Don’t Ask Alice

Plenty has been written in the last few days about the disaster that was Dr. Alice Huang’s latest addition to her advice column, in which she suggested that a postdoctoral student ignore, with “good humour”, unwanted sexual attention from her advisor. As Alice put it, “his attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”

It isn’t hard to see why this advice is objectionable—unwanted sexual attention in a professional context, especially from a superior, is never okay. Following social media outrage, the piece was retracted, an apology issued, and much better advice offered in its stead (not at Science Careers, of course, but elsewhere). I don’t really have much more to say about this.

But based on an interview with Dr. Huang about this debacle (included here), it appears that she will continue in her role as an advice columnist for Science Careers. It thus seems only fair to look a bit beyond this single piece to other advice that Dr. Huang has offered. And when you do, a consistent pattern emerges.Time and again, Dr. Huang advises people with less power in the current academic system to maintain the status quo.

  • Writing to a postdoc who is worried about being judged for their tattoos and piercings, she suggests: “Remove the nose ring and hide your other decorations under a long-sleeved black turtleneck and jeans.” [I responded to this piece earlier.]
  • Writing to an assistant professor concerned about the poor training received by students in another professor’s lab in the same department, she says, “if the other faculty member runs a very large laboratory, he’s probably tenured and influential within the institution, while you, apparently, are a newbie. That is not a fight you should be picking.”
  • In an otherwise fairly reasonable piece addressed to a grad student who is a survivor of rape, she says, “Your wish to prevent violence against women in the future is admirable, and there are private ways you can express it. Feel free to donate money and time to agencies working to prevent violence to women—but I don’t recommend attaching this information to your professional Web page or making it public in any other way. I received wise advice from a female college president when I was an assistant professor: She told me to focus on my career until I was secure—i.e. tenured. After that, I could spend my time and energy helping other women. When you have power and more resources, your advocacy will be much more effective.”

Of course, an individual who finds themselves in any of the situations described above  may well choose not to ruffle feathers until they reach a position of power. We can’t all fight all the battles all of the time, and that’s fine. But there is a gaping problem with an advice column that consistently suggests toeing the line and nothing more. This problem has two sides to it, which become apparent when you ask, “What is Dr. Huang’s advice column doing to change the parts of academia that we all agree need to change?” The answer to this question is “nothing.”

The answer is “nothing” because, while simultaneously telling young academics to do nothing that upsets the status quo, Dr. Huang does not tell more established academics what they can do to alleviate the situations that these young academics are writing to her about. She seems to have forgotten that the audience of her column extends beyond the person she is directly addressing.

Dr. Huang’s silence on how to actually bring about change in academia once you have tenure is more than just a squandered opportunity—it is a tacit endorsement of the current state of academia. Think about how someone in a position of power may use Dr. Huang’s column to bolster the notion that they needn’t change after all. If the postdoc can just ignore her advisor’s leering, if the survivor of rape can just keep quiet about her experiences, if the untenured assistant professor can sit by quietly while colleagues take advantage of their trainees, then why does the behaviour of those who perpetrate injustice need to change?

Of course, things have to change, are changing, and will continue to change for the better. Many of us, often many years away from tenure, have not heeded Dr. Huang’s advice to stay silent, because it is ludicrous to think that we have to spend over fifteen years between Ph.D. and tenure simply ignoring the daily injustices that affect our lives and the lives of those around us.

And while we may sometimes do nothing, the choice to do nothing about a difficult situation is never made easily. And grappling silently with these choices is exhausting. I find that this exhaustion is lessened only by the feeling that I am not alone in the struggle to make our little corner of the world a better place. So when I read Dr. Huang’s column, which tells people like me that we shouldn’t be fighting these fights, and says nothing to the people who could so easily be fighting alongside us, all I feel is tired.

[Thank you to all of you on Twitter engaging with this issue. Many thoughts in here have been influenced by you.]

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