Teaching Naked, Part 2

In my previous post, I recounted how a student interviewed me for the school paper regarding my decision to confront my class about being sexual harassed by one of my students on a mid-semester evaluation.  To give a little context for this post, my article was featured on the front page along with an article about a male faculty member (from the same college, and thus, the same dean) who was suing the university over sexual orientation discrimination and wrongful termination.  Neither my mentor nor the dean in this anecdote had authority over me; my bosses were in the provost office.

After the article was published, the dean of my college was clearly not happy I chose to share my experience publicly.  She immediately emailed my (male) mentor, copying me on the email, and demanded that he set up a meeting for the three of us ASAP; he set up the meeting for the following morning.  In the meantime (I learned after the fact), they had met and discussed the article for hours without me, and without attempting to understand the context from which this article stemmed.  For example, they assumed I spoke about sexual harassment for the entire class period.

The dean began our morning meeting by asking me to explain what happened.  She listened politely and when I finished she claimed that the incident did not constitute sexual harassment, or bullying, because sexual harassment (or bullying) cannot occur if the person perpetrating the act is not in a position of authority.  While I understand the legal concerns of the university, I absolutely disagree.  By this logic, my students can make sexual comments to each other or to faculty without them being considered harassment. Better yet, I could technically make sexual comments to the dean or to the chancellor without actually sexually harassing them because I have no authority over them.  Besides, definition of harassment is not legally true anyway.

Next, the dean segued into describing the difference between fondling and rape, indicating that what happened to me was minor.  I am not sure where this came from—I never accused anyone of sexual assault.  Sexual harassment is not the same thing as sexual assault.  I felt that she was implying that what happened to me was so minor that I really shouldn’t have made that big of deal out of it, i.e., I was being unreasonable and a big baby.  The dean followed by saying that it was “just a juvenile comment,” and that all teachers get rude comments in evaluations.  I reveled that I, too, receive plenty of rude comments, e.g. “sometimes you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher,” so it isn’t just a function of having a thicker skin.  This comment was different and crossed a line.

Next, the dean mentioned that “educational programs don’t really teach classroom management,” implying that the situation would have been averted had I known how to manage my classroom.  I interjected by saying, “You’re right, I received no formal training in either my master’s or my doctoral programs with respect to classroom management, but I have a bachelor’s degree in broadfield science education, which amply covered classroom-management techniques.”   That shut down this line of attack pretty quickly.

As annoyed as I was to have my mentor in the room with me, I was thankful that he was there as a witness.  He was very supportive of my teaching abilities and knowledge of gender issues during the whole meeting.  He pointed out that my knowledge of gender issues is part of the reason they hired me—to increase faculty diversity.  (The student gender balance at this school is 30:70 female to male, and the faculty ratio isn’t much better.)

At some point, my mentor interjected that we should talk about one of my quotes in the paper, “This is the most sexist campus I’ve been on.”  The dean said that she was unaware that sexism was a problem on campus and in the community because she had never experienced it.  She went on to explain: “Well, I don’t look like you do, so I’m sure I don’t get this as frequently.  Again, this is a juvenile comment and you should just learn to ignore it.”  At this point, I was mad and dismayed.  As if my looks justify this sort of behavior.  Where, then, is the line that constitutes harassment?  My mentor pointed out that her line of reasoning was flawed because she’s the dean and people act differently around her because she holds a position of power, and also that she’s not exposed to the same experiences as teachers.  Instead of acknowledging this, she instead offered up the following analogy.  “I grew up in Chicago, and I used to get comments like that on the bus all the time.  I just learned to ignore it.  A few times, I got felt up, but then I yelled at the person.”  Again, I feel like her message is basically so as long as you don’t get assaulted, stop being a baby.

She finished by telling me she wanted to make sure I felt supported.  I did not feel comfortable responding to her after she spent the last 25 minutes attacking me and attempting every way possible to delegitimize my experience.  She has more authority and power on this campus than I do, and although I understand she is not in my chain of command, she likely has influence on those who are.  For that reason, I chose to refrain from rebutting her arguments after the first 10 minutes—her mind was made up, and arguing would only prolong the meeting.

I got back to my office to find several emails from both male and female faculty and staff.  Several more faculty and staff stopped by my office to briefly chat about the article.  The male responses were supportive and apologetic that I had to endure the sexual harassment.  Several men even mentioned that they are trying to bring their boys up to be more respectful of women.  With the exception of the police chief, the male responses also seemed to imply, or explicitly state, that this was an isolated incidence.  The female responses, however, were supportive from a solidarity standpoint.  They shared their own similar experiences of being sexually harassed, including via evaluations (for faculty), and congratulated me for having stood up for myself.  Many of them wished they had done what I did instead of ignoring it; going forward, they would use it as a teachable moment like I had.

I also later heard from my male mentor that many male faculty members joked to him about the article.  They didn’t understand how the incident in question constituted sexual harassment, and they believed that I brought it on myself.  These comments from male faculty clearly default to a victim-blaming culture, but they also demonstrate a lack of context for the experience of being a woman within our society, and within academia specifically.  (See also Miller and Chamberlin 2000; Lester 2011; and here).

A picture of a hand-written written student evaluation where a student writes that they were inspired by the professor's handling in-class sexual harassment and decided to become a certified sexual harassment reporter.

A student shares their thoughts about the events that transpired in their end-of-the-year evaluation.

Despite this experience, I don’t regret my decision to use the incident as a teachable moment for the class, and to talk about it publicly through the school paper.  The audiences of these forums only heard the message I shared, not the administrative response to it.  I know I made a difference in some of my students’ lives.  At the end of the semester, I got several responses on my evaluations specifically mentioning how my confronting the class affected them.  I did the right thing.

The remaining big question I have is: Was this administrative response an isolated incident?  Have I been protected from gender discrimination while a student, but as faculty am I now exposed to the ‘real’ world?  If I choose to attempt a career as a faculty member of a smaller-sized school, am I likely to find accusatory and unsupportive administration?  It’s not like I plan to make discussing sexual harassment a goal for every earth science class I teach. (Although, based on my students’ responses, it wouldn’t be a bad idea either!)  Was I just unlucky in my first experience as a faculty member?

GracieABD

References cited:
Miller, J., & Chamberlin, M. (2000). Women are teachers, men are professors: A study of student perceptions. Teaching Sociology, 283-298.

Lester, J. (2011). Regulating Gender Performances: Power and Gender Norms in Faculty Work. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 4(2), 142-169.

107 thoughts on “Teaching Naked, Part 2

  1. G’day from Australia. I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace – years ago in the Federal Public Service so I can empathise. Meantime I teach my just 13 year old son the three R’s. Respect for yourself, Respect for others and Respect for property. I catch him disrespecting anyone, particularly through sexual innuendo, he’s grounded til he’s 18!

  2. You probably have this already, but here’s Wikipedia on the position or lack of it of the harasser: “The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer and harassers or victims can be either male or female.” Certainly students fall into the “client or customer” category.

      • It seems to me like that should fall into specific category of harassment. I imagine that most workplace rules must be set up to protect workers from harassment by a superior specifically because they are least likely to be defend themselves from it. But I agree – harassment can come from anywhere.

  3. After more than twenty years in higher ed administration, most of it on a small campus, I can answer your question: Yes, you are likely to find accusatory and unsupportive administrators. Just as you are likely to find colleagues on the faculty who make jokes about your experiences. You know as well as anyone that you can’t remove people from the culture in which we live, and ours is an accusatory and unsupportive one – especially toward people who speak out against harassment and bullying based on gender or identity. However, you will also find: faculty and administrators who care deeply about educating for change; you will find students (as your photo of a students’ response proves) thirsty for information that validates their experiences and inspires them to speak up and become change-agents themselves. The real question is one for yourself – is this a battle you wish to fight? Every time we step into the fray, we’ll find both supporters and detractors. In that, academia differs not one iota from the rest of our culture!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences – I’m grateful that WordPress selected them for Freshly Pressed so I had the opportunity to read them!

  4. As an addition to previous bits about men’s in some ways lack of understanding regarding these issues (partly via a man’s comment re having his appearance mentioned in similar circumstances) and comments along the line of “stop whining, it could be worse” (which it could), the following reasonable, respectful, and about-as-concise-as-possible attempt at an elucidation of a closely related topic – namely privlege – seems very much to the point:
    https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/
    Please give it a thought. Improve it if you can.

    • Oops (again).
      Should have been “As an addition to previous bits about men’s in some ways *UNDERSTANDABLE* lack of understanding…”
      Proofreading accuracy somehow eludes me on an iPad.

  5. Unfortunately I think this bigotry (dismissal of an incident based on what I call the bounds of “suck it up”) extends beyond the context of sexual harassment. I believe that anyone who is outside the academic majority (be that who it may be) is often looked down upon and their experiences devalued. I speak from the vantage point of a student with a disability who experienced instances of discrimination in my years of school. No matter how often laws are written on paper, until we raise a culture that is able to appreciate other’s experience, I don’t know how we approach these issues to effectively eliminate them.

  6. Hello, I find that unfortunately so many people don’t want I talk about this “taboo” subject because of their own personal flaws. You did a great job by going with what you know as examples to the class, and then sticking to your guns. Otherwise, behaviorally speaking, you would be reinforcing their (your male colleagues) ideas of what you did as wrong. The socalette

  7. Since I was not there, I do not know how well you handled this. However, I am confident you did the right thing. I think I am a better man now that I have read what it made you think and feel. Thank you.
    I am of the opinion that the culture on college campuses often encourage sexist and misogynistic behavior in men. TV, music, movies, etc. reiterate that sexual wisecracks and advances are appropriate. Men do not feel what women feel when something like this is said to us. We do not get it. Please educate us! We eventually become husbands and fathers. We can be taught to be sensitive!!

    • Thank you — this is such a good point, about the broader issues with sexism and misogyny on college campuses. I totally think that this is relevant to that discussion, and the people saying GracieABD is “too sensitive” are missing the broader issue.

  8. Your dean was looking at it from the wrong perspective. Okay, yeah, she experienced sexual harassment and brushed it off – but how did that harassment make her feel? Did she feel that it was perfectly acceptable? I highly doubt it. Would she have preferred that it didn’t happen? I would imagine so. Had she looked at it as an educator, she may have realized that the only way to prevent these things from happening is to teach people that’s not okay.

    Good for you, and for your students.

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  10. I would suggest that the student did have power–the power of patriarchy. And since the dean confronted you about your response rather than address the issue that caused you to speak out, I would contend that the power is real.

  11. I am curious, in the original comment “teach naked” what else was said? Is there any possibility the student meant it in a positive way? When I first read part one I honestly did not expect it to take that direction. If someone said to me “teach naked” to improve how they learn…I would take that and reflect. I would think about how to “purify” if you will, my teaching methods. To come across raw, exposed, natural, or naked.
    How you have interpreted the comment as harassment is understandable. I only wonder if it is possible to you that it was not intended to be degrading.

  12. I have to say that I think that you got sexually harassed by the dean too. I got the impression she saw you and your opinions and experiences through gender and sex. She assumed your identity as a woman was similar to hers or that yours should be similar to hers. She has (like we all do) an idea about her place/situation in the world and she, unintentionally, I’m sure, includes every other woman into that sphere. That situation or role seems to include a notion that women are to expect and accept disrespectful behaviour from men. And that men by nature are unable to curb their sexual desires. Men just are that way, and we women just have to deal with it as men are unable to behave themselves. In a way this attitude forces women (and men) to consent to be defined and treated according to their gender, not as individual human beings.

    I’m not saying that she is a bad person. I’m sure that she is afraid. By her own account when younger she was forced to just take it and was left alone with her experiences which certainly must have been embarrassing and frightening. She must have felt very alone in those situations and afterwards. Now, when she is in a situation where she holds the power, an incidence like this probably reminded her of the past experiences of being powerless and victimised. Maybe it made her feel unsafe again, that maybe those under her still could hurt her despite of her status.

    I don’t know, just thinking out loud. But thank you for your posts on this! I’m glad and proud that you spoke out. May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering. May we all go to places that scare us.

  13. I have often disagreed with the assertion that bullying can only be called that if the aggressor has a position of power. That is a crock. Bullying is also the attempt to use verbally and physically injurious actions to establish a position of power. When a student aggresses against a teacher, it is an attempt to intimidate the teacher and make him/her subordinate. Then, once that status has been established, the abuse can and will continue unchallenged because of the new status quo. In these cases, it is imperative to firmly bolster the true hierarchy.

    Furthermore, any student who feels confident enough to make those comments against a teacher clearly does not consider himself subordinate. He thinks thinks of himself as an equal, at least. This means that established conventions of authority are not the same as perceived status. Anyone who attacks another person sees himself as more powerful, and is therefore acting from a place of authority over his victim, regardless of the culturally established relationship between the attacker and the victim. And anyone who is allowed to get away with this kind of aggression has been taught that he does, in fact, have more power than the teacher. S/he is, in fact, powerless to do anything about his behaviour. And any subsequent aggression will be done in light of the new status shift, making him a bully by the original definition.

  14. Your courage is to be commended. Harassment may not have occurred, though. I’ve seen many government and corporate sexual harassment classes, and this is not clearly automatically sexual harassment. You are correct, though, and your administration is completely wrong, about only authority figures being able to be guilty of harassment. Generally, harassment constitutes unwanted sexual speech. Sexual contact in the workplace is always harassment. In the event of unwanted speech, the offender should be made aware that the speech is unwanted. Repeating the behavior would then become harassment. Threats would also always be harassment. If there is something in the student handbooks banning this kind of speech, that would constitute notice, and you could make the case for harassment without having to give additional notice.

    Co-workers regularly date, and, depending on people’s personalities and varying senses of humor, co-workers may tell jokes ranging from the corny to the tasteless. If all parties are agreeable to the subject matter, then there is no harassment. If a person finds subject matter disagreeable, then they should make it clear, and repeat offenses would be harassing.

    It would have been more accurate to give a nearly-exact speech to the one you gave by saying the comment was not appropriate, and any further similar comments would be considered harassing.

    Your admin was probably angered more by being blind sided by the article than anything, and began to build their public relations defense to combat the embarrassment exposed in the article. It would also have been appropriate to immediately report harassing behavior to the school, and let their policy play out. It does not appear you gave the school the opportunity to address the situation. I’m assuming there is a policy, but if you were never made aware of it, then that is on their hands, too.

    The tl;dr version is this, offense doesn’t automatically equal harassment.

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  18. [For context, I am a mid-50s male and a tenured faculty member at a small liberal arts college; I came to your post via wren ng thornton's link to it on the Planet Haskell aggregator.]

    I’m sorry you had to experience this trauma, both the original incident and the meeting with the unsympathetic dean.

    Regarding the scope of sexual harassment, I agree that the source need not be someone in authority over you to make it harassment, and this is not just my uninformed opinion, but the sense I have after having gone through various SH-sensitivity trainings and such (not punitively, just as a regular part of my job). But I would also point out that in some sense the students *do* have authority over you, at least presuming that their evaluations of you might have an impact on your employment, tenure, promotion, etc. If a student were to make similar comments in your reviews, it might have an indirect effect on how you are viewed and assessed by a promotion committee, not to mention that a student could attempt some sort of retribution for your response to the situation. (I think, however, based on what you report, that this latter effect would be at least balanced by positive reactions from the majority of your class.)

    I applaud you in going ahead with the interview in the paper: a courageous decision which I hope will have some positive impact on your campus (and it sounds like it already has).

    But I am especially surprised by the reactions of your dean, who seems surprisingly ignorant of norms and practices in this area. It’s not so much that deans in my experience are so competent or so noble in their motives, but they are usually not so ham-fisted and tone-deaf as this. In particular, they are usually at least well-informed about sensitive workplace issues and cautious to avoid blatant offense, even to a fault. It’s hard to believe that administrators at that level, who are often in the position of dictating sensitivity trainings and the like, would be so willing to display their ignorance of the policies they are presumably responsible for enforcing.

    Finally, you asked:

    “If I choose to attempt a career as a faculty member of a smaller-sized school, am I likely to find accusatory and unsupportive administration?”

    Well, I’m not sure how well my experience generalizes, but yes, I would say that it’s likely that you’ll experience “accusatory and unsupportive” at a minimum, at least some of the time. Sorry to be the bearer of that bad news, and I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

  19. As an older man who has a 40 year old daughter teaching English she sometimes gets “racy” comments. On one rate your professor site a student said she was very easy to listen to and watch because she had a nice “rack” She didn’t feel harassed and just hoped he listened more than he watched. If your body is is that attractive, remember, you are competing with pert and slender 19 year olds. Dress down, frump it up a little. They’
    re children, still living at home on their parents insurance plan.

    • As long as the teacher is dressed in a professional manner, the responsibility is not the teacher’s to “dress down”. The responsibility is on the student to focus their attention on the content the teacher is delivering, rather than the content of the teacher’s wardrobe. What do “pert and slender 19 year olds” have to do with anything? Are you saying that if the teacher were to “frump it up a little”, the students will then be more likely to address their attention to their “pert and slender” class mates instead of the teacher? How is this a good thing?

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  22. yes, it is a beautiful world when a teacher goes public with this kind of private thing. Maybe it could go in this direction, wouldn’t that be special. A popular high schooler committed suicide after his principal publicly threatened “legal consequences” for running across a football field naked at halftime.

    Huntsville, Alabama prankster Christian Adamek, 15, streaked the Friday night Sparkman High School football game. The crowd loved it and friends posted the video online.

    Sparkman High Principal Michael Campbell was not amused. He went on the local TV news broadcast to address the issue. He played up the legal consequences even though he had not actually talked with prosecutors at that time.

    Faced with this world of trouble — along with the threat of being placed on the state’s sex offender registry — was too much for Adamek to handle. So he hung himself.

    • These aren’t even related examples. No legal action was threatened in this case, and the identity of the student wasn’t revealed (or even known to the instructor). In the case of the student’s suicide, his action was public, not private. In the case of this blog post, the student shouldn’t have made a private comment that s/he wouldn’t want public.

      Let’s have a little empathy here for the instructor who was bullied, too.

      • What if he isn’t a bully and he has a crush on the teacher? Lets pretend he isn’t a bully, a patriarchal predator, a rape culture enthusiast and just a young human being trying to deal with all sorts of extremely powerful emotions and desires? The Instructor has received plenty of empathy when she wrote two blog posts about it. She is the adult in this situation and she should have stopped at a comment to the class, verbal at most. She is the one in power in this situation, the teacher, that’s why the kid’s “naked” comment is anonymous right? Yes changes need to be made in society but never should someone be made an example for all of society. That is medieval ethics. And even if this kid isn’t named you can be sure he/she won’t be doing that again. – You are making a dangerous psychological connection for a young mind when you publicly shame a young person for such a minor transgression, named or unnamed. Guess what! Everybody is imagining each other naked all the time – including the teacher – we just get better at hiding it with age.

        • I’m going to try to respond to this one point at a time– there’s a lot in this comment. You’re making a lot of assumptions in your comments– that the instructor was older than the student (it doesn’t matter), that the students aren’t adults (they are), that the student was male (we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter).

          1) If a student has a crush on his or her teacher, they should keep it to themselves. It’s not appropriate in a professional setting, particularly when giving feedback, to make those kinds of advances. It’s not appropriate for students and teachers to have relationships, because there’s a power dynamic there. So, really, that’s not any kind of an excuse, at all. That kind of thinking leads to a slippery slope, and women are constantly asked to make all kinds of allowances for other people’s bad behavior. It’s not appropriate. See this related post on why being “socially awkward” is not a valid excuse; the same principle applies here.

          2) The instructor DID make a verbal comment to the class, and did not name names (she didn’t know the name of the commenter). Tenure, She Wrote is a blog for people to share their experiences as women in academia; this is an experience. It’s an anonymous blog post, with no names mentioned. No one was hurt by sharing this experience.

          3) Most people aren’t intentionally walking around thinking, “I’m going to participate in rape culture today! What can I do to harass or bully someone else?” People are very often unintentionally harmful, but the only way they will learn is if their behavior is corrected. Having “extremely powerful emotions and desires” is an excuse people use all the time to explain away harmful behavior, like rape. So that’s not going to fly here. If you’re struggling with “extremely powerful emotions and desires,” it’s not my responsibility to accommodate those. That’s YOUR job.

          4) I don’t agree that we shouldn’t call people out on their actions. It’s very common for people to empathize more with people who commit sexual assault than the victims, for example. Think of all the college athlete scandals where people bemoan, “Oh, those poor boys, their careers are over!” And no one thinks about the assault victims, and the repercussions for them. It’s not about making people an example, it’s about having standards for behavior, and calling someone out when they violate those standards. There’s no way to tell any one student “you should’t have made that comment.” But making a statement to the entire class hurts no one, but it does serve the purpose of educating the class on what is and isn’t appropriate behavior (something that the student really ought to have known, and likely did). If they don’t do it again? Good. That’s the point.

          5) You don’t get to decide what is and isn’t a minor transgression. I don’t agree with you that it’s minor, and obviously neither did the teacher. It’s up to her to decide what hurts her or makes her uncomfortable.

          6) The student wasn’t publicly shamed, because people don’t know who the student is. Stop trying to frame this as though it were a personal attack on a student.

          7) It’s not a dangerous psychological connection, because the teacher didn’t call someone out for having desires, or a fetish, or a sexual preference. The teacher called them out for inappropriate and harassing behavior. The student isn’t a victim here. You’ve completely lost the point.

          8) I’m not imagining “everyone else” naked, and I’m especially not imagining my students naked. And even if I was, it’s not relevant. I have the ability to act, or not, on my impulses. I know the difference between right and wrong. And if I didn’t, I’d want someone to teach me.

          • I agree with most of what you say but you also gave yet another example of my main concern with her actions.

            I do agree she should have said something to the class. and she did – great! No problem there – But she did more than share on this blog – she was interviewed for the school paper? ” No one was hurt by sharing this experience.” How do you know? I doubt that big time! Human beings are sensitive creatures – Even if the kid is unnamed, try and imagine the feeling? if this student manages to have no one find out it was them (i bet everyone did) the personal feelings this person is dealing with are certainly comparable to being named publicly. In fact if you have a secret that went this public chances are it burns even more inside your gut. ….and i am saying her reaction it is over-the-top for this situation – the school newspaper and this fairly public blog – making the comparison to the greater problems in the world.

            to your point #5 – we do as a society decide these things ? it is important we keep perspective, very important. This student did NOT rape her as you so easily made a comparison with those College Athlete scandals, and he did not sexually assault her either which you also made a comparison. This student is certainly making these connections as well as they think about why they wrote that “Bullying” word. – because the world is trying to change that right now. You and this teacher are tangling your desire to stop these heinous crimes like sexual assault and rape and apologist attitudes with something that should have gotten nothing more than just a few comments to the class on what is and is not appropriate. Writing “naked” is not appropriate, and no doubt made her feel uncomfortable, but it is a far far far distance from the crimes you compare it to.

          • If we used fear of hurting other peoples’ feelings or making them uncomfortable as a reason not to call out bad behavior or teach people, we’d never make any progress. Sometimes, we need to put on our big kid pants, sit with our discomfort, and do the difficult work of introspection.

            No one has said these incidents are equivalent. Rather, they contribute to a culture, or a climate, where these issues are perpetuated. These incidents also contribute to a climate that causes women to be disproportionately underrepresented in academia. There’s a lot of research that backs both of those claims up.

            I’m not sure we’re going to come to an agreement, but thanks for taking the time to engage.

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