steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

How to get a PhD - even if you're not a straight white male

The other day an FB friend posted a passage they had just found in How to Get a PhD: a Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh. It was in the section devoted to advice for gay, lesbian, bi and transgender postgraduate students:

Increasingly, gay and lesbian people wish to be frank with their friends and colleagues but this honesty opens up greater possibilities for discrimination. Gay or lesbian students who come out may find that their supervisors are nonplussed or antagonistic and this will complicate their relationship [...] One way to avoid these problems is to ensure that you keep your emotional life and your professional life apart as far as possible, especially so far as members of academic staff are concerned.

This "Don't ask, don't tell" advice struck me and others as outrageous, and I'm pretty sure that it would be illegal if it were published by an actual university rather than (as is the case here) by a university press - though some might see that as a nice distinction. However, I noted that the book had first been published in 1987, with revised editions in 1994, 2000, 2005 and finally 2010. Might it be that this "Section 28"-ish passage had just been lying around for a couple of decades, unrevised due to inertia? If so, that would be some kind of explanation, though little enough excuse.

So, at work I did what anyone would, and looked at some of the earlier editions of the book. Our university library no longer has copies of the first and second editions, but I was able to get hold of its 2000, 2005 and 2010 incarnations. It turns out that my friend had been looking at the 2005 edition rather than the latest one, but I found the whole process of incremental revision fascinating in the way it charts the evolution of attitudes towards gender and sexuality. Here are a few selected highlights.

In the 2000 edition, the relevant chapter is called “How to survive in a predominantly British, white, male, full-time academic environment” – and it has sections for overseas, ethnic minority, women, gay and lesbian, mature and disabled students. I don’t know how many of these were in the first edition of 1987: perhaps everyone after “women” was added subsequently, as their omission from the chapter title might suggest – though goodness knows it's already pretty unwieldy.

You will notice that bi and trans students don’t exist yet, though the section on gay and lesbian students begins with a hilarious periphrasis apparently designed to avoid mentioning the former:

It is estimated that about 1 in every 20 of the population is predominantly gay or lesbian, although this figure excludes people for whom homosexual relationships are part of their otherwise heterosexual lives.

I’m happy to report that by 2005 the second half of this sentence had been changed to: “and there is also a minority of people who are bisexual.”

The antagonistic and nonplussed supervisors of my friend’s quotation are already present in 2000, but to my great surprise it is only in 2005 that we first see the advice to “keep your emotional life and your professional life apart as far as possible, especially so far as members of academic staff are concerned”, which was the worst part of my friend’s original post, and which I’d thought might be a hangover from the first edition. It's ironic that this comes in an edition that adds “heterosexist” to the list of descriptors of the research environment in the chapter title: clearly straight people can’t be expected to keep their emotional and professional lives separate, after all.

The 2005 edition also sees the appearance of “trans-gender [sic] students”, who get four whole lines devoted to them, entirely about their fear of being outed as transgender and how it can affect their work. (But hang on, wasn’t keeping secret what you just recommended to LGB students? Doesn’t it matter if their work is affected by fear of bigotry from their supervisors?)

By 2010 things have generally improved: the chapter title is no longer about “survival”, as if that were the best one could hope for, but rather Equal Opportunities for “non-traditional students” (this still includes women, mind) and “minority groups”, including LGBT students. The authors no longer discuss LGBT people entirely in the third person, but address them directly, and their cod 1-in-20 statistic has been dropped. The advice to keep your “emotional life” out of work is still there, though – and it’s pretty clear the authors still don’t know much about trans students:

If you are a transgender student you may have decided to keep your history secret because you are concerned about other people’s reactions – this despite gender identity disorder (GID) being categorized as a mental health problem [Because people with mental health issues never face prejudice, right?] and the fact that there are lobby groups who want gender dysphoria to be categorized as a condition, treatable with medical procedures. [Er, like it has been for the last forty years?]

They go on to list a number test cases from the 1990s in which it was decided by various courts and tribunals that trans people shouldn’t be discriminated against, despite the fact that these were superseded by the GRA (2004) and Equality Act (2010). Well, I suppose they mean well.

One side note: in all three editions, students are repeatedly warned against becoming romantically involved with their supervisors - especially women and LGBT students, who until the last edition got an extra warning apiece. Strangely, however, on turning to the section of the book aimed at supervisors themselves (who are, after all, the ones with the both the power and the duty of pastoral care) I see that no such advice is offered to them. This despite the fact that, by my maths, for every student who becomes romantically involved with their supervisor there’s a supervisor who becomes romantically involved with their student. Odd, that. [ETA: Nor, I should have added, are supervisors ever warned that it might be a bad - not to say illegal - idea to behave antagonistically to students on the grounds of their being LGBT.]
Tags: books, gender, work
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