There’s No Good Reason for an “Independent Study”

And if your professor suggests one, run the other way. 

grad student teacher independent study.
Many allegations of sexual harassment in higher ed are met with vitriolic disbelief, bureaucratic intransigence, legal morass, or the full trifecta.


Last week, two graduate students at the University of California–Berkeley, Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett, held a press conference to reveal they were filing an official complaint with the state of California against both the university and Blake Wentworth, a professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies. They claim Wentworth subjected them to sexual harassment, which the university’s own investigation corroborated. Yet Wentworth then faced no apparent discipline, continuing to teach and research on campus.

Gutierrez told the Guardian she doesn’t feel safe, and suffers chronic physical and psychological stress out of fear of running into Wentworth. Bennett says she won’t even go to campus. And at least six other students have either expressed concerns or filed complaints about the embattled assistant professor, who says the accusations are “baseless.” The university disagreed, at least on paper, with the Guardian reporting that an investigation last October (that’s six months ago) concluded he’d made “unwelcome sexual advances.” Meanwhile, he’s still working two doors away from one of his accusers.

It’s a familiar story. Grad students have accused their professors of sexual harassment in another department at Berkeley. It’s happened at Arizona. It’s happened at UCLA. It’s happened at CalTech. It’s happened at Northwestern. It’s happened at the University of Miami. And those are just the places where students leveled official accusations. Recently.

Many of these cases—including the ones at Berkeley, Miami, and CalTech—have something utterly unsurprising in common: The alleged inappropriate behavior took place during an “independent study” between the professor and an early career graduate student.

Independent study is the perfect storm of unimpeachable propriety (“His research specialty is the same as hers, so obviously they’re working together”) and murky boundaries; i.e., closed-door meetings in which the only two witnesses later become alleged assailant and alleged complainant.

Despite an ever-growing string of high-profile cases, many allegations of sexual harassment in higher ed are met with vitriolic disbelief, bureaucratic intransigence, a legal morass, or the full trifecta. But there’s one easy solution that should please everybody, from those advocating for the alleged victims to those who assume that the accused perpetrators are victims of railroading. Here’s my proposal: End the independent study. Forever. Done and done.

At once the most ethically dicey and least necessary form of scholarly dissemination, the independent study is broadly defined as any “project” undertaken by only one student, under the supervision of only one faculty member, that’s not a thesis, a dissertation tutorial, or an official appointment as a research assistant.

In the latter situations, the student is almost at or near the dissertation stage and has typically sought out the professor after forging a good working relationship in seminar or lab. With an independent study, this isn’t necessarily the case. In the Berkeley case, Bennett was in her first year when she attracted Wentworth’s attention and he “encouraged” her to do an independent study with him. It’s safe to say that any student, of any gender, should feel a little suspicious if a professor approaches him or her to do an independent study, especially when that student is freshly arrived at the institution with no “research” to show but an amateurish statement of purpose and undergrad writing sample. There will be plenty of time to work together later.

There is simply no good reason for a beginning grad student (or undergrad) to do an independent study, ever. That’s not just because they’re the breeding grounds for impropriety (or, for that matter, false accusations of impropriety). First of all, most independent studies are outside the realm of a professor’s normal course load and correspondingly voluntary—they feel unpaid. And “teaching” to one is a lot of work, so they’re labor-intensive, too. What’s more, they risk fostering an environment of favoritism and nepotism in which a popular professor’s regular students don’t feel “chosen” or “special” enough.

And let’s face it: Independent studies are often a haven for students who have trouble hacking it in seminar because of personality conflicts with other faculty and students, so they just tuck themselves safely under the wing of their one trusted mentor and never have to learn to navigate the big, bad academy. (There’s no peer-reviewed data to back that up, but everyone I knew in grad school who replaced seminar with independent study fit this profile.) Most importantly, working one-on-one with even the best professor early on in one’s career creates an unfortunate scholarly myopia. (And everyone knows scholarly myopia is the exclusive domain of the dissertation!)

I’m not coming out against fruitful extra-seminar discussion between students and professors. There is a far better alternative to the independent study that harbors no danger of untoward behavior or ulterior motives, and can be put into place any time: a reading group.

Whereas the independent study is at best a terrible use of instructional time and at worst a litigious minefield, the reading group is a beautiful tradition from which everyone can benefit. A reading group is open to everyone who is interested (thus staving off favoritism and nepotism), and, because by definition a “group” must have at least three participants, it prevents all the other issues as well: lack of exposure to diversity of opinion; too much extra work for the prof (because students take turns being “in charge” each week); and, not incidentally, any situation where a professor and a student are alone together in an extracurricular capacity. A reading group is a safe and fruitful environment to gain either scholarly depth or breadth.

So, if you’re an early career graduate student (or very involved undergrad), and one of your department’s superstars has expressed an outsized interest in “your work” (but you don’t have any work yet), simply volunteer to spearhead a reading group. If his (or her) eyes cloud over, you’ll know you’ve dodged a bullet. If not, then you’re in for a great intellectual experience—and what’s more, one that will not leave you a broken, vilified shell of your former self.