Last Friday, Joseph Epstein, a salty former adjunct at Northwestern University, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stating that Dr. Jill Biden should not use her title because all she had done to earn it was complete the coursework laid out by a university, pass her exams, and write a dissertation that was both relevant to her field and approved by her committee of academic advisors. Dr. Biden, Epstein opined, is being dishonest by using her title because she is a doctor of education and not a medical doctor, unlike himself, who freely admits that he got his plodding job as a low-level college employee the old-fashioned way, with just a bachelor’s degree and a white penis.
Even before I knew that Epstein was a racist homophobe who was still using the N-word in essays as recently as 1970, I knew what his class was like—a pompous windbag either mocking or ignoring his female students while bloviating for 15 consecutive weeks about how smart he is. That was seemingly confirmed via a viral public Facebook post written by a woman claiming to be one of his former students, that says that Epstein ignored women in his class and docked her grade on a paper because he didn’t believe a woman was smart enough to write it.
I have never worked with Epstein, yet I know exactly what this woman experienced because every English department in America is chock-full of Epsteins. Academia was home to me for the 10 years it took to get my Ph.D. I love nearly everything about being part of a university: the academic calendar, the excitement around the exchange of new ideas, the time to read and write and think for no other purpose but the love of reading and writing and thinking. The work was challenging and stressful. I got so panicked over the prospect of my 12-hour preliminary exam in my Ph.D. program that my mouth broke out in hives, and I couldn’t eat for a week but still read theory in bed 10 hours a day while carefully drinking Slim Fast through a straw. But I remember studying fondly.
Yet the work has nothing to do with why I walked away from academia. The real price of the Ph.D. was not a pound of flesh from the physical manifestations of my anxiety. What the degree really cost was a pound of dignity in the form of dozens of near-daily comments and harassment from the men employed by the three English departments I studied in, not to mention the permission their treatment of me gave to classmates and even my students to treat me similarly, coupled with the knowledge that I was expected to laugh along with the joke like my livelihood depended on it because, of course, it did. Here is everything I endured for the privilege of putting the honorific “Dr.” on my credit cards:
- The Milton professor in undergrad who stopped class to guess what kind of car I drove for a good 10 minutes. He guessed an Audi first and worked his way down a list of sports cars from there. I can only guess he did this to make an example of my presumed privilege in front of the class. My car was a factory-model Ford that my parents had paid less than $20k for because I had gotten a full scholarship to college. It was yellow, though. Upon learning this, the professor went back to teaching and never called on me again.
- The grad school professor (whose class I never took and with whom I had never spoken) who stopped me by the mailboxes in the English department to ask whether I was trying to make “the rest of us feel bad” by wearing business attire when, in reality, I had been reprimanded during the first weeks of school for wearing a tee-shirt under a blazer on a Friday like the rest of the department did.
- The male professor from another department who interrupted me while I was teaching to ask from the doorway if I had lost weight. “Keep it up,” he told me in front of a class of 30 students I was supposed to be leading. “You look great.”
- The student who wrote “Thinks she’s prettier than she really is” on a course evaluation.
- The grad school professor who called me into his office during the first weeks of the program to tell me my tone was off-putting to himself and likely my male classmates and colleagues—the same male colleagues and classmates who would later vote on whether or not I had slept with a visiting Pulitizer Prize winner in exchange for an award.
- The same professor who told me during a conference that sometimes when someone had a particularly clever revelation in class, he was always surprised to realize it was me.
- The grad school professor who asked me, at a party in front of all my classmates, why I had not considered beauty school, what with being so pretty and all.
- The same professor a friend overheard at a Starbucks telling a visiting scholar that I had pleasantly surprised him, as he had assumed I was a “total idiot” based on appearances.
- The grad school professor who told me and another professor about his wife’s aversion to cunnilingus at a bar and asked me if I enjoyed it.
- The same professor who presented me with two of my married male colleagues at a party a few weeks later and asked which one of them I would let “eat my pussy in hell.” Both of those colleagues laughed it off and had book deals by graduation.
- The same professor who told a story to my classmates at a party in his home about a woman touching him inappropriately. To illustrate the inappropriate touching, he massaged my shoulders. When I told him I do not like to be touched, he threw a fit and made a show of doing the same thing to a male classmate in order to prove the touching was not sexist.
- The same professor went on a class-long tirade about the badness of my writing when my classmates dared like an essay I wrote that he hated. When a male classmate said the professor’s read of my essay might be “gendered” the professor ended class, demanding we all go to a bar with him in order to prove there were no hard feelings.
- The same professor, at that bar after my workshop, demanded I tell him and my classmates which of my teeth aren’t real.
- The text messages from my classmates before this man’s workshop reassuring me that, whatever this man said to me, my writing was good and they liked my work, even if they were too scared to say that in front of the professor.
- The head of the English department, who told my classmates (after they attempted to report that professor without my knowledge) that if I wasn’t willing to put my name on the record and confront him in an official capacity before the head of the department that there was nothing to be done.
- The male classmate who told me, following one of this professor’s tirades over a story I had written, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix this”—not meaning the semester’s worth of humiliation he had observed, but the parts of my story the professor did not like.
- The fact that my hands are shaking as I type this because the primary lesson of academia—You need these men. Don’t burn bridges—dies hard, long after I have realized that none of these men were ever going to do anything for me in the first place. To quote one of the books I managed to find time to read in the few minutes these men left me alone, “It was a pleasure to burn.”