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.

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2 thoughts on “The only grey area is the elephant in the room, Part I

  1. Pingback: The only grey area is the elephant in the room, Part II | snark-aeology

  2. Another TA

    Thanks for posting this. You were helpful when a student of mine sent me explicit images by Francis Bacon along with a poem about masturbation. That material had nothing to do with anything discussed in class and was not part of any assignment. The student had recently had a disagreement with another TA (who politely suggested that he should not read the newspaper during class lectures). He was confrontational in that exchange. It was unclear if he was lashing out at me because of frustration over the class or if he was completely oblivious to what sexual harassment is. The professor chalked the poem and images up to poor judgment and referred me to the department chair. She said that if I wanted to pursue action against the student for harassment I could, but she did not know how and did not recommend starting that fight. I was offended and hoped that the administration would take the matter up with him by explaining how inappropriate that behavior was and removing him from my class. I was left with few options. I had to sit him down and explain to him why his behavior was completely inappropriate, offensive and could result in action against him. (This was undertaken in a very public place with a colleague strategically placed four feet away). He was embarrassed and apologized. The matter was settled; (maybe) the student learned a lesson without any consequences. But I spent way too much time discovering that there were no procedures in place to protect me. I had been harassed on the job and felt that my employer had a responsibility to protect me from further harassment. Clearly this is not uncommon. I feel that undergraduates are well informed about their rights when it comes to harassment, but they are not aware that they need to follow basic standards of behavior themselves. Many of them lack the judgment to figure it out, so rules need to be very clear. And the administration has an obligation to protect employees as well as undergrads.

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