Andrea Long Chu, a doctoral student at NYU, was a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell — the German and comparative literature professor recently found responsible for sexually harassing one of her former students. Ronell’s suspension prompted a letter of support for her from other prominent academics, including Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak. (Butler has since walked back her support). Chu isn’t having it, and she says so in a brilliantly written, pointed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
It is simply no secret to anyone within a mile of the German or comp-lit departments at NYU that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.
Stories about Avital’s “process” are passed, like notes in class, from one student to the next: how she reprimanded her teaching assistants when they did not congratulate her for being invited to speak at a conference; how she requires that her students be available 24/7; how her preferred term for any graduate student who has fallen out of favor is “the skunk.”
Process: Wild things live in this word. These stories come from sources who strongly wished to remain anonymous, fearing that to have their names attached would threaten their chances in an already desiccated job market. But even if this was just gossip, I would believe it. When it comes to the American academy, I trust raw, red rumor over public statements any day of the week.
Her scathing remarks are not just for Avital Ronell, though. They’re for the entire academy.
A culture of critics in name only, where genuine criticism is undertaken at the risk of ostracism, marginalization, retribution — this is where abuses like Avital’s grow like moss, or mold. Graduate students know this intuitively; it is written on their bones. They’ve watched as their professors play favorites, as their colleagues get punished for citing an adviser’s rival, as funding, jobs, and prestige are doled out to the most obedient and obsequious. The American university knows only the language of extortion. “Tell,” it purrs, curling its fingers around your IV drip, “and we’ll eat you alive.”