty member whose favorite student is sending you unwelcome sexts, the conservative instructor who won’t take racism in workshop seriously because he believes that you are trying to “censor” your classmates, the administrator whose best friend is your bullying advisor, the person known for keeping his head down, the department chair who has other shit to do, and the staffperson who absolutely has not been trained for this sort of thing.
Rule #3: Be prepared to bypass your department entirely.
I am not telling you to avoid complaining to a trusted faculty member or advisor. I am telling you that sometimes, your faculty and advisors are going to be way less helpful than you’d like. Not because they are evil (usually), but because this department or program you are complaining about easily becomes the life and passion of those who work within it. When you tell them something about their department, their life and passion, kind of sucks, people get defensive.
All of which is to say that complaining to your program or department is usually not helpful, and not even a first step I would take, not unless I had an especially excellent relationship with especially woke professors. Maybe you were assaulted or harassed or bullied in the most obvious way. Maybe your classmates do obviously actionable stuff like send hate emails or turn in stories about how much they hate this cheap Jew they used to work for (both real examples). But you know what? Your professors, even the ones you admire, are very likely to do everything in their power to reframe this as a harmless interpersonal conflict. You should be prepared for and even expect questions about what you did wrong to cause someone to harass you. The odds are high somebody will tell you that you’re overreacting. The odds are high that a procedure that takes place within the department exists to minimize conflict at any cost, including your safety and sanity. The odds are high—especially if you are pursuing a complaint having to do with sexual harassment, discrimination, or assault—that your department’s administration is not even allowed to arbitrate. People need special training for that kind of thing at many, many universities.
NB: The biggest challenge in dealing with higher-ranking administrators or staffpeople is that they have a certain highly inaccurate image of writers in their heads, and find it incredibly difficult to believe that your department does not consist of a bunch of freewheeling hippie post-bigots holding hands in a giant kumbaya circle. Be prepared to explain slowly and repeatedly that writing professors are too capable of sexism, racism, and other types of political conservatism, are not automatically a bunch of harmless liberals.
Rule #4: Know who your allies are in the university.
All American universities should have a Title IX compliance officer, an ADA-compliance officer, and an office or officer of diversity. This means that for most forms of identity-based bullying or harassment, it is very easy to figure out who you should be complaining to. Women who are being sexually harassed or denied opportunities based on gender go to Title IX, and disabled people who are being harassed or denied opportunities based on disability can go to the ADA-compliance officer. People of color, queer-identified individuals, religious minorities, and poor or working-class students who are harassed or denied opportunities based on their identities should find support with the office of diversity.
Of course, there are problems beside garden-variety bigotry. Let’s say you are a veteran, and somebody in your MFA has asked you a horrible, offensive question like “What’s it like to kill someone?” Your school almost definitely has someone whose job it is to deal with veterans’ issues (usually an entire office), and you can lodge a complaint there. Let’s say your program head jokingly announces that he’s fudged a budget item but he probably won’t get caught. He probably will get caught, and it’s going to be worse for everybody the longer that takes. Go ahead and locate your university’s office of academic affairs, then repeat his remarks. Another case I have heard of involved a department that filed paperwork for an on-campus reception open to all students, never actually held the reception, then used the money to fund a private party at one of their students’ homes. In this case, the funds came from the student activities office, which administered funds collected from undergraduate student fees. The MFA was scamming this office, and stealing money from undergraduates in the process, and so the student activities folks really needed to be notified.
Yet another issue might be moody professors who get even with their least-favorite students by sharing information about funding, disciplinary procedures, or mental health status. For the record, your professors do not actually have the legal right to share any of this information with your classmates. They cannot try to mess with your relationships in the program by telling people you have anxiety, or that you have a larger fellowship than other members of your cohort, or that you are being disciplined for an offense. This is illegal.
If you are really determined to seek justice, you may want to go straight to your university’s human resources office and/or student conduct office. Together, these people have jurisdiction over all graduate assistants, professors, staff, and admins, and they would be very interested in seeing any documentation you have. Show them the sexts from that one awful guy in your fiction workshop, or the group email in which your professor brought up your anxiety diagnosis! It’ll be a gas.
Rule #5: Deal with fallout
You may be overwhelmed by all the procedures I just listed. That’s fair. Massive bureaucracies are, you know, massive, and sick workplaces have been known to accidentally-on-purpose make seeking redress into a time-consuming, labor-intensive second job.
The first thing you want to do is see if your university has a student advocacy office or an advising office willing to help you navigate all the other offices. Most large universities will have this.
The second thing you want to do is consider counseling. I know, I know—if you’ve reached the point of reporting wrongdoing within your program, then you’ve likely had a classmate, an instructor, or maybe a group of people tell you that you’re nuts. I’m not writing this to tell you you’re nuts, and if you happen to be, like me, someone who has an actual mental health diagnosis to worry about, then fuck it, we all know that has nothing to do with whether or not your MFA is toxic. But counseling can help you deal with the stress of a toxic graduate program, and build up the skills you will need to keep it cool if you get any pushback from professors and classmates.
Speaking of pushback, know your rights. Most large universities will have a whistleblower policy, but even without one, you are protected. Say you are reporting a professor or administrator: know that nobody is allowed to lower your grade or take away funding you have already been promised because they’re mad at you for telling on them. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but nobody is allowed to remain your official faculty advisor if it’s gotten so bad you have to report them. Make it clear to each office with which you lodge a complaint that you need a new advisor ASAP.
Rule #6: Practice resilience.
Where things get sticky is future letters of rec, and future funding. You might very well not be able to apply for some top funding opportunities because you reported a faculty member, and you might very well not get a letter of recommendation from one or more professors because they’re mad at you for blowing up their spot.
This is not as tragic as people make it out to be. First of all, your program probably has multiple faculty members, so just go find someone else to write that letter of rec. And probably, if someone’s behavior is so bad you had to report them, then they already have a poor reputation with other people in the writing world, meaning their letter of recommendation was not going to get you far. And I promise promise promise that more funding opportunities will come along. There may not be enough writing fellowships for all the people who wish they could be writers, but there are definitely more of these opportunities in the contemporary US than have ever existed, anywhere.
And hey, did you know about writing conferences and retreats? Go to as many as you can, because this is a good career move anyway, and you will assuredly meet people who can write you a nice letter. You might even find you enjoy yourself, or that a one-week summer event with a group of strangers can’t help but be less crazymaking than the program you attend. The stakes just feel lower, and even if you butt heads with someone, you aren’t being forced to spend years workshopping their boring novel, etc.
Consider taking on an academic interest outside of your department. I’ve gotten really into Jewish studies, Hebrew, and Yiddish these past two years, and it keeps me sane. I’m not in any sort of competition with the business and journalism undergrads learning alongside me, and it’s nice to remember what that feels like, taking a class because you care about the content and never having to worry that people will attack each other in a moment of insecurity. What do you secretly wish you could study? You’re at a university, yes? You may as well take advantage. Get lots of exercise at your school’s gym. Make friends with PhD and MA students. Maybe you feel stuck somewhere horrible, but the MFA is not the entire institution, and you can find your people.
Finally, let’s talk about writing outside of the MFA, because you can do that, and some people should. It’s a myth that there are no opportunities for success outside of your MFA program, though the networking involved in an MFA can definitely stand in for a lot of hard work, or even, in some cases, haha, actual talent.
None of which means it’s strictly necessary. You could just do the hard work and bring some actual talent to the table. You could meet people at those conferences I just told you to attend. You could join workshops in your town or community, or attend a program like Grub Street’s novel incubator. You do not have to move to the middle of nowhere to workshop with people you hate, and if you regret moving to the middle of nowhere to workshop with people you hate, you can quit. You can quit! You do not need to keep letting everybody, or even one person, beat you up. There is a great big world out there, and you can be happy in it. Food for thought.