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.