Monthly Archives: March 2016

Invisible illness, with and without HR


My new life saver and work partner, the Ergotron standing desk

When I was a brand new MA student many years ago I developed a serious GI condition within the first semester of my program. Student health wasn’t particularly equipped to deal with rare or complicated situations, so I bounced around among doctors both in St. Louis and back home in Seattle since I was still on my parents’ insurance. It was a year before I finally got in to see a specialist that could actually help me instead of passing the buck to someone else (or claiming it was in my head), and somehow I was able to complete all my coursework and my thesis.

My friends, cohort, and family knew this was going on, but I never said a word to professors. I smiled and got my work done on time, never asked for help or an extension on a paper. Why? Well, I was scared, school was the only thing that gave me something else to focus on, and I think those of us who have been in academia can attest that showing weakness, especially if what you’re going through is not “visible”, can be problematic for your future prospects. I went to therapy and dealt with things there, never at school.

Those who know me can easily say I’m not one to admit defeat, but this year I did, and I felt more ok in doing so now since I am a regular employee of a University and have access to a very robust HR department. But things have not been easy because my invisible illness this time required visible assistance.

A disc problem in my back has made it impossible for me to sit down for more than a few minutes at a time, and as someone who must be in front of a computer all day, this made things difficult. After constructing an improvised standing desk for myself with file boxes and tilting my monitors as much as they would go, a co-worker suggested I go through HR to see about getting a proper standing desk. The University office of disability services is in charge of what are called “reasonable accommodations,” and through a straightforward process, I was able to provide a note from my doctor indicating my issue, and in a few weeks I had a standing desk, which has changed my life and made it possible for me to do my job. I felt good about advocating for myself, and the University was entirely supportive.

This is when things changed.

At least a dozen colleagues who have walked by my office and seen my standing desk have asked how I was able to get one, when they’ve wanted to get one. “How did you get this special rig? No one else has one.” “These stand-sit workstations are supposed to be good for you, but they won’t get me one. Did you buy it yourself?” “Your department bought it for you? Well, how did you convince them to do that? I heard they’re expensive.”

I’m finding myself having to “prove” my need for this work set up by explaining my medical issues to people who know nothing about me but randomly pass by my office. And I’ve been made to feel bad for “costing my department” for a desk.

It’s none of their business, but I’ve found myself having to smile, just as I did as an MA student, but for a different reason: that I owe it to them to explain why I have something and they don’t. And that’s not right, either.



The only grey area is the elephant in the room, Part II


I was sexually harassed on multiple occasions, physically and verbally, when I was a teenager working in the food service industry, but at that point I had no idea what HR was, or even that making a complaint to a supervisor was an option. I had to laugh it off and go on with my day.

My previous post regarding harassment as a graduate student? Somehow, I also expected to have to deal with sexual harassment as a young female academic, whether it came from a student, or tenured, untouchable, senior faculty.

I did not expect to have to witness it at Harvard University, and watch it be entirely mishandled, with a fully-functioning Title IX office, not to mention a very robust HR department.

But I did.

I will not provide details on the situation, but a male co-worker in one department sexually harassed a female co-worker in my department. She ignored the first time. He did it again. She went to supervisors, HR, central admin, etc. After several months, they ruled in her favor. She let me and all my co-workers know what had happened.

And no action was taken.

We waited. Nothing.

She filed and refiled complaints, went to the Title IX office, etc. Nothing happened. Emails were not returned. No one would respond.

Our offices moved, and he had to walk through our space to get to his office.

Nothing happened. She avoided the break room, she only went into spaces where there were other people to ensure they would not be alone in the same space.

Finally, the harasser left his department. I thought it was because disciplinary action had been taken. It was not. He got another job.

They ruled in her favor on the complaint, and zero action was taken by anyone at any level of administration, including the Title IX office. And how that the offender is gone, it’s apparently not an issue anymore. Or seemingly, it never was.

Zero tolerance? I have zero confidence.

The only grey area is the elephant in the room, Part I

Zero Tolerance

Actually, quite a bit of tolerance from what I’ve seen

While I was a graduate teaching assistant for a large lecture course, an undergraduate student of mine attached a sexually explicit poem to the back of his assignment. At first I thought he’d accidentally grabbed another sheet of paper from a campus printing lab, but the handwritten note at the end of his assignment informed me he was a creative writing student and had composed a poem for me that was inspired by the assignment, a visual analysis paper on a statue of a Roman goddess at the art museum. The poem was very explicit, entirely inappropriate given the context of the class and the instructions for the assignment, and it could easily be read as directed toward me.

I went to the Professor of the course to show him the poem and ask how to proceed, but I was met with “Well, boys will be boys” and “You remember what it was like to be a horny teenager.” He laughed it off, said I should just ignore it, and move on. I was not upset at this point, but rather nervous as to how I was supposed to grade this student, and if he was upset with his grade, that this could somehow be directed back toward me and I would be censured.

Next, I went to a trusted female faculty member who took me seriously, and she helped me through the campus website on sexual harassment to find out who to contact. The individual I spoke with had no idea what I was supposed to do and directed me to “talk to my dean.” I explained that the school of Arts and Sciences, the biggest one on campus, had MANY deans. She didn’t know what else to tell me.

I went to my department chair, a woman, who told me to contact a particular dean. This dean then directed me to a sexual harassment counselor on staff. They’d dealt with undergrad to undergrad sexual harassment, staff to staff harassment, but never undergrad to grad teaching assistant. They didn’t know what to do, especially since the student had not physically done anything to me.

The counselor then directed me to HR, since, technically, I was an employee of the university in this capacity.

HR thought it was a student matter.

My situation was finally bounced to a member of the university judiciary committee, and the representative there was the first person to take action, as opposed to passing me off to another department. She was amazing. We came up with a plan to have the Professor of the course and a member of the committee sit down with the student and explain the inappropriate nature of the situation. The Professor would be responsible for grading the assignment and the remainder of the student’s work for the semester, and I would no longer have the student in my discussion section.

After this took place, I had a final meeting with the Professor, who explained to me that the student was just embarrassed, had no idea that he was being inappropriate, and, once again “You remember what it was like to be a teenager.”

I was furious.

I explained, in no uncertain terms, that this is NOT what adults do, and that I found his cavalier attitude insulting, unprofessional, and demeaning to me as a university instructor.

And we never spoke of it again.

This was before the explosion of Title IX investigations of the past couple of years, so I’ve looked back on this situation as a learning one for the University, along the way to develop proper policies to handle sexual harassment on campus. My situation was apparently a total grey area for them, something they’d never encountered.

However, after witnessing a sexual harassment case in my own workplace this year, I realize that not much has changed, and a zero tolerance policy does not exist. Not in the least.

Stay tuned for Part II.