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.
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.
You can now read Part 2 here.