A Grad Student's Perspective

April 2021

Mentorships by professors of students are among the vital functions of a university. Here I expose the vulnerable underbelly of mentorship and one possible threat to academic freedom and scholarship.

A tiny percentage of students will go on to an academic career. These are the keeners, and they often develop significant bonds with one or more of their supervisors. At their best, these relationships model the collegiality conducive to a fertile scholarly community. At their worst, they undermine scholarship.

I confine my examples to philosophy, but I suspect they generalize to the broader academic community. Like sports teams, academic disciplines have their stars, those who have not only made important contributions to their disciplines but have also become icons for non-intellectual aspects of their characters.

Wittgenstein is known as much for claiming he had solved all of philosophy’s problems in the Tractatus than for the Tractatus itself. And I suspect far more have heard of the former than have read the latter. David Lewis was so excruciatingly shy that one could walk twenty paces before he’d return a hello. Saul Kripke’s mother travelled with him to conferences so she could cook him Kosher meals. Hannah Arendt had an affair with Martin Heidegger. And so on.

A group of philosophy majors, otherwise known as Phil-nerds, are as liable to share trivia about philosophers over coffee and smokes [sic] than they are to talk philosophy. One discussion with my Phil-nerd cohort was about what ought to be the collective noun for Phil-nerds e.g., a disputation. In true philosophical fashion, we never reached an agreement.

Some professors might blush at the notion that their foibles are also a common subject of Phil-nerd klatches. Dr. P messes his hair like his idol, Einstein. Dr. B never says hello or makes eye contact when he walks into the classroom. Both turn even the most unrelated topic into a rant about global warming deniers. Dr. A walks like a vampire. Dr. R lets a little spittle fly when he talks about religion.

By and large, these observations betoken endearment, and are often coupled with intellectual admiration. Accordingly, many students will want to mimic a mentor. A student colleague of mine who explicitly sought to emulate one Dr. B referred to himself as Mini-B.

As the proverb goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And most often, imitation of this kind is harmless. But there’s an autonomous worry, a worry about how this eagerness to please plays out in an academic environment, and about what is being imitated. Some students emulate not only their mentors’ disciplinary interests but also their ideas and attitudes. More particularly their advocacy commitments. And they do so all-too uncritically.

As Daniel Kahneman notes, “For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 209). David Hume also describes this phenomenon in a Treatise on Human Nature:

“From these dispositions in philosophers and their disciples arises that mutual complaisance betwixt them; while the former furnish such plenty of strange and unaccountable opinions, and the latter so readily believe them” (London: Penguin Books, 1963, p.75).

Beliefs acquired in this manner are very hard to self-scrutinize because no one wants to appear to be believing something just because someone she admires does, especially in philosophy. But, as Hume notes:

“These sentiments [founded in … the human mind], are not to be controlled or altered by any philosophical theory or speculation whatever…. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977, p. 68).

There are reasons we reason in groups, but members of these groups have to be allowed to serve as correctives to one another. An impossible task when group-think demands orthodoxy.

Through all of my undergrad and grad years, I had the good fortune of being a member of a gifted cohort. My colleagues are talented, intelligent, and high-achievers. Most are carrying on toward doctorates in philosophy. Yet from this same cohort I heard the following:

“I want to do my masters on Dr. S’s research for his sake. It’s my gift to him, he deserves to have his work carried on.” And, “Dr. B is so smart, he just opens his mouth and everything that comes out is just wow. I have no idea what he’s saying, but he’s so smart. I could listen to him all day.”

Both raise red flags. A perfectly laudable intellectual crush has morphed into uncritical devotion. In the first case, the student possibly stymies her own philosophical development for the sake of some imagined debt. In the second, she does so by not asking Dr. B to make his sentences intelligible. I grant that no matter her reasons for pursuing Dr. S’s research, she might learn a ton. And Dr. B might just be as brilliant as the phonemes emanating from his mouth would seem. I’m not troubled by these examples. I’m more concerned with what the professor might bring to these interactions, namely obtuseness and advocacy.

Obtuseness. Many professors get buried under their workload and complain to their students about it. Especially to students they have taken under their wings as thesis supervisors. Professors are willing but seldom compensated for taking on these extra duties. And supervising students who are high maintenance, ungrateful, or even abusive discourages this willingness. But the diligent student who feels the professor is making sacrifices for her might develop a disproportionate sense of debt. A professor can easily miss this development because he or she has a biddable student, a big relief for a busy person.

Remember that my worry is about the uncritically devoted student coupled with a professor’s obtuseness. Nothing here implies that either professor or student is disingenuous or compromising academic integrity. But now let’s add my second cautionary note.

Advocacy. Just as the busy professor complains about workload, the same professor, devoted to a cause, is unlikely to keep it under wraps. Hence students know the beliefs and causes their professors feel most strongly about. Global warming, a political affiliation, capitalism, feminism, and so on. If this be doubted, just read some random evaluations on Rate My

The worry here is that the professor’s beliefs and attitudes imitated by an admiring student are not well-evaluated by the professor herself. This is because one’s advocacy commitments more often than not fall outside one’s domain of expertise. So, if the student is biddable and the professor obtuse, academic integrity is compromised. Ideas are not pushed gently; they are not pushed at all.

It is a feature of the human brain that we are less likely to scrutinize beliefs we already hold, and more likely to scrutinize those we disagree with, particularly if we find those beliefs morally reprehensible. So here arise two further worries.

The dissenting student who writes a paper criticizing any of her professor’s advocacy beliefs is more likely to be penalized than her biddable peers. What’s more, a once biddable student who suddenly dissents is liable to, in Kant’s words, wake [her professor] out of [his] dogmatic slumber. And unlike correcting a spelling error or the solution to a logic problem that’s niggled him for years, he will not say thank you. As in my experience, the student might get yelled at.

I had a supervisor rabidly committed to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I am interested in belief-acquisition. The intersection of these two projects might indicate trouble ahead. I simply wanted to complete my Masters. Thinking I was safe, I asked this professor to supervise an independent study on epistemic authority. He agreed, and then proceeded to pen in the words “and denialism”. “A special interest of mine,” he told me.

Here’s an abridged version. I noticed my professor used a very narrow definition of denialism and applied it to all kinds of cases where it did not fit. My first move was to write as if I did not notice. I should mention that I am married to an academic who held my feet to the fire. Do your ontology, he said. When I told him my fears, he was angry. Just do your job. And he scolded me for thinking his colleague would be anything but professional. I usually love to crow I was right and you were wrong, but not in this case.

I concluded that the word “denialism” was a rhetorical flourish often deployed as an ad hominem. And I warned that its use in the already vitriolic AGW debate was liable to further erode the trust that underpins the cooperation required for our epistemic practices. Deployed over time in an already polarized environment, it might even contribute to the undermining of social flourishing. I hope you notice the word might because he did not; he read will cause.

Note as well that I neither asserted nor denied any of the propositions on which the AGW consensus rests. That was not my project. But by not ratifying any of these assertions he assumed I was on the other side of his commitments, and therefore morally reprehensible.

Among my supervisor’s comments, “No one is in a position to tell those involved in this (AGW) dispute to settle down and play nice.” I thought, you put me in this position when you added the words “and denialism”.

This brings me to my other worry, arising from another position I found myself in. That of my relationship with my student colleagues and their respective relationships with my supervisor. One or two were also under his supervision. It is remarkable that when I told my colleagues about my conceptual analysis of the term “denialism,” one piped up that he would never challenge my supervisor on denialism. I was not concocting my worries, we all knew. Anyone who walked by his bulletin board knew.

But. My colleagues admire my supervisor, and rightly so. They have enjoyed good working relationships, even friendship. While I could have pressed a grievance, doing so might have damaged both my relationship with my peers and their respective relationships with my supervisor. If I were to fail, I wanted them to succeed. And since they are significantly younger than I am, I wanted them to have the best experience possible. But to be perfectly honest, I am not that altruistic. I feared for me.

My situation went from bad to worse, and I chose to walk away. I still grieve my loss, and even still the wound is tender. I feel it every time I celebrate my friends’ achievements.

Worse, I always struggle with whether by walking away I preserved my moral and intellectual integrity, or whether I damaged that integrity by walking away.

I leave these worries with you.

But I also leave you with a little advice. If you are a professor, there is no fault in having advocacy commitments. But if you are evaluating a student’s work on whether she upholds these commitments rather than on academic criteria, be explicit. A student should always know which hat you are wearing.

You should also be cognizant that if a paper challenges your Precious, you are very likely no longer qualified to adjudicate it. That’s just what it is to have a Precious! There is no shame in asking for an independent marker. In fact, this is a hallmark of your academic integrity.

If you’re a student planning an academic career, reread my article. Your professors are your future peers, and you, too, will one day supervise students.