By Ariadne Wolf
This post does not represent the opinion of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities as a whole, nor does it represent the public or collective perspective of the Modern Language Association as an organizational entity.
Education in a post-#metoo climate can feel hostile and unwieldy to professors who find themselves at sea in changing power dynamics and struggling to survive a shifting culture. Changes in the surrounding American discourse around gender and respect have made their way into the classroom. While most would agree this is a vital and even necessary shift, institutions today often struggle to adequately communicate their expectations to professors. Professors without a professional background in understanding gender, power, marginalization and consent, sometimes struggle in turn to develop and maintain respectful classroom environments that do not reflect the rapidly aging mores of the past.
With that in mind, here are our suggestions to professors seeking to understand their role and responsibilities in developing a more equitable academic sphere:
- Don’t touch your students.
Unless you are bidding a student goodbye at their graduation party, please don’t touch your students. This is a message communicated to every teacher of any age or demographic of student, and yet the topic emerges again and again as a question mark in the minds of individual instructors. There is no question mark here, no obfuscation of required behavior.
Do not demonstrate a concept in class by touching your students or manipulating their bodies. Do not hug your students inside the classroom, at any point, because your mantle of authority extends to that room and makes consent confusing and complex for students to assert in the moment.
Even if your student is crying or upset, just keep your hands to yourself. This will save you significant hassle later.
- Your student is not flirting with you.
We all want to believe we are more attractive than we are. We all tend to manufacture romantic drama to get through our less than exciting days. Yet the reality is, even if you never act on your crush, it shows through. It will make this student uncomfortable, will make other students resentful, and will alter class dynamics in an unpleasant and unpreventable way. Instead, do not feed this particular beast. Monitor your own feelings and behavior, and remind yourself that your employability depends on your ability to successfully maintain a professional distance.
- Even if your student is flirting with you, it shouldn’t matter.
There is no good reason to become involved with someone who is currently your student. For every story of a romance begun from this situation, there are many more stories of professors who resign in disgrace. With today’s social media exposure, professors are not merely fired for this every year, but shamed for years online. Do not be one of them.
- Set the tone you want from your students.
Demonstrate the respect you expect to receive. Focus on the growth potential of your students, not on traits that annoy you or that you find distracting. Before you become aggravated at students for showing up late, make sure you arrive on time and prepared to every single class and scheduled office hours. Make sure your own phone is turned off. Integrate different methods of learning to appeal to those with different learning styles, including multimedia, pair and small group discussion, and other models. Give your students a chance to give feedback about the course and your teaching style halfway through the semester, and make actual adjustments accordingly.
- Check yourself.
Ask yourself regularly whether you call on your female, male, and genderqueer students equally. Notice your own attitudes towards students who break gender norms in dress, tone of voice, and perspective, and take steps to resolve any issues you have with students for any of these topics. Notice whether you explicitly or implicitly reward female students you view as attractive, well-behaved, or modest, or reward male students you view as assertive or natural leaders. Then pursue your own education separately from the classroom, via books and films that speak to sexism and patriarchal norms in the classroom. Remember, education is a lifelong pursuit.
- Center the margins, at least in your own thinking.
How is the rape survivor in your classroom going to feel when she is triggered in class while discussing The Bluest Eye? How is the incest survivor in your classroom going to feel when another student describes an incident of sexual abuse as “a father having sex with his daughter?” Prepare yourself for these possibilities. Do not avoid teaching books out of personal discomfort, unless you truly do not feel capable of doing a decent job managing discussions. Do not rely on trigger warnings with the expectation that traumatized students will self-select and simply not show up to class discussions, thus depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn. Instead, take steps to improve your facilitation skills and develop a supportive classroom environment that encourages students to bring their full, embodied selves. Introduce books with triggering content in careful and sympathetic ways. Discuss difficult content with kindness and a serious tone of voice, and discourage students from making jokes or sardonic comments out of discomfort.
Lastly…do not fool yourself into thinking your role on campus is absent from broader historical context or political ramifications. You can be a resource and a source of empowerment and comfort for your students, or you can choose to be part of the problem we have all inherited. Please remember your most vulnerable students when you make that choice.
A Final Thought:
Remember, as a professor or graduate student instructor, you are a mandated reporter for any Title 9 incident. Make sure to communicate this to any student who comes to you with a concern about another professor.
If you see something, or if a student mentions something to you that does not sit right with you, speak up. This is your responsibility. Please take it seriously. You could completely alter the course of a student’s education by speaking up on their behalf. You will alter the course of their entire life if you stay silent.