Teaching Naked, Part 1

I had my students fill out mid-semester evaluations last fall.  No big deal, just answer these four questions: 1) What am I doing to help you learn? 2) What could I be doing better to help you learn? 3) What are you doing to help yourself learn? and 4) What could you be doing better to help yourself learn?  I had them turn the evaluations in anonymously to allow more genuine feedback.mid-semester evaluations

Later that afternoon, I started going through the responses. It was encouraging to see that, in general, responses to the first two questions indicated I was getting better, which was gratifying given the amount of time and energy I spent re-developing the class. For the most part, students were surprisingly honest when responding to questions 3 and 4, showing they understood their responsibility in their progress, or lack thereof. Somewhere towards the end of the ~160 evaluations, I came across one that answered question #2 with: “Teach naked.”  I can’t tell you what the rest of this evaluation said; this is the only part I remember.  I was so angry, and embarrassed, and exasperated, and hopeless, all at once.  I worked so hard.  I am so knowledgeable.  I take such care to present myself professionally. I care deeply about my students’ learning outcomes, particularly with respect to learning critical thinking skills.  But none of that matters.  I clearly will never be more than a thing to look at.  How depressing is that?  None of my work, achievements, or intentions matter to people like that—just because I’m a woman, an object.  It’s maddening!

The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.  The next day, I went for a long walk, again consumed by waves of humiliation and anger; I couldn’t stop thinking about the situation.  What should I do?  Ignore it?  Pretend like it never happened, thereby letting the perpetrator think it is OK to do this to others?  No.  Do I try to find the culprit and punish him/her?  I have 168 students—probably not.  Besides, what would that accomplish anyway?  Making a big deal about finding the person who did it would show the class that it wasn’t cool, but it would also show them that folks can get away with it.  Also, it sends the message that only speaks to the person who did it.  I decided to use the situation as a teachable moment.  After all, if I don’t speak out, I’m essentially condoning it.  So, for the rest of my walk, I decided exactly what I was going to say to the class.  I also decided to wait until I was as sure as possible that the offender would be in attendance.

Almost two weeks later, before giving an exam, I announced to my class: “I want to take the first couple minutes to call out the person who used the anonymity of the mid-semester evaluations as an opportunity to sexually harass me.”  The class was suddenly at full attention.  You could hear a pin drop.  My voice trembled.  I felt humiliated having to admit that some people see me as an object.  I had decided not to make eye contact, so as to not implicitly accuse anyone, and instead stared towards the back.  I proceeded with increasing audible confidence:

“Now, I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt and assume this was not a malicious comment.  Now here’s where the teachable moment comes in: these types of comments, as well as things like catcalls, are not taken as compliments.  They constitute sexual harassment, which is a form of bullying, and like any bully, you are a coward.  An adult would own up to it and face the consequences.  For those of you who may have heard about it afterward and snickered, high-fived, or didn’t in any way condemn it publicly, you are complicit in condoning such cowardly behavior.  Now, here’s a good rule of thumb if you are unsure whether you are harassing or bullying someone—ask yourself: would you do or say this to your mother, sister, or eventually your daughters?  If the answer is no, then, it is inappropriate to do or say to a person you do not know very well.”

Somewhere about halfway through speech, the women in my class, almost collectively, sat up straighter in their seats.  It was really incredible and something I will never forget.  If nothing else, this was important for at least half the class, but I suspect I made an impression on most of my students, regardless of gender.  Anyway, after that I handed out the exam and thought that would be the end of it.

Later that day, I received an email from a student stating she was stunned at what I talked about in class.  She also informed me that she was with the student paper and happened to be assigned to the ‘gender beat’ and wanted to interview me about the experience.  Ohhhhh crap.  As a young, female faculty member, I seriously did not want to publicize the fact that some of my students don’t regard me seriously.  But, what kind of message would I be sending to my student if I only spoke publicly about sexual harassment in situations where I have some power and control?  Also, I know for a fact this isn’t an isolated issue in my classroom or on my campus.  Comments about the physical appearance of female faculty often show up on faculty evaluations.  I realized I was in a good position to speak out about this publicly partly because I would only be there for one more semester—I had nothing to lose if I pissed off the administration.  For these reasons, I decided to do the interview.

The journalist thanked me many times for consenting to the interview—she had a hard time getting others to speak on-record regarding gender issues.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t that surprising to me.  Along with the personal humiliation factor, many of us don’t want to be seen as trouble-makers, especially those seeking tenure.  It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.  This was confirmed by the countless responses I received after the article ran from both faculty and staff, who confided in me that things like this have happened to them.  Many wished they had the courage to do what I had, which made me feel a lot better and stronger about my decision to speak out.  It also makes me sad that as professionals we still have to deal with gender discrimination and that a culture of victim blaming still controls decisions to come forward and talk about these issues openly.

Now, I know in the grand scheme of things, the student’s comment probably wasn’t meant to be offensive.  It may have been partially a compliment and partially juvenile behavior, but that doesn’t make it OK.  Not everyone may agree with the approach I took:

  • Confronting the class using as gender-neutral language so as to address the whole class not just a portion of it
  • Using strong, but not accusatory, language so as to not make anyone feel defensive
  • Stressing that parties aware of the transgression who fail to condemn this behavior publicly participate in condoning it
  • Framing it as a teachable moment rather than a scolding session

Believe me, I know it is easier to brush these kinds of situations that seem somewhat benign under the rug—I almost did so myself—but it is crucial to deal with them in the open.  I hope some of you agree.

GracieABD

You can now read Part 2 here.

274 thoughts on “Teaching Naked, Part 1

  1. I think you dealt with a serious situation in a very mature and courageous manner and I salute you for that! Here’s wishing more women would take the path of courage more often…

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  3. Can I first say, I think that confronting your class was the correct and certainly the courageous thing to do. Every so often, I see articles like this pop up, in all sorts of forums and it some what frustrates me. From your account of what happened, I can utterly assure you that this comment was not meant to be in anyway offensive to you, nor was it any way, a reflection on your academic abilities. What it simply comes across as, is an immature attempt to be funny. On a personnel level, I think you’ve taken taken it out of the context.

    As a peer, I think you did exactly what was required to bring it up as a topic in front of a large audience of young people and make it perfectly clear that it’s not funny, and by the sounds of it, it will be etched on their minds for a long time.

    I think the fact that you let this affect you on such a personnel scale, just shows a certain ignorance to understanding how the young male is hardwired. Once a boy hit’s puberty, at least 50% of his time becomes consumed imagining what he could have sex with, this usually focuses on girls of his own age, and himself. But, very often he will transfer focus to the hot teacher at the front of the class, or his best buddies mother who, so happens, to be a bit of a milf. This impulse doesn’t tend to fade all that fast, I’m 27 years old and look how your headline grabbed me!! The thing is, we do learn some sort of restraint, to different degrees admittedly, we begin to realise what is acceptable to say and how to act in different situations. It’s part of growing up.

    Hopefully, the student who wrote this will now know to keep his vivid imagination to himself in future and you can credit yourself for that.

    Last thing, remember! just because we find you attractive, it doesn’t mean we don’t find you interesting and appreciate your abilities.

    Who said men can’t multi-task?

  4. Acclimatrix, the policies you cite are indeed typical. They define sexual harassment as situations where a quid pro quo exists, where the person’s job is threatened if he/she doesn’t go along with the harassment, or where a “hostile environment” is created. The definitions of hostile environment are the ones where the “severe, persistent or pervasive” language comes in. Yes, a few courts have held that one remark can create a hostile environment, but the majority have not. And even in the one-incident cases, the situations were far more severe than that depicted here. This instructor incorrectly identified the behavior as sexual harassment when in fact it was not (though as I have already agreed, it was offensive and inappropriate).

    • This argument, of whether one instance of sexual harassment can legally be defined as sexual harassment in a court is a way of losing sight of the forest for the trees. That is, it is missing the point of the teachable moment. The number of times I got the comment “teach naked,” “nice ass,” or any of the plethora of other comments that have been written on my (or my colleagues) teaching evaluations is beside the point. The point is that all of these comments, cat-calls, gestures, whether on a teaching evaluation or anywhere else, are not taken as a complement despite of the intentions of the perpetrator. I think many people are unaware that getting whistled or honked is intimidating. Thus, the perpetrator is acting as a bully regardless of his or her intention. This is the broader picture that I was trying to get through to my students.

      • agree – definitions are irrelevant to this story – as are the number of incidents. Well put @Gracieabd ….. the point is that it is the story of one incident that was used in a way to help improve the culture of the class (at the very least) and perhaps the wider community (hopefully), and that Gracie was very brave to take it the extra step. What it was, or could be, initially defined as is totally beside the point. It was uncomfortable at the time, the person was informed that it made people uncomfortable, others were empowered to stand a little taller when they themselves were made uncomfortable. That is all. (Again, I say ‘well done’).

    • The seriousness of the offense had great distance from the victim and the person’s job was not at risk. How the statement “teach naked” then correlated to a diatribe about how hard the person worked, how knowledgeable they were, how this person had a desire to present herself professionally, cared about student learning and critical skills, and how they thought that they were more than something to be looked at (with emphasis), this undermined the assertion of “critical thinking.” To me critical thinking is cold, unaffected analysis of a point or action in terms of the point in the context of the speaker/writer. It implies an objective or impersonal inquiry or assessment. While I do not wish to diminish the complaints raised by the writer, I find that she was not able to be bigger than the “perpetrator,” which is another suspicious title she gave him associating the act with criminal behavior, which was extreme. The person was obviously attracted but became derogatory because he/she felt powerless. I am concerned that the writer did not see the powerful position she was in as a teacher and the effect her “teachable moment” must have had on the student, who if it were me, I would have left the room, even though I would have never said/referenced her teaching naked. I would have kept it to myself. This keeping of such thoughts to oneself establishes a question: Does the teacher wish that students merely keep such thoughts to themselves or does she wish to understand that such thoughts exist?

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  7. Gender issues…. almost like an STD. Everyone knows about it, everyone knows it’s bad, but yet, no one talks about it, snickers when someone says they got it, and the issue is avoided like a plague.

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  9. I think it was terrific that you spoke up and especially that you realized that you were in a position to do so when others may not be. I teach, when I have time, as adjunct faculty. I’m in a field in high demand and teaching makes up a very small fraction of my income. While I try my hardest to do a good job and don’t go out of my way to antagonize the administration, because I do like them, it doesn’t make much difference in my life whether I ever teach again or not. That’s in contrast to some of the adjunct and tenure track faculty who depend on their job and believe that they need to put up with crap to stay in the good graces of administration and student body. Both in the case of gender issues and ethnicity – an older Hispanic female, I look a lot more like the janitorial staff on most campuses than I do like the faculty, and sometimes students or faculty treat me that way – but no one does it more than once. Again, a million kudos to you for speaking up. Don’t change.

  10. Thank you for this post. This happens to women faculty all the time on end-of-semester evals which we don’t get to see until after the semester ends. I wonder if there is a good way to deal with those akin to how you’ve done, which I think was very smart, creative, and brave.

  11. My first year teaching, a student jokingly offered me sexual favors in exchange for extra credit. I told him that wasn’t cool. No big. That was the end of it. My second year teaching, a student submitted a paper to his writing group for peer review that contained racist and misogynistic hate speech as well as suicidal threats. *That* was seriously hard to deal with. I spent days talking with advisers and psych services trying to figure out the best way to handle things. I would take a “teach naked” comment on an anonymous midterm eval over that any day.

    I think we need to keep things in perspective. If we want to talk privilege, if a completely isolated “teach naked” comment is the most uncomfortable thing you ever have to deal with teaching (and given that you couldn’t determine who wrote it, I would have to assume it was not part of a larger pattern of inappropriate behavior), then you are pretty darn lucky. I know teachers who have been threatened my students. One teacher friend of mine, while working in an inner-city high school during her first pregnancy, had a student tell her that they would kill her and her baby. I can imagine all sorts of threatening, frightening things students could write on a midterm eval. “Teach naked” doesn’t make the list.

    I do think the dean was right; there is no reason that a stupid, juvenile comment that was not at all threatening or part of a larger pattern of behavior from a student that would justifiably cause concern should have upset you to the level it did. I’m sorry it caused you such distress, but sometimes our responses have more to do with us than with the thing we are responding to. Certainly if the student threatened you sexually, or graphically described the things he’d like to do to you sexually, that would be extremely troubling and cause for concern. And certainly if this were part of a pattern of inappropriate behavior on the part of a student, it would be cause for concern. But this comment, in isolation, was simply not cause for concern. A quick comment to the class about how “jokes” like that are not cool and not appropriate seems like it should have been sufficient. I’d personally have been extremely uncomfortable framing myself as a sexual harassment victim, in a campus publication no less, given the circumstances. The butt of a dumb, middle-school-level joke seems more fitting.

    I don’t think we help the cause of taking harassment and violence seriously when we try to elevate comments that are simply dumb or annoying to that level.

  12. One more comment: I’m a bit concerned about how little thought is going toward the student who made the comment.

    Let’s not forget how the lines of authority run here. Sure, the student may have been male and you may be female, but you are still in the position of authority, as the instructor. That means you have a certain amount of responsibility toward your students, who are in many if not most cases going to be younger, less mature, and less experienced than you are.

    As teachers, I think it’s important that we don’t make things all about us. When I had that student submit a draft with hate language and suicidal threats, yes, it was extremely disturbing for me. But, my first concern had to be my students, both the student who wrote the essay, who clearly needed some guidance and support, and the students who had been in his group and read the draft, who were scared by what they had read and felt helpless and confused.

    If you truly felt that this was a troubling comment, rather than simply a juvenile joke, then I think that wanting to help the student who wrote it should have been a first priority. A student who would write a genuinely harassing comment to an instructor no doubt has some serious issues that need to be addressed. Focusing solely on the instructor’s distress is, I think, to ignore our responsibility to the students. Certainly, as a woman in my mid-30s, I am more emotionally and psychologically mature than most of my students, and sometimes I need to put aside my feelings of annoyance or offense to address their needs, especially since I am in a position of authority and responsibility over them.

    Now, if it were just a dumb joke, then there’s probably no reason to seek out appropriate resources for the student, but then there’s probably also no reason to feel victimized. However, if it’s harassment, then I do think finding appropriate resources to help the student would be very important. Yes, my primary job is instructing my students in my specific subject area, but part of my responsibility is also addressing other serious issues or needs when they come to my attention, when I am able. To do that, it can’t be all about me all the time.

    • This was an anonymous evaluation– there would have been no way to find out who wrote it, to “help” them. And, honestly? This student is an adult. There is no reason s/he shouldn’t be treated like one. I find it really appalling that anyone’s first thought would be “poor bully!” or “poor abuser!” rather than sympathy for the instructor. Women are so often socialized and expected to subjugate their own needs and be caretakers, and your comment really reinforces that unhealthy culture.

      I also didn’t get the impression that this blog post was about one person. It was about the entire culture of sexism and violence against women that is pervasive in our society, and very strongly so on college campuses. What resonated with me was how supportive the female students in the classroom were. They were helped, too.

      • The student wasn’t a bully or an abuser. They wrote a stupid comment on a mid-term evaluation. Again, since the instructor couldn’t determine who wrote it, we have to assume that it was not a pattern of abusive or bullying behavior on the part of a student.

        Yes, college students are adults, but they are brand-new adults. Those of us who are older do have responsibilities to use our authority in ways that help guide them through their transition into full adulthood. If a student really is behaving in inappropriate ways, it could signal a serious psychological disturbance that, at the very least, we might feel some duty in addressing in the hopes it doesn’t become more serious.

        And, yes, as an instructor, you do sometimes need to put the needs of your students above your own. That’s called the responsible use of authority. Acting like the instructor is a helpless victim here, rather than the party with the power, is incredibly insulting and naive.

        I’m really saddened to see the victim mentality here. To pretend that a female instructor is somehow the powerless victim of a big bad male bully in her class who wrote the word “naked” on an anonymous midterm eval is just absurd. It’s Victorianism at its worst, as if we women are so weak and helpless and innocent that simply seeing the word “naked” will scar us forever, and the men around us must protect us. Screw that. I’m a grown-ass woman who can take care of myself. I can certainly hold my own among a room full of 18 and 19 year olds dudes who might sometimes make stupid comments about sex, the way 18 and 19 years olds dudes sometimes do. To cry harassment and go to the media about it–when we aren’t talking about a pattern of inappropriate behavior that continues after being addressed or an actual threat–isn’t helpful or empowering. Acting like a mature adult woman who is in a position of authority is.

        • Where you see a victim mentality, I see someone empowered enough to stand up in front of her classroom and challenge a culture of sexism, objectification, and violence against women. This culture is made up of individual actions. I’m surprised someone who claims to have two degrees in women’s studies doesn’t get something as basic as rape culture.

          I’m also surprised that someone who claims to have two degrees in women’s studies doesn’t understand the concept that the personal is political. Or that there is no feminist monolith, and that everyone has a different threshold when it comes to acceptable or non-acceptable behavior. Your attitude in this comment, and the other which I deleted, is arguably bullying itself– it’s silencing. Telling women to suck it up, instead of challenging the culture of objectification, is not feminist, it’s not compassionate, and hell, it’s not even practical. I’m sick and tired of people suggesting that we should wait until we’ve been brutally raped or assaulted before we’re allowed to open our mouths about this harmful culture.

          This isn’t your space to do that.

          Sorry-I’m-not-sorry,

          A TSW moderator.

          • Ok, sorry for whatever I wrote that led you to remove my comment. But, one thing that I’m keen to know, to help me justify how impassioned women get in these situations, what exactly do you think went through this persons mind when they wrote the comment? I’m genuinely trying to understand what intent was seen in this comment to justify such an impassioned response.

            If you approach from a different view point, if there was a class full of young women in front of a Brad Pitt look-a-like figure, the exact same comment is just as likely to pop up on his anonymous review.

            If this happened to the Brad Pitt look-a-like, is there any difference? If you think the answer is no, do you think he would have got the same support on his blog, if he wrote it from his point of view? Actually, I can answer that question for you, he would be laughed off the internet.

            Is this response correct? Well in today’s world, men are expected to, accept that slap on the ass from the a hen(bachelorette) party, take a physical assault from their wife/girlfriend without reaction, generally just suck it up. You might say the same laws would apply, but see the difference in reaction from Police/society, to either of those examples.

            Forgive my irk when a comment as minor(not insignificant) as “teach naked,” works a teaching professional into 2 day of emotional meltdown. Do women want equality or everything?

      • “Privileged white women? The kind who teach at universities and get doctorates? We have shitloads of power.”

        Who said GracieABD was white? There’s no photo – she might be, but she might not. Watch your assumptions.

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  14. Reblogged this on My Weblog and commented:
    More people need to stand up to this behavior to constitute change out of the current culture we have created that has made this behavior okay.

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  20. If it was anonymous evaluation, how do we know it was a male who did it?
    Only men can make sexual remarks? I’m remiss to call this harassment. Childish and irresponsible. But this is the equivalent of writing “poop” on a toilet wall.
    This was an ungendered comment that could have equally been directed TO a male teacher. While I feel sorry for the teacher in question, and applaud her telling the class that this is unacceptable, its unacceptable because of its childishness.

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  30. I had an anonymous end-of-semester “evaluation” when I was still a new TA: “Your (sic) extremely sexy. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask you to have sex. You have an amazing ass.”
    How on earth can people think it’s okay to do that sort of thing? I was so nervous I’d get that same person in class again, whoever s/he was, but thankfully I never had to reteach any of those students. I didn’t have an opportunity to make it a teachable moment either, though.

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