Author Archives: Ariadne Wolf

What Does #metoo and Title 9 Mean for Students?

By Ariadne Wolf

 

This post represents the opinion of one individual member of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities. This post does not represent the opinion nor perspective of the Committee as a whole, and does not reflect the opinion of the MLA. 

 

Sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses can be difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to navigate. Most of us are immersed in our daily lives as graduate students, including family obligations, unbearable academic loads, and those full-time jobs we make a point not to mention to our college advisors. Adding anything else to that mix can feel like the straw that’s about to break our back, especially if that something else is a #metoo incident.

 

Unfortunately, we don’t always have a choice. These incidents enter our lives whether we would like them to or not, and once there, we have to figure out what to do. So here are some suggestions to think about before this incident actually occurs, so that if this happens to you or someone you know or that one girl you roomed with four years ago or a friend of a friend’s boyfriend, you’ll know what to say, what to do, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of a legal process intended to protect just about everyone involved except the actual student victim.

 

  1. Understand what Title 9 is, and what defines sexual harassment, so you know where to seek resources if gender discrimination or sexual harassment happens to you or to your friends.

 

.Sexual harassment in an educational or workplace situation is a civil matter rather than a criminal one, meaning you can report the incident and perhaps even sue for penalties but you cannot report the incident to the police and expect them to investigate or bring charges against the perpetrator. Title 9 commonly refers to both a law instituted to protect students from gender discrimination, including sexual harassment, and to the specific administrator or office that handles Title 9 offenses that occur at your specific university. The law typically referred to as simply “Title 9” is a federal civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in any program or school that receives federal funding, which requirement in practice extends to all United States colleges and universities. The Title 9 office at your school might simply be Human Resources personnel who are simultaneously empowered to receive and investigate any reports of Title 9 violations. If you attend a larger university, your school might have an entire office dedicated to addressing student concerns regarding offensive or inappropriate behavior, including Title 9-related problems as they occur. If you or someone you know is sexually harassed, Title 9 is the law that the perpetrator has broken, and the Title 9 procedures at your school represent your institution’s official, structural path to handling these types of issues.

 

At this point, you might be wondering what exactly constitutes a “Title 9 incident.” What if your Anthropology 101 professor once suggested that primate behavior supports the division of sex roles based on biological gender differences because “women are made to have babies, and men are made to compete over women?” What if you met your World History professor for an advising session after class, and at the end he hugged you goodbye and you felt uncomfortable? What if your editing partner in Creative Writing commented on your poem that “it’s not very good, so it’s a good thing you’re so pretty”? Are all of these instances of gender discrimination? Are none of them? Who decides? 

 

The truth is, definitions of gender discrimination can be loose and very unclear, depending on your specific university’s policy. Definitions of sexual harassment can similarly differ depending on the specific academic and local culture of your institution. Therefore, rather than ask yourself if what happened is “really” an instance of gender discrimination, or whether it was “legally” a situation of sexual harassment, concentrate on how the incident made you feel. Were you able to laugh it off, or to respond in the moment with a pointed question or respond a few hours later with a frustrated rant to your friends? Several days or a week later, are you still thinking about the incident? Do you feel worried about returning to the class or physical space where the incident occurred? Is thinking about it disrupting your sleep or regular habits? If so, then the situation is having a significant impact on you, and is worth reporting.

 

Another way you might determine whether or not to report the incident is to think about how you might respond if a close friend or a younger sister told you that this had happened to them. Would you be confused about why this seemed like a big deal to them? Would you immediately want to go punch the person who did this, to defend someone you care about? Would your gut reaction be that this kind of comment or behavior is totally inappropriate and not okay? Trust that your reaction in defense of someone else, is the exact same reaction that you deserve to have on behalf of yourself.

 

  1. Decide whether you want to report this incident before you speak to anyone whose salary is paid by the campus.

 

Your professors are mandated reporters for all Title 9 incidents. A mandated reporter is someone who is legally and ethically obligated to report specific types of crimes, or even suspicions of certain types of crimes, if they occur. In this case, mandated reporters of sexual harassment are required to report any instances they become aware of in which a fellow professor, staff member, administrator, or other employee of the university broke the Title 9 law and either participated in gender discrimination or sexual harassment. Other mandated reporters include any staff members hired by the university, which includes your boss, professors, mentors on campus, safety officers, and many of those you might approach for advice and comfort and emotional support. The minute you mention the incident to any of these people, they are required by law to report the situation to the Title 9 office. 

 

That’s fine, if that is the step you want to take. If you have not made that decision, or if you are unsure, or not emotionally ready to do so, that’s fine. You’re allowed to take your time. Do not put yourself in a position where the choice is out of your hands.

 

  1. Study up on what Title 9 can do, and what it cannot do.

 

Title 9 exists to protect students who are engaged in this reporting process. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this protection is that it can feel rather like a gag order. Professors and staff members involved in a Title 9 investigation are not legally permitted to discuss the investigation outside of scheduled meetings. Technically, the victim in the situation is not permitted to talk about the incident outside of these meetings either, particularly not with friends or other parties who work or attend classes on campus. That is sometimes not the most helpful situation for a victim’s mental and emotional state. This also deprives the victim of some control and autonomy over their choices in relation to this event. It’s important to think about these questions, before moving forward and seeing these choices made for you.

 

Additionally, regardless of how well-intentioned the individuals involved might be, remember that both your advisor and the Title 9 officers ultimately are employed by your university. They will want to minimize the harm done to you, presumably, but ultimately their job is to make sure to minimize the harm done to the university as a whole. That very well might mean “handling the matter internally,” meaning delivering some official or unofficial censure towards the perpetrator of the act, but behind closed doors and in a way that guarantees the public and the media will never find out about it. That means that if your personal goal is to share your story widely, or to see some sort of visible personnel change take place, Title 9 is probably not the best way to go about doing that.

 

  1. Consider the potential consequences of reporting.

 

Is the perpetrator teaching a class that you need to take in order to graduate? Have you already paid for the class, and is there any chance of getting your money back if you drop the class now, even because of a Title 9 incident? Campuses are often not equipped on an administrative level to handle Title 9 incidents, particularly if these incidents take place mid-semester, or in a class for which there exists no equivalent. 

 

Do not assume your campus will reimburse you expenses or fees related to the class. Do not assume that the campus will have the administrative chops to handle the myriad of complex questions associated with such an incident.

 

None of these questions need deter you, if you think that reporting is genuinely the best option for you. However, these are questions to get clarity about ahead of time. These are points to develop your own strategy around, because your institution is not required to provide you support in navigating the administrative consequences of reporting, and likely will not do so.

 

  1. Understand that a Title 9 report does not guarantee punishment, and that you may not be informed of any consequences of your decision to report the incident.

 

Unless your professor is outright fired, you’re probably never going to find out the outcome of your Title 9 report. Your institution is not legally mandated to tell you, and you will not be a participant in the decision-making process if your institution decides to proceed with some form of official reprimand or punishment. You will probably walk away from the entire Title 9 process never knowing what happened. Is that something you can live with? 

 

  1. Prioritize yourself.

 

There is not one single person likely to be involved in the Title 9 process whose actual professionally mandated task is to make sure you’re okay. The Title 9 officials themselves have legal requirements and official hoops to jump through. Your advisor might be called as a witness, and therefore obligated to divulge any relevant details you have given them about the incident. The administration of your institution might individually care about you, but they want to make sure the health of the institution as a whole remains intact.

 

All of that being the case, you need to watch out for you. Make sure you’re okay. Develop a plan for moving forward that meets your academic and professional needs from this university, as well as your personal emotional and social needs. Make sure you have support off campus as well as on campus. Decide on a strategy for if and when you encounter the perpetrator on campus, both in a group setting and a one-on-one setting. Make your decisions about how to proceed beforehand, so you don’t need to make them in the moment when you’re upset or triggered or angry. Make sure your own well-being is taken care of. Then, and only then, move forward, with an eye towards the future you want to build and towards the person you are now, with all your courage and limitations, all your determination and all your dreams.

 

You are much, much bigger than this.

For Teachers Navigating a Post-#metoo Classroom

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:

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.