Monday, May 26, 2014

Harassment from Students

The recent discussions on harassment in astronomy have been really thought-provoking and inspiring.  But yet another form of harassment that those of us in academia have to face is harassment from students.  This can take all sorts of forms, but in the end it all comes down to a lack of respect from (usually male) students simply because you're a woman.  The trouble is that the advice you get on how to deal with harassment from peers or superiors is often not useful or appropriate for dealing with harassment from those junior to you.  If it happens during class and is clearly disruptive, you can simply ask the student to leave.  But just as many serial harassers have become more sneaky in how they operate, students can be pretty sneaky, too.

I'd like to pose here a couple of scenarios and ask what you would advise someone to do in these situations.

Case 1: It's the first day of class, and you don't know any of your students yet.  Someone makes a crack that's out of line, and clearly because you are a woman.  It's a big class, and since you don't know names yet, you can't identify him afterwards.  What do you do?

Case 2: Your end-of-term teaching evaluations come in, and you get remarks on your appearance that have nothing to with your teaching.  The evaluations are all anonymous, and your grades are already turned in.  However, not only do you find the comments upsetting, but your evaluations do matter when it comes to review for tenure.  What do you do?

Bonus: Your end-of-term teaching evaluations come in, and there are comments making fun of your non-European name.  Or your regional accent.  What do you do?

While "just ignore them" is a possible response, the attitudes of students does have an affect on the workplace climate, just as much as attitudes of the faculty.  Not only that, but by not correcting the attitudes of the students, some day they might grow up to become the serial harassers of the world.  It would be nice to be able to nip that kind of behavior in the bud, but short of a reeducation camp, what do you do?


Anonymous said...

I've had some harassment issues as a graduate student lab TA, from students trying to get away with cheating/plagarism to blatant disrespect (most likely stemming from the fact that I am only a few years older than them). Once or twice, I've had students who had very poor attitudes the entire semester give bad assessments at the end of the class and it's very clear exactly who it is. And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, there's perhaps too many students who just want to be your friend, even though I'd rather not be.

If there's any advice on how to deal with this as a graduate student without much sway or power, that'd be appreciated. The stern approach often seems to be met with skepticism or downright amusement.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

During my first year of TAing as a grad student I had a student who was behaving inappropriately towards me (sexualizing/objectifying me, asking me on dates, he even proposed to me). However he was doing it non-anonymously and sometimes in front of the whole class, so I was able to address the behavior directly and head on.

In terms of anonymous or unidentifiable comments. Would it be possible to start a discussion with the whole class about it? Send an email to the class list discussing how this is inappropriate? Or bringing it up with the entire class during the next session?

I think it's interesting that if it were a social science class or women's studies class it would be ok to bring this up with the class as a learning opportunity or teaching moment, but as scientists we feel more awkward about doing this.

Personally, I would probably email the class list and start a discussion about it. Keep the conversation objective and impersonal but link to some literature/research about how the behavior is gendered, unprofessional, inappropriate, and contributes to the lack of women in STEM.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Responses from a mid-career prof...

Case 1:... Someone makes a crack that's out of line... It's a big class...What do you do?

This could be an opportunity to set the tone and your credentials as a reasonable, experienced professor. I suggest that you apply peer pressure. Stop the class to address the issue. "Did everyone hear that? Ok, would the person that said that please repeat it so everyone can hear? Well, if not, then let me state what I heard: " ... " Now, by a show of hands, who feels that is an appropriate comment? and who feels it is an inappropriate comment? " Given those results, I expect we won't have to interrupt class ever again to deal with this sort of comment.

Case 2: Your end-of-term teaching evaluations come in, and you get remarks ... that have nothing to do with your teaching. ... e.g. appearance, name, accent. What do you do?

Grin or grit your teeth and bear it. You can also consider nipping it in the bud next year by reading a few choice comments and noting that it would be "redundantly inappropriate" for people to make similar comments again this year.

The cynic in me makes me add that you may be over estimating the degree to which student-evaluation comments play a role in tenure decisions, except indirectly by eroding your morale and desire to teach well. Don't let a few comments do that any more than you would stop loving puppies because a few sometimes nip too hard with their needle-sharp teeth.

Anonymous said...

As an associate professor I'd say the harassment I regularly deal with is much more violent then the described scenarios. Male students regularly feel it is ok to come to my office, trapping me inside, and shout at me hoping they will intimidate me into changing their grades - nevermind they did poorly on homework and failed exams or labs. I suspect they purposely choose times when no male faculty are around. While I always stand strong and say no to this sort of intimidation (and have called campus police), I am always left shaken and afraid they will track me down and do personal violence later. My fear of these situations has been belittled by male colleagues "you just need to be tougher and stronger". Bullying by students is a real and dangerous problem, some of these students are a powderkeg on the verge of exploding.

maxCohen said...

Case 2: Your end-of-term teaching evaluations come in, and you get remarks ... that have nothing to do with your teaching. ... e.g. appearance, name, accent. What do you do?

Answer: Find another job. Seriously, why would you want to be tenured in a place where that is important for tenure?

Ellen Zweibel said...

If you are untenured and receive unprofessional comments from students on your evaluation forms, I advise you to discuss this with your mentoring committee, if you have one, and your department chair. Hopefully they will all agree that these comments are inappropriate and will be prepared to address the impact of these attitudes on your numerical teaching evaluations when you come up for tenure.

sofia cis said...

This is so interesting. How do you raise a discussion about stereotype threat? I often want my students to understand how real and serious the impacts are especially for URMs.

From my end, the predominant feature I see from students is a prevalent disbelief that I actually know what I am talking about, which generally fades after a few weeks as the (generally white male) student builds some measure of trust in my ability to teach--but that said, there are some students who tenaciously have held on to their antagonism.
Luckily, since I have a very antagonistic daugher, I just treat them like my kid and tell them bbbbehave~!