We just completed a series on what 15 abuse tactics can look like in academia. (Feel free to check it out here, here, and here.)
I wanted to include a special post about The Academic Bumbler. This post is derived from Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant piece “The myth of the male bumbler.” You should absolutely read the whole piece if you haven’t but for our topic today the most important part is the following:
The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.
Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.
Loofbourow was writing about men with long histories of sexual assault who use the idea that they are not malicious–just socially awkward–to generate sympathy for them and discredit their victims despite the fact that there actions are often incredibly strategic.
I vividly remember reading Loobourow’s piece the first time because I shared it to Facebook with a long, rambling post about my own experiences with an academic bumbler who, but for my own self-advocacy, would have cost me my career several times over. A few minutes or a few hours later, I don’t remember, a dear friend messaged me privately asking, “Are you talking about X?”
Reader, I was, indeed, talking about X.
It turns out I was not the only victim of his “bumbling.”
Then again, bumblers rarely have just one victim. It’s devilishly clever that the bumbler’s alibi actually requires he has multiple victims. A key part of creating the image of a bumbler is leaving a trail of wreckage behind him. After all, too few victims and it might start to seem like they’re targets.
In Loofbourow’s piece she talks about how men weaponize the cultural image of them as socially helpless.
In academia, both men and women have access to the image of the absent-minded professor and I’ve seen both successfully weaponize it to keep certain students down not through obvious malice, but through continual bumbling.
What does the academic bumbler look like?
Well, let me tell you about mine.
Bumbler 1, who was in a position to do so, promised me that they had filed the appropriate paperwork with the college to ensure that I was ABD. Five months later, I got an email from Bumbler 2 saying that they had forgotten to file the paperwork so the college had no record of me passing my prelims. I got this email because when Bumbler 2 went to rectify this mistake they were unable to do so because of a mistake I had made in filing my Plan of Study and could I please fix the problem with my POS so that they could file the prospectus paperwork on my behalf?
Notice the subtle shifting of blame to me for making a mistake in my Plan of Study and the lack of responsibility for taking five months to file paperwork that should, in theory, be filed within a week.
In the meantime, someone, perhaps Bumbler 1 or someone who worked for them, had removed me from the departmental email list. The same email list in which the annual request for TA positions was sent out each year.
I never got that email so I never knew that I had missed the date to request a TA position. (I was in absentia due to family crisis at the time so I didn’t have means of finding out about these things in person.)
Imagine my surprise, then, when, in a conversation with Bumbler 2, she casually let slip that I had no TA appointment because I had never requested one.
I panicked. I contacted a lot of people and found out that I had been removed from the important email list. I scrambled to get funding for the upcoming year.
Bumbler 2, in our next conversation, then told me that I needed to do a better job of advocating for myself.
Bumbler 1, I feel I should note, did apologize for not noticing that I had been removed from the email list and, consequently, had missed my opportunity to get departmental funding. It was, as they said, their responsibility to notice such things. The apology was nice. The year of writing I lost because I was working two jobs was not.
These series of events, with Bumbler 1 and Bumbler 2 purposefully or accidentally working in tandem, was by far the worst. I think I *still* have stress weight from it.
There were, of course, other incidents.
There was the time that an unnamed Bumbler suggested that, since I had made significant changes to my prospectus after passing (with revisions) that we get my committee together to update everyone on the changes. I love to talk about my work so a chat with my committee to update them on changes sounded lovely. When I got there, however, it was a surprise second prospectus defense which I was unprepared for because, you know, I didn’t know it was happening.
There was the time when Bumbler 2, who was on my committee, told me in January of the year I defended (so, you know, after seeing many, many drafts) that they just didn’t believe my argument. Like, my whole dissertation argument.
When I asked what part of it they didn’t believe and for examples, they showed me a claim they said had no support. I asked about the three separate quotes from different, (relevant) prominent figures I had just after that claim and what other type of support I should use. Bumbler 2 had no idea what quotes I was talking about.
Oops! A bumble they forgot to read that, or didn’t remember it, or some shit. Never mind that they were prepared to sit there and tell me to my face that my dissertation didn’t make any sense–an action with enormous long-term consequences for my financial and professional future.
Dealing with a bumbler can be incredibly difficult.
In the abuse scenarios we shared previously the abuser relies heavily on isolation and shame to keep you from talking about what the abuser is doing because if you did talk about it your support system would tell you that what the abuser is doing is wrong.
The Bumbler is . . . different.
As Loofbourow notes, the Bumbler’s alibi that they are just absent-minded is at odds with the rest of their lives. Loofbourow uses the example of Woody Allen, Bumbler extraordinaire, who has built his career on portraying himself as awkward and absent-minded despite the fact that he is organized and disciplined enough to produce a film a year.
If you take a hard look at academic Bumblers you’ll see the same thing. Though they often deploy the stereotype of the absent-minded professor as an alibi if you look at the office or the CV of the Bumbler you will often find an unusually organized office and a stellar CV that speaks to a very disciplined and organized scholar.
Like all abusers, Bumblers choose their victims with great care. Like all abusers, Bumblers can be extremely charming when they want to be.
In the case of Bumbler 1 mentioned above, some discreet questions revealed the fact that they only ever “bumbled” with students who entered the program the year before they took up their position.
I was in this group of students which is why I experienced the bumbling. What was unique about this group of students is that none of us had a permanent contract with the university. I was a typical model. I was admitted to the university for the PhD program but was not offered funding through the program. Instead, I was offered a tuition waiver and insurance if I could find funding through another department. This meant that my contract with the university, such as it was, was on a year-by-year, appointment-by-appointment basis. I had no long-term security and if I was unable to secure a position as a TA or through a fellowship then it wasn’t the department’s fault that I wasn’t in the program–it was just an unfortunate circumstance. Everyone in my cohort was in a similar position which meant that we were in a particularly vulnerable position. And every person in my cohort new this person as a Bumbler when it came to finding funding for us and our research opportunities or filing our paperwork in a timely manner.
In contrast, I had dear, dear friends who were in cohorts after me, when the program had mandated multi-year contracts with students. Essentially, if you were admitted to the PhD program you would be funded some way for X number of years. They never met The Bumbler.
When those of us who had had our careers jeopardized by the Bumbler’s bumbling tried to talk to our friends we were gently gaslit: Surely it wasn’t malicious! It’s not personal! They didn’t mean it! Even such a busy, important person must make mistakes sometimes! So sorry it happened to you but don’t read too much into it!
The worst thing about a Bumbler is that no one believes the bumbles are intentional. Even if you aren’t isolated socially it can feel isolating because it feels like even your support system won’t believe you, let alone advocate for you.
Abusers, all abusers, work by making you feel helpless. In the case of what we might consider the classic abuser, the type of abuser who uses the tactics discussed in our previous series on abusers, there are actually things you can do to help yourself. With the Bumbler things are a little more complicated.
The Bumbler works by convincing you and everyone else that they aren’t targeting you for abuse. They are always extremely careful to make sure that the things they do to hamstring your career seem like unfortunate accidents rather than careful targeting of victims.
The reason it has taken so long to publish this post is because it has been an agony. It has been an agony to rethink what I want through at the hands of my own Bumblers. Aside from the professional toll of the Bumblers, which can be immense, the personal cost is . . .
I spent a lot of time in therapy discussing my own Bumblers–discussing how stuck I felt and how angry and sad I was. My therapist was amazing and I would not have gotten through my dissertation without her. However, because the Bumbler is often careful to never do anything actionable even people who want to advocate for you just cannot.
Personally speaking, my Bumblers have left me with a sense of ambiguous loss and I think one of the reasons this post has been so damn hard to write is because I haven’t yet grieved what happened to me. I don’t even know how to grieve it because, in the end, my Bumblers were also instrumental to getting my PhD no matter how much harm they caused me along the way.
Perhaps that’s the worst thing about a Bumbler. At some point, I had to put aside my (very justifiable) anger, stuff my grief down deep, and just work through it. To do that, to get through it, I agreed to live by the lie that they were just Bumblers, to take more responsibility for things that never should have been my responsibility in the first place and live through it.