Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Knowing and Doing What Matters

I was recently involved in a Twitter chat relating to bullying at school. While this problem could have a devastating effect on children, people of any age can be affected by it. Bullying, intimidation and being picked on come in many different forms.

I can recall a story that happened to me while living in the UK in the 1990s. After completing my master’s degree, my thesis advisor offered me a job as a research assistant under his supervision. I was the main bread winner in our household since my husband had already started his Ph.D. and had limited financial support for his research. I accepted this job offer without thinking twice about its conditions. Covering our expenses was foremost on my mind.

So instead of giving me a proper contract that lasted a year, my advisor (I will call him Dr. D. hereafter) offered shorter contracts ranging from 3 months to 6 months with the same excuse: “If you work well and deliver the goods, you will be given another contract.” The situation remained like that for a period of 3 years until one day I received a call from Dr. C., the graduate students’ supervisor. Dr C. wanted to know why I was not registered for a Ph.D. although I had been working as a researcher for 3 consecutive years in the same department. I replied frankly that I couldn’t afford to pay for my Ph.D. fees while supporting my husband. He then replied, “But you don’t have to pay for your fees if you are a research assistant. Didn’t your advisor tell you that?” I was embarrassed to tell him the truth about my short contracts. He then replied, “Go back to your advisor and tell him to register you now in the Ph.D. program. That’s your right.” I did what Dr. C. asked me to do and my advisor accepted my request at once. He could not refuse because he knew that he had been abusing his power and that if it became known that he had perpetrated such an incident, his career at the university could be ruined.

So why did Dr. D. behave like that, and why was I silent about it?

  • I was a foreigner and didn't know what my rights were as a graduate assistant and student.
  • It had nothing to do with me. Dr. D. was very insecure and had difficulties trusting people
  • As I was in a powerless position, I could not officially complain about my abusive supervisor. I needed this work, and there was no safe way to complain and no implemented process by which to fix problems between students and advisors.
  • Never in my mind did I intend to take revenge on my advisor. After I registered for my Ph.D., Dr. D. learned a lesson from his mistake and did not repeat it with another student.
“I would rather be a little nobody, than to be an evil somebody.” ― Abraham Lincoln
Not everyone has been the victim of bullies, but everyone has seen bullying and abusive bosses, advisors and personnel. Seeing it and keeping silent and not objecting, could have a damaging effect that lingers for years if not decades. Not only knowing, but doing what is right, is what really matters.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ― Desmond Tutu
We focus in this world so much on our differences. This has helped lead to negativity and bullying. If, on the contrary, everybody focused on what we have in common, our humanity, we would be able to live in harmony. And instead of fighting about our diversity we would be celebrating it!

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!
*Enclosed photo can be found here