This time it’s going to be different

Lately I’ve read about rather different things that keep bumping into each other in my mind. The more I consider them, the more they seem connected.

  • The return of Bora Zivkovic to Twitter and the blogosphere
  • Mike Krahulik’s New Year resolution
  • Ways in which the graduate school system is broken

Let’s start at the end of that list.

Grad school is broken

Lots of people agree that the grad school system is in need of fixing,1 though what “fixed” looks like isn’t as agreed upon. Nathan Vanderford2 focuses on job skills, Jenna Bilbrey focuses on promoting “alternative” careers, Rebecca Schuman says there should be fewer grad students, and there are of course many, many other “fixes.” What a lot of this revolves around, though, is the culture of grad school, the I-survived-this-crap-so-you-should-too attitude. (Emphasis mine, in the following quotes)


What I found was that graduate school was not impossibly difficult from an intellectual standpoint, but it was painfully hard from an emotional and physical standpoint. I felt as though faculty had the mentality of putting students (and postdocs) though, well, torture—because that’s how they went through graduate school and their postdoctoral fellowship.


I love science. But I don’t love the culture in academia.


Why, exactly, should we rush to defend the very system that psychologically, structurally, and financially enables our exploitation—exploitation that begins at the Ph.D. recruitment stage?

Graduate school can be toxic. I wrote about this nearly a year ago, considering an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about mental health support for graduate students. One of the comments that stood out to me then and still stays with me now is this:

I suggest that part of the problem is what my advisor referred to as the “[Parris] Island Syndrome." It was done to me, so now I get to do it to you. ... I say the abuse ends here with me. I will not confuse bullying with academic rigor. I will not pass it on. I refuse to subject my students to what amounts to institutionalized hazing.

In short, grad school culture is broken and in need of fixing. Now hold on to that thought for a bit. I’m going to change the subject, but I promise that it’s connected.

Mike Krahulik wants to do better

Mike Krahulik, aka “Gabe” of Penny Arcade, posted his New Year’s resolution: stop being a bully. He talks about how his defense against bullying as a kid led him to become a bully himself, and how he’s realized over the years that that is not the kind of adult he wants to be (emphasis mine).

As a young person I imagined myself a sort of vengeful spirit. A schoolyard Robin Hood who attacked the strong and popular on behalf of the social outcasts. I’m 36 years old now though and I realize what I am is a bully. I may have been the one who got beat up but I sent plenty of kids home in tears.

In 2014, he says, he wants to do better.

…It’s been a difficult year, probably the hardest in my life and I realize I brought most of it on myself. That’s a sobering realization. … I can’t be this guy anymore. I have every intention of taking the things I’ve learned this year to heart and changing. I’ve said I’m sorry for the things I’ve said but I’ve never apologized for who I am. I need to separate the busted kid from the man I am now. I guess that’s my new years resolution.

As Sam Sykes notes, a lot of readers don’t think it’ll happen (emphasis mine):

[E]verywhere I go, I see Krahulik’s apology met with declarations that he’s insincere, that he doesn’t mean it, that he does mean it but he can’t help himself and we should just start counting down the days until he [screws] up again.

How do you know if someone who professes a desire to change actually will? When is sorry enough? Hold onto that thought, too, because I have one more thing to go over.

Bora is back

Quick recap: “The Blogfather” Bora Zivkovic sexually harassed at least three women. This became public knowledge in October 2013 and – along with Danielle Lee’s temporarily censored post about racism and sexism – triggered a large, painful, but important discussion about sexual harassment in science.3 Bora was subsequently removed from his positions at both Scientific American’s blogging network and the ScienceOnline conference he helped found.

January 1st, Bora returned to online science at his blog, with the support of his friend Anton Zuiker (a co-founder of ScienceOnline). Both men breezed over Bora’s misdeeds. Zuiker even went so far as to defend Bora again, mentioning multiple times that no criminal charges were filed, and implying that Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven (and the online science community) were making false accusations and overreacting (emphasis mine, again):4

It will be hard, but I think that he can find the right words and actions to provide a more full explanation of the incidents, to take responsibility where he must and defend himself where he can. To my knowledge, there are no criminal or legal proceedings against Bora. If there were, he’d be given due process and his side of the story would have an opportunity to come out, and judge or jury would have the final say on his guilt and requisite sentence. The online court of opinion, however, has no formal process for answering an accusation or appealing a communal verdict.

If called to testify in a court of law, I would willingly go as a character witness to share my knowledge of this friend. But this is the internet, where the swift-typing, fast-forming have jurisdiction.

This is not a satisfactory way to show you’re sorry; you’re learning. (Martin Robbins has more on this, if you’re not already convinced.)


In my mind these three broken things form a sort of chain. Bora says he’s learning; Krahulik says he wants to change. Krahulik sees himself as a victim-turned-bully; the culture of graduate school condones hazing and harassment.

It’s not a loop – I don’t assume that Bora became a harasser because he was harassed – but to me these things are related. In all cases, bad behavior is allowed to continue until someone says Stop – probably multiple, many someones – and those first voices are told “it’s not a problem” or “you’re being too sensitive” or “that’s just how it/he is.” In all cases, change can happen, but it starts inside, not out.

Getting better?

I think Mike Krahulik will get better and become less of a bully. He might make some mistakes, but he’s made it pretty clear (to me, at least) that he wants to change, that he sees the hurt he’s caused and accepts responsibility.

I don’t have that same faith in Bora. His apologies come across more as “I’m sorry I was caught” than “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Bora asks how he can show he has changed, but hasn’t addressed the ways in which change is necessary. I doubt he harassed only three women, and, if asked to identify all the women he’s harassed, I don’t think he could do it because I doubt he recognizes what his harassment looks like. Mike Krahulik knows when he has been a bully. He knows which behaviors to avoid, which attitudes to reexamine. Does Bora?

And grad school culture? A system cannot offer apologies. It cannot be sincere. It cannot want to change. But the people within that system can. For 2014, can we each resolve, like Krahulik, to become less of a bully? Can we promise not to pass on the hurts done to us? Can we recognize the harm we might do and reconsider our words and deeds? I hope so. I’d much rather be like Mike Krahulik, admittedly flawed but trying to do better, than Bora Zivokovic, wishing for some magic incantation that will make everyone forgive and forget.

This year, let’s do the hard work of changing into better people. Let’s bully less, and look out for each other more. Let’s consider our words and actions before we create them. Let’s forgive others – while retaining a healthy dose caution.5 And let’s make our world – home, school, workplace, what have you – into a nicer place to stay.

— 1: More than three-quarters of the respondents to a poll over at BenchFly agree it needs a “complete overhaul.” It’s not a particularly scientific measure, sure, but I think it’s a bit stronger than the anecdata I have.

2: That article might be behind a paywall, but it’s also available also here.

3: This conversation includes the ongoing Ripples of Doubt and Ripples of Hope hashtags.

4: Am I the only one who sees this as another case of just calling women “crazy”? The difference between “you’re just overreacting” and gaslighting can be a small one.

5: Fool me once…