Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dealing With (Student) Harassment

A recent post by Christina Richey on the Women in Planetary Science blog highlighted some really good examples of what harassment is and how to deal with it.  It reminded me that women are more likely to face harassment at all levels and made me think that we don't always realize we are being harassed. As stated by the AAUW,

                     "Determining what is sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively
                      offensive..can be complicated. As this research demonstrates, people
                      disagree on the severity of the problem. What is a laughing matter
                      for one ... may be offensive to another and traumatic to yet another,
                      especially in the campus community, which teems with students and
                      staff from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives."  

I know I have brushed off comments as jokes or in a few cases, have been completely oblivious to the fact that I was being belittled or intimidated.  This problem is not just prevalent at research institutions - even at small schools with small departments, I hear stories of women who are bullied by their colleagues. 

I say colleagues because it's usually colleagues who are doing the harassing. However, I myself have actually faced harassment by students.  Studies show that students misattribute in a downward direction the level of formal education attained by women (e.g., Miller and Chamberlin, 2000; Sidanius and Crane, 1989) and consider women less likable when they are competent in a “masculine” job (Hill et al. 2010).  As a result, more female faculty than male faculty have to deal with aggression from students.  In my case, these were students who were not simply questioning a grade but actually being very threatening in their postures, their tone of voice, and their actions - males and females - and questioning my authority and knowledge.  This can be especially problematic (and even demoralizing) for junior (i.e., non-tenured but tenure-track) faculty when student evaluations are considered a part of performance review.  Though I haven't found any studies to support this, student harassment of faculty may be more common at small schools where students think they are paying for small class sizes and individualized attention and therefore expect to be given certain grades.

My advice is this: think first, act later.  It's natural to want to engage the student when s/he confronts you, but don't let your emotions get in the way of a logical (calm) rebuttal.  Wait and address the situation at a later time (but within 24 hours).  After the confrontation, write everything down - document, document, document.  This is echoed on the CSWA advice page.  Then speak to your department chair to let  him/her know that there is an issue in your classroom.  Avoid contact with the student, but if you must meet with him/her, keep your office door open and either invite a colleague in or notify a colleague that a meeting will be happening. Similarly, if an email exchange occurs, copy your department chair on every correspondence. Consult your college's Faculty Handbook and your college's Student Handbook to see what courses of action are available. Most student handbooks have a section on student responsibilities, including guidelines on acting with integrity and not diminishing the experiences of people in the academic community.  If the behavior persists, and especially if you fear for your safety, it may be possible to have the student removed from your class.   It is also a good idea to have a detailed syllabus, a "contract" if you will, that clearly states your class policies on everything from attendance to the use of digital devices (i.e., laptops, cell phones) to how final grades are determined. 

Some excellent resources on how to handle harassment in the workplace include:
* the AAS Anti-Harassment Policy
* a presentation on astronomical bullying
* the CSWA list of resources
* advice on what to do

Take advantage of the resources available and know that your situation is not unique.  Most of all, have confidence in your abilities and take each experience as a lesson learned.  In the long run, all of these experiences will only make you more capable of handling these types of stressful situations and as a result, a better teacher.


Hill C., Corbett C., and St. Rose A. (2010) “Why So Few?”, American Association of University Women, ISBN: 978-1-879922-40-2.

Miller J., and  Chamberlin M. (2000) “Women are teachers, men are professors: A study of student perceptions”, Teaching Sociology, 28(4), 283-298.
Sidanius J., and Crane M. (1989) “Job evaluation and gender: The case of university faculty”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 19(2), 174-97.