The tale of the Oxford Prof’s group (+PS)

Time for some advice. Its been a while. So here is another little tale from the world of work. It been pieced together from a few different accounts, a little tarted up, and very very carefully crafted to ensure full anonymity :-}:

The tale of the Oxford Prof’s group

So, there once was an Oxford Prof, with a distinguished if somewhat esoteric career path, several fine papers, and a track record of helping students through their careers. He was a little grey. But in a fine and distinguished sort of a way. Intelligence, and a certain charisma, had always helped ensured a faithful following for his research.

So he did well. And he did good work.

As his career progressed, he found that some of his current and previous group members looked up to him as a reliable sort. He’d helped them in the past and had a kind heart. And he stayed in people’s minds through mailing lists. And via the lists they could always find him.

Years passed by.

A previous group member was sad about parts of her life, and not sure what to do. She cautiously approached this Prof. He always seemed strangely interested in her. So she aimed to sound out whether he was actually interested. And if not, she thought to ask him for some sage professorial advice.

A little later, a postdoc, who was now in a new research group in the same large department, found herself in a somewhat similar position. Likewise and for similar reasons, she too wandered his way. For he seemed approachable. And he was a known quantity.

As more time went by, he became a little dissatisfied with his home life too. He briefly eyed up the rising star of his group. Being rather brilliant however she was poached by another group in another town. But as she was leaving, yet another previous group member also approached him, drawn for the same reasons as the previous two.

Some of the three (and possibly more, for numbers are a little unclear) postdoc fans that had approached him liked his familiarity and confidence. For, of course, they wanted someone who possessed what they did not.  Others liked his wit. For he had always made them – and others laugh.

And the Prof very much seemed to want something from his fans. And there was the right degree of risqué in his listing contributions to suggest this was exactly where he was pitching. And so all was apparently well for everyone.

In some cases the Prof was somewhat proactive, arranging activities so that he could spend some time with these fans. But for the most part he was passive. He might turn up if invited. Occasionally there was a degree of physical flirtation, his knees pressed in through the back of a chair. Or a little foot stroking under the table at drinks after the meeting. Sometime he would lean forward and talk into the ear of one of the fans. There was much innuendo. Some of which was even good.

Then there were also pauses. Breaks. Where he could not attend any meetings. For weeks. Or months.

The fans did not know what to make of the gaps. The obvious interpretation was that they were not, after all, what he was interested in. Which they thought was fair enough, if somewhat difficult to square with his previous behaviour.

But infilling the gaps there was also the Departmental Mailing List. Into it were cast many things. Some of which pertained to the fans. Some to work. Some to home lives. By means of the List the whole department would learn interesting snippets. About the postdocs. About the Prof’s view on them.  And the Prof’s interests. And whilst the list was often inconvenient and rather public, it was also amusing and considered essential reading for everyone. The List was how information was disseminated. For the Prof might acknowledge other forms of communication from the postdocs in the gaps. But it was usually via the mailing list, rather than via the original form.

That List was key. The postdoc fans did not really know what to make of this method of communication. Maybe the Prof was a little paranoid? Maybe there was a reason for the paranoia? But it seemed harmless. It was often very amusing. Much of it made them laugh. They were frankly a bit hooked. And it was all indirect, so nothing could be said for definite. And maybe that was a good idea in uncertain times?

So there was flirtation via the list. Indirect discussions of suggestions, preferences, and ideas. Some of this spilled onto other university-wide sports and research mailing lists too. Some of the newbies were confused by the terminology of the lists, and quite embarrassingly confused about their distribution and readership. Various others in the group provided theories and quite witty commentary on the group and the Prof.

But mainly this. The Prof was always there and always ready to offer his opinion on all offerings made by the postdoc fans. Both public and private. The opinions were frequently amusing and very often spot on. The occasional meet up at a pub would also happen, with flirtation on one side, or other, or both.

And so it went on. For a long time. The continuous daily public attention via the lists. And the postdocs were kinda both flattered, distracted, and intrigued. But also progressively more puzzled. For when they met,  the Prof would generally, not always, hint that he really wanted something more. But what?

Should they turn up and purr their science presentations in their little electric blue cocktail dress and 5″ spike heels? Sing their huskiest Happy Birthday To You Mr President standing over the other fans?  Or perhaps just throw off everything and run around the meeting in their smallest triangle thong and thigh high boots, whilst chanting the Lord’s Prayer?

Hmm. It seemed a bit of an ask. All rather puzzling.

Some of the postdoc fans  grew more direct in their efforts to ascertain what the Prof wanted. But for the most part they lacked confidence. Remember, that was mostly why they had talked to him in the first instance; because he was safe and familiar. So having run out of other options, some tried to gently explain to the Prof that this was difficult for them. And others asked what the point was? And did he remember what was said many months ago? But he seemed to wish to avoid any explanations [1*].

Eventually some of the postdocs grew bolder. Others grew anxious; their confidence gradually whittled away. The Prof for his part, continued in daily making comments on the postdocs and their contributions. Sometimes he would appear to strongly favour one. Sometimes another. The fans began to wonder if all of this really counted as kindly interest. What did he want?

And this is where it gets hazy – and more speculative. For the Prof almost certainly wanted something.

Around the time when most of the physical encouragement of his fans happened, a new student joined the Prof’s group. She was presented to the group as thirty years younger than him, in the process of getting married, and as someone who he wanted to encourage in her career. (There being a lack of women in his research field.) And because the Prof was a kindly sort, he could not be trying to split her up from her partner to marry her himself. After all, he was her Supervisor.

But, just say, that maybe this had come into his mind. And gradually grown there. Perhaps to the point that she was everything he currently wanted.

The Student Hypothesis

Given the 30 year age gap between the Prof and the Student, and that the Student was both beautiful and intelligent, the Prof might now need to sell himself a little more than usual.

The Prof had always had an interest in pitching himself as `Waitrose-class’.  TBH most Profs do – so this is perhaps not entirely surprising. And whilst this Prof had many fine points, just possibly he might not be seen as entirely reliable. So we can speculate that perhaps he perceived that to be seen as *in-demand* as well as Waitrose-class, would be helpful. And of course, nothing should be obviously directed at his Student on his Lists. So a degree of misattribution on the Lists would help ensure that any intentions towards his Student would be disguised.

The Prof could not explain anything to his fans because he needed them to ensure he seemed in-demand. Any explanation of what was actually going on would also be awkward and risky.

Another helpful aspect would be to get the postdoc fans to generate as much heat and noise as possible. So all fan based communication should be public; that would best add to the effect. Maybe some public fighting would be a nice evil genius touch? There would be no point in private communications unless they led to something useful in the public (student) sphere. And ideally, the postdocs should present themselves in a way that made the Prof appear like, well, a catch. For example, nice photographs of themselves.

It worked rather well. There was misattribution of the Prof’s List contributions by his postdoc fans. They knew that his student was so clearly entirely out of bounds that his List contributions could not possibly be directed at her. Who else could they be directed at? This meant his contributions could safely be primarily directed at her, with misattribution from others – and all the attendant fringe benefits.

There are, of course, other interpretations. Other than the Student Hypothesis, that is. Perhaps the Prof would argue for the ‘I didn’t know what I was doing because I forgot what was said version’. Or the more simple `I didn’t know what I doing, full stop’. However the lack of response to repeated requests, and the overwhelmingly obvious need for clarification for the postdocs, argue against either of these explanations – alongside the List material. So it is reasonable that the Student Hypothesis is the most likely explanation. In which case the interesting point, and a main reason for this whole post, is to talk a little about consequences for his Student, his Fans, and the Group [1].

First, for the Student. To have the Prof on a very very tight leash sounds interesting. Making him shop solely from Lidl and the Poundland for a year; obliging him to post at least one feminist / lefty post per day on the Lists; and horse whipping his sorry ass on a daily basis might be one plan worth considering?

On a serious note though, the apparent set up does throw up many difficulties for the Student’s career. If the Hypothesis is even partially correct, he has now seriously screwed up her workplace for her. A professional approach would now seem to require (as a minimum) that the Prof take one of his hypothetical alternate job offers, to allow the student the space she needs to develop professionally, and also to sort out their individual personal lives. That is regardless of whether things develop (or not) the way he, hypothetically, might like. He should also immediately cease to be her supervisor – and admit (if necessary) full culpability at his workplace.

On the somewhat less serious side, for the other fans. Maybe some could learn from this that what seems to be the reassuring option may in actual fact be rather unsafe. But this is not an easy way to learn this. For any postdoc fans who might be reading this – you are not alone. And really really – in this particular case – the `Its not you!’ mantra is so totally true.

As for the wider group/department, it would be helpful if they could look out for those who might be hit by the Prof problem in future. It does appear that several kind members of his group did indeed do this. Ta. Don’t play up the monstrous angle, he likes and uses that one. Do however give as much Prof info/history as possible please.

And for the inner circle – that Student should be supported.  She is in an awkward spot. Whilst Prof-Student relations do, of course, happen in real life. No supervisor should ever publicly, or privately, pressurise their junior.


[1*] And here, I feel obliged to say, in the case of where one is trying to be kind, but clear to one’s fans – I tend to find any of the following tend to work well: “You are lovely, I am flattered, but I am taken / you are not my type.”. Or, if relevant, perhaps “I Am Married!”.  Or, in the reverse case, perhaps the more straightforward “32C is too small. I cant get it up for less than a D-cup”. Well, okay, that last one might be kinda a little on the direct side. But said face-to-face would be nice and clear. No?

[1] I guess that I dont need to say any clearer that a Prof hitting on his student, and using public Lists to talk about her as a sex object and encourage her to split her up from a partner is, well, really not okay on any level. Prof-Student relationships can work. But should not be pursued until they are not in any form of professional relationship.  If the Prof continues to be incapable of realising this, other group members could perhaps consider taking steps to ensure that she gets protected on a professional level. He should not be her supervisor. I am aware of a couple of instances of students transferring to new supervisors within the same department to avoid this problem. Locating themselves as far apart as possible on a professional level generally seems to have been the best strategy. She should never have had to deal with any of t/his bullshit.

[2] Nearly finally, thank you for sticking with this whole story. Back to something more cheery – and just perhaps (OMG) less leery next time?

[3] I will condense this 5-part post together into a single post when I’m back home. Perhaps a linkelectronic-tag, text, or otherwise copy of this tale onto Prof related Lists, if and when you think the unsuspecting may require a Prof warning, might be helpful.

[4] For the truely dedicated, see also, posts: 1, 3, and 4,and 5.

A short postscript (28th Jan):

So most of the post above was written about the 23rd Dec 2016. A month later, whats the story?

Again, a little unreliably pieced together from various indirect sources, but my best guess is that my writing of the tale does seem to have been overall useful. The postdocs, the student, and the prof (and wider community) probably have benefited in various respects.

However, possibly the most interesting part, and a large part of the difficulty in tracking the outcomes has been the extremely rapid post-tale shifts of position on the Profs side. It seems that the shifts are primarily strategic.  They are clearly beyond my capacity to contain. Even if I am unwisely tempted to try. Mostly the shifts represent variants of the Distract, Warmonger, and Attempt-to-emerge-victorious-from-under-the-Messy-Pile-of-Victims by (as ever) talking and shouting more and more-loudly than anyone else. And maybe it will still work? I’ve certainly never seen anyone attempt anything like this style of campaign to woo a Student. Maybe it is fucked-up enough to work?

And me?

When tracking aspects I find myself pulled in multiple directions. I deeply dislike the public attempts to attempt to split his Student from her partner. And discussing her as a sex object. (Cupcakes, chairs, steaming balls -good grief!) Whatever the nature of the Student-Husband relationship, it was never up to the Prof to discuss any aspect of this in public. And that is so much more true given the Prof and Student professional relationship. To warmonger between Student and partner is very wrong. Do you hear me?! And totally unprofessional. But frankly, of course, it is also utterly riveting. And I find it so hard to avoid getting pulled in having been a key, if unwitting, part of the story for so long.

So, I have now removed my ability to be able to read most of the list postings.  Peace and quiet.  (I got rather more done the day after removing access too : -). Unfortunately however, the removal has also removed my ability to use about five other everyday Apps.. some of which were even paid for! The complexities of modern life? Or perhaps merely my laziness in selecting settings. Anyway. I think I will have to log back on and attempt to sort out the App mess. And I will probably also restore my List access later on. But peace and quiet and removal-as-far-as-practical from the Prof-controlled zone of Total-List-Insanity for some time is the current plan.


And maybe to blog a little about work stuff? Of late, I’ve been doing weird and wonderful science related stuff with Artists and the Press. Its kinda fun. But do I need a new blog for this? Am still a bit unsure.. and if so, where should the blog be?


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