The IUSSW PhD Student Listserv: An Opportunity Lost

This is the last in a series of posts that discuss certain events in the School of Social Work (SSW) at Indiana University, on its Indianapolis campus (IUPUI).  The next post commences a new series, focusing on my experience as a PhD student in another department at IU, on the Bloomington campus.

Beginning with the Introduction, and proceeding in approximately reverse chronological order, this series traces back through my experience of being prevented, by faculty and administrators at IUSSW, from completing my PhD in social work.  The immediately preceding post offers some illustrations of deplorable student behavior fostered by the administration.

The present post offers a contrast, involving certain student interactions that occurred before the administration began to execute its plan to drive me out of the PhD program.  The point of this contrast is not that student-student relationships were perfect at any point.  It is just to provide a relatively concrete demonstration of what relationships among students were like at their best, and a sense of how they might have grown.

What is concrete about this demonstration is that it is captured in writing.  The following paragraphs provide illustrations from, and information about, posts on the listserv that IUSSW maintained for its PhD students.

A first thing to know is that the listserv was for students only.  If faculty or administrators wanted to distribute a message to PhD students, they would often ask a student named Hazel to announce that message on the listserv.  Hazel had a relatively secure job in the SSW and was generally positioned as something of an insider.  In her role as announcer and otherwise, she posted more messages to the listserv than any other student.

Another thing to know is that I contributed significantly to the development of the listserv’s potential, in two regards.  First, I promoted a generally friendly and fun-oriented ambiance — not in every post, but often enough to encourage others to engage likewise, to a degree that was not evident before I became an active contributor.  Second, I encouraged discussion and debate of issues.  There was some of that before, but much more after I became involved.

In short, when I offer a before-and-after contrast, I am not suggesting that the listserv had always been what it became at its best.  I am saying, rather, that by attacking the most visible proponent of social and intellectual interaction among the whole body of PhD students, in this one place on IUPUI’s commuter campus where those students could have such interaction, the administration killed something that has not been recreated in the years since and will apparently not be recreated until another student like me comes along — assuming that person is not deterred by the story of what happened to Ray Woodcock.

In such remarks, I am not attempting to flatter myself.  I have some sense of my strengths and weaknesses in these areas — in writing, that is, and in humor, and in social interaction.  I am saying simply that I came to IUSSW with perspectives shaped by years in New York, in the Ivy League, in the legal profession, and in everyday adult life outside the university.  These perspectives were different from the very limited perspectives held by administrators at IUSSW.  I had a certain contribution to make, and I made it.  The results speak for themselves — both in terms of what happened among students, and in how the SSW squelched it.

These materials begin with a few posts taken from the months when I was an active participant.  This selection is minimal.  The purpose of these examples is just to convey a flavor of listserv interactions, especially where I was involved.

*     *     * 

Sample Listserv Posts

From:              [Female student from India, dissertation phase, not in Indianapolis]
Date:               September 26, 2008, 11:20 AM
Subject:          PhD Process

Hello Everyone,

I am sure a lot is happening in the department now. I am rather happy and excited to see all this energy. . . .

I always admire Ray for his brilliant work on the listserv, however, kindly do not propose having mandatory meetings for G901’s. . .  . I am willing to participate in annual symposiums etc but in no way can I make a trip to Indiana every semester.

*     *     *

From:              [First-year white female student]
Date:               September 26, 2008, 3:52 PM
Subject:          PhD Process

Good God, Ray. I’m going to have to have you fitted with a zapper.

It’s a nifty little tool, really. Each time you begin to type, the clock starts. When the clock reaches 30 sec. you get zapped. A minimal jolt at first but then when it hits 60 seconds, you’ve just lost all your chest hair (provided you had some to begin with). If you go for over a minute, well, your bloomin’ head zaps off.

On a more serious note, enjoyable to say the least. Maybe we could get it published in the bi-centennial publication: PhD Brain Salad and Other Food for Thought. 

*     *     *

From:             Ray Woodcock
Date:               Thursday, August 14, 2008, 9:24 PM
Subject:          Qualifying Exam Drawer Inventory

I have attached an inventory of the sample qualifying papers and other materials in the lower drawer of the filing cabinet in the computer room of the PhD lounge. 

*     *     *

[Reply from Sylvia, the next day]

You rock!  Thanks Ray.  I didn’t even know these were available.

*     *     * 

From:            Ray Woodcock
Date:              October 10, 2008, 7:15 PM
Subject:         Safety

Had an interesting experience this morning. I went to the doctor. He was complaining about the stock market, so I gathered he had bucks. He mentioned liberal and conservative and then asked me whether my classes at the university presented anything other than liberal viewpoints. I couldn’t resist. I told him that, actually, I found liberalism to be very conservative nowadays. Funny, the conversation kind of died after that.

Note to self: don’t irritate the guy who may be cutting on you.

*     *     * 

From:              [White female student, dissertation phase]
Date:               October 13, 2008, 12:23 PM
Subject:          Safety

Hello All,

I just wanted to provide a little feedback. I typically read the lively discussions and announcements. While I learned more about the caste system and enjoyed the spirited discussions on feminism, and politics, I enjoy hearing from my peers. The list-serve is just about the only connection I have with the program since completing my coursework. I look forward to the great interactions even if I am on the “sideline.”

As an additional comment, I was getting dental work done last week when the dental assistant commented on how much she liked Palin. Then she asked me if I agreed. I had to think a minute as she would be having “sharp” instruments in my mouth. I finally responded with “she isn’t my favorite”.

That caste discussion began when an Indian male posted a series of attacks on discriminatory aspects of Hinduism.  He caught two female Indians by surprise.  They did not hail from the lowest caste.  The female Indian quoted above, complimenting my “brilliant” work on the listserv after the end of that discussion, was one of those two.  I was the only non-Indian to participate significantly.  I supported and also challenged the Indian guy.  I did not want to engage in silence toward his grievance; I wanted to protect him from feeling or being isolated; and I also wanted to minimize the risk that the female Indians would feel personally targeted.  The Indian male was one of the international students who later approached Leonard with an interest in speaking up on my behalf, as noted in the previous post.

*     *     *

Excerpt from
Indiana University School of Social Work
PRAC Annual Report
2004-2005 Academic Year
(http://planning.iupui.edu/336.html, pp. 18-20)

The general learning outcomes we are seeking for the students in the doctoral program in social work include . . . PhD students socialized to join academe/scholarly careers. . . . We take an immersion approach to helping students become socialized to join academe/scholarly careers.  There are multiple opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom for students to be mentored by faculty.  These opportunities include . . . the doctoral listserv.

*     *     * 

Again, these illustrative items are not intended to demonstrate that my style, or anything else about the listserv and its participants, was perfect.  These items also leave out what now appears to have been an important subtext, namely, the resentment of one or two students who did not value camaraderie and/or were not willing to participate in open exchange with peers.

In June 2009, I sent the SSW’s administrators a document containing certain information about the listserv.  The following text comes from that document.  The administrators did not reply to it.

*     *     *

The IUSSW PhD Student Listserv, Before and After 

I did a comparison of Ph.D. listserv postings in the spring semesters of 2008, when there were relatively few implicit or explicit restrictions on listserv use, and 2009, when the situation had dramatically changed [i.e., after administrators breached their promise not to read listserv posts, and punished me for my participation on the listserv].  This is a quick-and-dirty comparison, with due acknowledgment of potential confounding factors.  It is, nonetheless, thought-provoking.

By my calculation, using only the periods from January 1 to May 20 (in 2008 and also in 2009) in all of the following counts, there were 212 posts on our listserv in 2008 and only 89 in 2009, for a drop of 58%.  Of those 212 posts in 2008, 70 (33%) were from Hazel; and of those 89 posts in 2009, 46 (52%) were from Hazel, for a 34% drop in her participation.  (I mention Hazel because she has been the principal announcer of events on the listserv; that is, she is not representative of users generally.)  I detected indicia of lightheartedness and/or enthusiasm in 7 (10%) of Hazel’s posts in 2008, but in none of her posts in 2009.  [Note that Hazel was one of the principal complainers who killed our use of the listserv.  I do not know whether her complaint was motivated at all by a desire to remain dominant on the listserv.]

My own posts accounted for 36 (17%) of the 212 posts in spring 2008. I did not post any messages in spring 2009.[1]  After subtracting posts from Hazel and me, there were 106 posts in 2008 and 43 posts in 2009, for a drop of 59%.  In 2008, six people (other than Hazel and me) posted seven or more messages each; in 2009, only Bruce did, and his 15 posts were largely related to his MVP and Ph.D. Committee duties, both of which had been performed by Hazel in 2008.  Gladys posted 12 messages in 2008, and none in 2009.  Sylvia posted nine messages in 2008, but only one in 2009.  It thus seems that the attacks on me by Gladys, Sylvia, and Hazel did not improve, but rather impaired, their own use and enjoyment of the listserv.

Diversity of participation also dropped significantly.  In spring 2008, there were posts from a total of 26 different people (including Hazel and me), constituting a respectable portion of the total number of listserv members (precise count not verified).  But in spring 2009, there were posts from only 16 people, for a drop of 38%.  Mean numbers of posts per person (excluding Hazel, Bruce, and me) were 4.4 in 2008 and 1.9 in 2009, for a drop of 57%.  In 2008, six first-year and predoc students posted a total of 34 (32%) of the 106 messages posted by persons other than Hazel and me; but in 2009, only one first-year or predoc student posted, and she posted only one message.

Male participation dropped likewise.  In 2008, 9 (36%) of the 25 active participants (not counting me) were male, posting a total of 30 (28%) of the 106 messages posted by persons other than Hazel and me, for a mean of 3.3 messages per person.  In 2009, 4 men (29%) of the 14 active participants (not counting Hazel and Bruce) posted a total of 6 (21%) of the 28 messages posted by persons other than Hazel and Bruce, for a mean of 1.5 messages per person, representing a drop of 55% from 2008.

Qualitatively, a quick comparison of the topics and energy levels shown in the listserv posts from 2008 and 2009 would almost suggest that these were from two different schools.  To put it simply, the fun was gone.[2]  Curtailment of free speech has a chilling effect, not only on the rights of self-expression of the individual who is directly targeted by the authorities, but also on those who had felt safe in speaking as long as someone else was even more outspoken – was likely, that is, to be the first to have his/her head lopped off.

Once that head was duly lopped, messages posted on the listserv quickly trended toward the implicit rules that were made explicit on April 29 [shortly after Dean Patchner discovered that Dean Spratt had removed Dean Queener’s restrictions on me]:  posts were required to be “program-related” and could not “reflect any kind of political or personal agenda”[3] – as if we had not been taught that agendas are inescapable.  Thus, in spring 2009, the listserv carried a number of event notices without any objection from the SSW’s administrators.  Sadly, the only such event that seems to have been organized by SSW Ph.D. students themselves was a party.  Many of these events had nothing to do with the Ph.D. program, but apparently there did not need to be an explanation of why such non-program-related communications were acceptable.

The idea behind the new listserv rules appears to be that we future social work professors can safely talk about what certain other people are doing about social issues, but we cannot talk about the issues themselves.  These are issues that we came here to study, that we intend to address in our career work, that future students will want us to discuss with them – that some of us would very much like to discuss on the listserv – and yet we are not allowed to practice articulating them to one another.  Moreover, for most of us, these exchanges of ideas and views on the listserv provide the Ph.D. program’s only reliable forum for open discussion.  Such discussions generally do not happen in the classroom, and on this commuter campus, doctoral students almost never encounter one another in groups of more than one or two.  In essence, the Ph.D. program’s chief administrators, Dean Patchner and Dr. Adamek, have pursued an agenda to keep social work education mired in the 1970s.  We were not permitted to rock their boat by raising concerns that are arising in our educations and careers in real time.[4]


[1] Student Code II.H.19 prohibits verbal abuse, which it defines as including an “implied threat to interfere with an individual’s … participation in university-sponsored activities and that under the circumstances causes the person to have a reasonable apprehension that such harm is about to occur.”

[2] Topics discussed in spring 2008, for example, included parent management training; rapidly re-housing families who experience homelessness; treatment of untouchables in India; university policy on use of computing resources for political campaigns (ending with a note from Sylvia to me: “Ray, thanks for the English translation of this policy. It sounds much more complicated than it really is”); abuse in juvenile detention centers; panhandling in Indianapolis; Tibet and the Dalai Lama (involving an exchange among students from India, China, and the U.S.); a Ph.D. student’s published article on bullying; social business and poverty; disproportional racial representation in U.S. prisons; critical treatment of IUPUI’s Office of Equal Opportunity in connection with a safe learning environ­ment; illegal immigrants; a research center on campus for Ph.D. students; and praise and criticism of professors. There were also various other messages consistent with an open and communicative environment and the develop­ment of camaraderie, including requests for leads and links (e.g., for an affordable financial counselor, for a new home for a homeless kitten).

[3] Dean Patchner apparently had not been informed that Assistant Dean Spratt had dismissed Dr. Queener’s charges against me. Within a few hours after our April 29, 2009 meeting, when I informed him that I was no longer prevented from posting on the listserv, we Ph.D. students received a set of listserv guidelines that effectively prohibited issues-oriented discussions.

[4]Student Code I.F. provides, “Students have the right to contribute to the making of institutional policy generally affecting their social or academic affairs.” The IUSSW Ph.D. Handbook says, “All Ph.D. and PreDoc students in the School of Social Work are viewed as competent adults who have a right to participate in decisionmaking activities about the educational program and school in which they have enrolled.”.

*     *     *

Conclusion

This post provides a hint of what would have been possible if Dean Michael Patchner and Dr. Margaret Adamek of the IU School of Social Work had been focused on student learning, motivation, communication, and group problem-solving.  We certainly would have had disagreements and discussion.  But we would have emerged with greater experience in dialogue and mutual understanding.  It was terribly inappropriate, within IU’s own statements of principles, for these administrators to force doctoral students to be unquestioning ciphers, going through the paces of their degree programs and leaving things nice and settled for faculty convenience.

This is the end of this series of posts regarding the termination of my progress toward the PhD in social work at Indiana University.  The next post marks the beginning of a different series.  More accurately, it begins an earlier phase in my doctoral study at IU, in the field of parks & recreation.

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