What to do about harassment of women by students?

August 17, 2012 § 40 Comments

A philosopher seeks discussion of the following:

The [Leiter Reports post] on women’s experiences, awful as they are, doesn’t address a related issue, namely the degree to which women in academe are abused by *students.*  A former colleague of mine was subjected to such abuse from the moment of her on campus interview for the position. That abuse came from a graduate student, and it was outrageous. But then this same colleague was verbally abused and taunted, repeatedly, by male students in her classes, over a period of some years.  I’m happy to say that these students did not get away with this behavior; this former colleague is one tough person who would not idly suffer that type of abuse from students.  But why should she have been the subject of this in the first place?

Maybe you and your many readers would have comments on this aspect of women’s academic experience?


§ 40 Responses to What to do about harassment of women by students?

  • NoOne says:

    I find this hard to say, because I care for my colleagues personally, but I have had the experiences of being harassed and belittled by students, and have felt my colleagues simply didn’t take it very seriously. I request this be posted anonymously, because I do not wish to hurt the feelings of others, but recognition is key to reducing these harms. I don’t mean that recognition will prevent such harms, but I believe that frank acknowledgement and collegial support would reduce the intensity and duration of their effects. My colleagues would find this hard to believe, as we’re otherwise chummy, but in the absence of their agreement with me that gendered harassment is a problem, I felt quite isolated.

  • Anonymous says:

    As an undergrad, we had mainly male professors (still a big problem on the European continent), and only two female professors. Many students assumed that both were lesbians, and they clearly did not think much about LGBT people (as was clear from their comments, which invariably involved their clothes). The two women also suffered derisive comments from the other professors. One of them gave us an overview about the faculty, and (in the presence of the woman professor) made belittling jokes at her expense, e.g., “You will soon see the “teaching methods” (big scare quotes made in the air) of Professor X for yourself.
    This was in the late 1990s.

  • Assistant Professor says:

    I am a male assistant professor at a department with a well regarded MA program. I have been shocked to see how some male graduate students interact with one of my (also untenured) female colleagues during and after her class. I not sure whether to call it harassment, but it is a kind of aggressive disrespect for her as an intellectual superior — interrupting, smirking, almost ridiculing, etc. They would *never* speak to me in the ways that I’ve seen them speaking to her, much less any of my senior male colleagues. This woman is quite brilliant and obviously more than able to hold her own philosophically, but who would want to put up with that kind of boorish nonsense? I don’t know how much of it to attribute to the fact that she’s a woman, but that’s what immediately came to mind when I first witnessed the behavior.

  • aravistarkheena says:

    The problem, here, it seems to me, is that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. The entire logic of “harassment jurisprudence” centers around differential levels of power, between harasser and harassed. From that perspective, since a student has less institutional and other forms of power than a faculty member, student-teacher harassment shouldn’t be possible.

    Of course, it is…so I guess my point is that we’d better re-think this whole language of “harassment.” Either it means behavior that is unwanted, from whomever, in whatever context, or it means behavior, from a person in power, towards someone with less power.

    What you can’t do is have it both ways. And I suspect that this is what many people who pursue these kinds of claims really want: a kind of “Humpty-Dumpty” theory of harassment: i.e. “harassment” means whatever I say it means. No more and no less.” So, when I am in a lower position than the person I want punished, I claim harassment, on the basis of differential power…and when I am in a higher position than the person I want punished, I claim harassment on the basis, merely, of “unwanted behavior.”

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I don’t think power differential is key ins standard jurisprudence. The EEOC definition has two quid pro quo clauses (which required a power differential) and one hostile work environment ones (which doesn’t). That is:

      hostile environment sexual harassment refers to a situation where employees in a workplace are subject to a pattern of exposure to unwanted sexual behavior from persons other than an employee’s direct supervisor where supervisors or managers take no steps to discourage or discontinue such behavior.

      If students create a hostile working environment for someone, then they are harassing that person. If the university (the employer) doesn’t take reasonable measures to address this situation, they are liable. It’s pretty easy to make harassment an offense against a campus code and have a range of measures for addressing it from administrative to punitive.

      When a student behaved in appropriately toward me (e.g., writing sexual and “romantic” things in my midterm evaluation and then propositioning me directly) I took it to the Sexual Harassment Officer in part because of the power differential (I was really at a loss at how to deal with it and wanted a neutral party to be aware of what was happening and wanted me to be isolated from decisions involving her), but also because it made me angry and uncomfortable (no, I really don’t want to know what a student thinks about my butt). When she wouldn’t stop and started calling me late a night and other harassing things, we escalated as if it were a standard harassment case since, well, it was.

  • beta says:

    This is an interesting point, that harassment jurisprudence has focused on a “person in power.” But I think jurors have interpreted it more broadly than does the commenter above; even peers on the factory floor are ‘in power’ with respect to making it possible or impossible to do one’s job effectively. One need not prove others are supervisory to prove their behavior harasses. Arguably, then, student in higher education are also adults who enjoy quite a lot of power to make the job a hostile environment or not.

    • aravistarkheena says:

      The problem, of course, then, becomes liberality and subjectivity. Anyone can claim to find any behavior “unwanted” and employ the apparatus of institutional punishments to go after them. And given the kind of black mark on one’s record that even the mere allegation of such behavior can bring, it seems awfully dangerous to open up the floodgates this way.

      IMHO, this entire way of dealing with such issues is a mistake: a legal/political solution to what should be a matter for civil society to deal with. What we are doing leads nowhere but escalation, and we can see the results all around is, in the flurry of litigation and the strain that imposes on the rest of the society. And at the end of the day, is it really any better than just punching the person in the nose? (Which is what one used to do, when gratuitously insulted.)

  • K. Ludwig says:

    One has to confront it. In some cases, taking a break in a class to raises the issue and to discuss examples and patterns of gender bias may work. If you know student names, you can call individuals out about behavior, in public if necessary, without getting angry, but firmly and decisively, treating them as if they will immediately understand what the problem is. Egregious behavior should be reported to the dean of students office as a violation of the code of student conduct. One should aslo take the problem to the department chair, and the director of graduate or undergraduate studies, depending on whether the students are undergraduates or graduates. A department as a whole can do a lot to change climate by making a point of it–every faculty member could take some class time each term in each course to say a bit about it. Every course syllabus should have a section that lays out expectations about classroom etiquette and includes respect for other students and for the instructor, and say something specifically about the importance of not showing disrespect on the basis of gender, race or ethnicity. Develop an institutional response. Change the culture.

  • professor says:

    The power-differential issue does complicate things. A reversal of the power-differential introduces a very different sort of context in my experience.

    My first experience with a student behaving inappropriately towards me was in my very first semester in graduate school, and my very first experience TAing: a student exposed himself to me in my office!

    Now, that seems a pretty clear cut case of “harassment,” but even then I felt it was awkward to approach it as such and to use the institutional mechanisms to approach it as such. My thought was 1) the student needed help and 2) the student could no longer be my student.

    I’ve experienced many of the kinds of things described here: students trying to bully me, push me around, demeaning me in ways that explicitly invoked my gender, students treating me like I am a secretary, students calling my colleagues Dr. or Professor and calling me Ms. or Mrs., etc.

    I don’t want to deemphasize how frustrating, upsetting, annoying and above all distracting this kind of behavior is. The behavior is absolutely inappropriate. But for my own part it has just never been useful for me as a teacher to think of it as harassment. I tend to lump the majority of this kind of behavior in with the larger category of “problematic behaviors” that every single teacher faces every semester, one way or another.

    Does that mean grin and bear it? Absolutely not! Like other behaviors in the larger category, teachers should try to address the problems in constructive ways. If the behavior is truly extreme (e.g., exposing oneself) such constructive measures might include removing the student from your class. I can certainly imagine removing a student from my class for behavioral problems that have nothing explicitly to do with gender.

    Institutions and colleagues should help each other think through these issues constructively and offer support to the teacher. And any time a student has a serious behavioral problem that is affecting her academic performance, someone other than the teacher needs to know. But if harassment policies come into play immediately for legal liability reasons, lots of folks – like me – are very likely to not report the issue.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Hi professor,

      My limited experience (UNC-CH and UMD-CP) was that the harassment office was very good and supportive and concerned with not escalating if it wasn’t necessary (or if the harassee didn’t want to…there was no pressure to take a step that you felt wasn’t right for you).

      The trickiest bit in my experience is getting people to come forward to discuss their situation. If I hadn’t had attended some very nice sessions about the harassment office and what it offered and hadn’t been given a blueprint (“talk to us! talk to us early and often”), I’m not sure what I would have done exactly, but I doubt it would have worked out as well as it did. That experience enabled me to help other people recognize their situation and get the appropriate support from the university.

  • ptittle says:

    “…a kind of aggressive disrespect for her as an intellectual superior — interrupting, smirking, almost ridiculing, etc. They would *never* speak to me in the ways that I’ve seen them speaking to her…” and the ‘ganging up’. Oh god, yes. Where do I begin? I suspected this sort of difference, but of course, how does one prove it? Install a hidden camera in one’s classroom? I was invited to give a guest lecture in a colleague’s economics class one day, and of course, arrived a few minutes early, just as he was finishing up his segment, and I was thunderstruck: the students were quietly listening to him! No interruptions! They clearly considered him an authority on the matter! Shortly after that, I realized I was actually bracing myself for the unending hostility and challenge I faced from my own students (not all, and not always males, but in comparison…). I quit teaching soon after.

    Student evaluations were awful (a surprise, given evaluations of my teaching abilities by professors in the Education Department), and when I wrote a 16-page response, identifying various factors — sexism, as well as the subtext of being a sessional, having to teach in the portable, not having an office, having a co-appointment in the Academic Skills department…so many markers of subordinate status, in addition to my sex), as well as the inherent difficulties of teaching critical thinking (where ‘challenge’ is sort of the point) and applied ethics (which most people resent being ‘taught’ – they figure they already know right from wrong) (missing the point, rather, of the course), it was dismissed as a sort of ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’ thing. Couldn’t win.

  • Susan says:

    I’ve learned three things about how to deal with (usually but not exclusively male) students who exhibit poor behaviors like hitting on me, trying to pressure or intimidate me (often with respect to grading issues), or trying to belittle me in class. First, always keep the door open. Unless a student requests that I shut the door because of a need to discuss something personal, leaving the door open makes it clear that we are still in a public space where others might overhear or observe. Second, listen to your instincts. If it seems like a student is behaving strangely or is being creepy, write it down and tell a colleague or someone else in the office, so that you’re not the only one aware of the situation. If a student makes me uncomfortable, I may invite him or her to chat with me in the main office, where staff members or other faculty and students can observe us in passing. Finally, use humor to your advantage, knowing that for most students in a philosophy class, the intellectual-bloodsport style of argumentative sparring is offputting. If a student becomes angry, belittling, or takes on a sneering tone in class, that’s the moment to step back, laugh it off, and turn the tables: why isn’t he having a friendly discussion? It’s a certainty that other students will be uncomfortable witnessing such behavior, and that they will look to you to be the leader who defuses the situation. If you try to lighten the mood and place the burden on your interlocutor to explain to his peers why he’s being so aggressive or dismissive, you’ll generally find that the rest of the room supports you. It’s very important not to let your self-confidence waver in such situations.

  • Jender says:

    Submitted on behalf of one who wants to be anonymous:

    I’ve had some really bad times with students. The worst was years ago when one of my logic sections ganged up and ridiculed me. They just plain laughed and hooted at me in class–one day someone put a faux-mash note on my podium “Ooooo Dr. __, you’re soooo cool and logical–will you go out with me some time.” I took a look at it, and looked out to the class where a number of students were giggling and guffawing, hands over their mouths, exchanging glances with one another. I just didn’t know what to do–I crumpled it up and just went on.

    A couple of years later I met one of the students from the class socially and it came out in the conversation that I’d been pregnant when I was teaching that class. He looked embarassed and said, “Oh I’m sorry–we thought you were just built that way.”

    This, and the endless flack I’ve got from students about my appearance completely turned me off from teaching–and from students. What a bunch of jerks!

  • aravistarkheena says:

    All that I can say is that I’ve been teaching since the early 90’s, and have seen these sorts of charges used as a weapon, far more often than in response to behavior that really should be actionable, in a legal context.

    There’s a wonderful scene in Dazed and Confused, when one of the High School boys hits on a female teacher. She gives him a pitying look and pats him on the head and then returns to her classroom.

    Today, the rest of the movie would be about the court case.

    I understand that this probably won’t go over very well with this audience, but I am of the view that we’ve all become rather thin-skinned, with expectations that are not only unrealistic, but represent a kind of humorless self-seriousness that I simply don’t understand or share. Certainly, there are cases of intimidation and abuse that need to be dealt with, in a legal context, but I really wonder what percentage of the accusations of harassment involve such cases.

  • Kathryn J. Norlock says:

    The original post is not about bogus charges. The original post is about the witnessing of actual abuse and harassment, and asks why anyone would be the victim of such abuse in the first place.

    I’m not denying the existence of thin-skinned or humorless people, although god help them if they’re victims of actual abuse too. But I’ve met enough professors who have been stalked, harassed, ridiculed and nearly drummed out of the profession to take the OP’s question very seriously, and to echo it: Why, indeed, would students enter a classroom or continue through a program while seeming to think that women in the profession can be treated this way?

    We know what works, but as previous posters have said, it has to be operationalized and part of the climate of a department and a profession: Back-up is essential! The perception on the part of bullies that someone is alone and isolated enough to be safely picked on could be prevented.

  • aravistarkheena says:

    I guess I just don’t think that a grown, adult, professor should employ legal and other institutional actions against an obnoxious student. Again, if we are talking about assault or other such behavior, legal action is obviously required.

    Many of the actions described in this thread strike me as simple obnoxiousness. (“My logic students ganged up and ridiculed me” and the like.) Have we lost the ability simply to tell people to F-off? Or to offer a clever riposted. Or to simply ignore?

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Hi aravistarkheena,

      I understand that your experience is contrary to mine (though we’ve been teaching for about the same length of time), but I find the implication that people who are suffering harassment are some how not grown or adult or otherwise competent. I recognize that part of the issue is what constitutes objectionable harassment, but surely assault can’t be the standard for where institutional support is acceptable. Indeed, institutional support is appropriate for “mere”, non-sexual obnoxiousness (e.g., mentoring through disciplinary action) is wholly appropriate.

      Obviously, false accusations are an issue with any enforcement regime, but I get a little worried when the recommendation is to shrug it off since that has historically been used to diminish legitimate concerns.

      Also, I think it’s important to institutionalize a lot of this for the students as well as the instructors sake. One thing that’s been happening since the 1980s in my observation is the removal of certain disciplinary functions from instructors. Cf plagiarism. It’s no longer acceptable to simply fail someone for plagiarism, you have to go through a process. Similarly, what exactly are the disciplinary levers available to a university instructor? Grades are about it. (Can I deny an enrolled student access to the classroom? I don’t think so!) And yet it’s a pretty bad idea to allow profs who may be (correctly) upset to idiosyncratically set grade based punishments.

      Contrariwise, I see no reason to require anyone to have to endure a hostile environment. The students are adults are are typically expected to adhere to a standard of behavior which is quite reasonable. Hooting or hollering in class, writing mash notes which are intended to humiliate, etc. are just not acceptable behavior. The point of the hostile environment legislation is exactly to establish that these are not reasonable conditions. That they differentially fall on women in these environments is why its especially importent to hold institutions accountable.

      And of course, education, mediation, and other forms of support are an important part of the toolkit. Lowering the threshold for getting help is really a good thing.

  • professor says:

    aravistarkheena, I appreciate your point of view. Indeed, when you were reading through the comments I assume you saw that several commenters have suggested using humor to defuse situations and several commenters have suggested that the category of ‘harassment’ might be misplaced here. That is why I have a hard time understanding why you would refer to the commentators as “this audience,” assume how the commentators will react, and paint us all with a very broad brush as though we are a monolithic group of humorless robots. Maybe we aren’t the only ones with a thin skin?

  • aravistarkheena says:


    Your description of my very mild comments bears little resemblance to anything I wrote.

    By “this audience” I simply meant the readers of a blog that focuses on Women in Philosophy. Otherwise, I’m not painting anyone with brushes, broad or otherwise.

    My main concern is for students, who are treated worse today, by universities, then they were when I was in school, in the 80’s. They are subject not only to outrageous, bank-breaking tuition hikes, but to increasingly draconian policies and rules. My students, at a large public university in the Midwest, are routinely subject to harassment, intimidation, arrest, and worse, by university officials and the police, for behavior that I and the generations before me, routinely engaged in, in our college years. Behavior that used to be called “fun” and is now treated as criminal.

    I am therefore quite concerned, when I hear anything about increasing the punitive measures against students even more. The power differential between me and the average undergraduate is so great that there really is nothing they can do to hurt me, in any substantial way, outside of outright violence. As a result, I see little need to ratchet up the already sizable institutional sanctions, which exist to be deployed against them.

  • Katy Abramson says:

    K. Ludwig, “One has to confront it. ”

  • Bijan Parsia says:

    I was trying to find some data about false reporting (not a lot of luck thus far). But I did find this article:

    In 1989 the author conducted a survey of all women professors employed at her university (Purdue). A total of 210 responses were received. The findings suggest that at Purdue University sexual harassment is relatively widespread. Approximately one in four women professors claimed to have been sexually harassed while at the university, and many more claimed to have experienced a variety of behaviors, ranging from sexist comments to sexual assault. The data further show that women professors experience these behaviors from all types of participants in the academic enterprise: superiors, peers, and students. Factors in the academic environment that tend to foster sexual harassment are a hierarchical structure in which men hold the dominant positions, diffused institutional authority, the myth of collegiality, tolerance of eccentricity, and academic conservatism. Also, since academic women are typically in untenured positions, they may be perceived by more secure male peers as temporary and powerless. One significant factor that may reduce sexual harassment of faculty women is the autonomy of women academics; women professors usually do not work one-on-one with a superior; consequently, there is less dependency built into the work relationship.

    That’s a bit dated, but this paper is quite interesting and does contain, in their survey, a bit about student behavior (but I’ve not been able to tease out the results yet). One very interesting thing in the latter paper is how a generally supportive environment is hugely beneficial. And this goes into the patterned or systemic nature of much harassment : It’s not the individual incidences but their sum:

    Both sexual harassment and gender discrimination, even in their mildest forms, may act as daily hassles or microstressors; these are small, relatively subtle experiences that, over time, may accumulate to have a substantial impact on the target (Harrell, 2000).

    and addressing the problem might come less from addressing the particular incidents:

    …Although not a focus of the current study, our bivariate correlations demonstrated relationships among all three of our climate variables and our two gender-related experiential variables that are consistent with the large body of research on this topic (e.g., Fitzgerald et al., 1999; Hesson-McInnis & Fitzgerald, 1997; Hulin et al., 1996; Newell et al., 1995); specifically, sexual harassment and gender discrimination were related to more sexist climates, less positive climates, and less effective leadership. Hesson-McInnis and Fitzgerald (1997) have suggested that sexual harassment may be more easily reduced through changes in the organizational climate (e.g., reducing tolerance for sexism) than through changes in individual harassers. This notion, combined with our results, suggests that improving the organizational climate may promote positive work outcomes directly, as well as indirectly, by reducing women’s experience of negative events such as sexual harassment.

    Problems with dealing with mildly obnoxious students may be bellwethers of a larger systemic problem.

  • beta says:

    From a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

    I wish to recenter this conversation on the original question: Why would anyone be subjected to such abuse in the first place?

    I have contributed to many studies of student harassment, abuse and stalking of professors. In the U.S., professors report rates of stalking on a par with pscyhologists and psychiatrists, which is a rate higher than experienced in the general population. Such stalking is often the result of a sense of boundaries being crossed, and/or intimate relationships being established whether or not they are, and/or previously successful small-scale harassment, bullying or intimidation — the latter is a concern in light of the post, which asks why this would happen.

    Female professors are stalked more often than males, by a ratio of about 1.5:1. Both sexes report a lack of peer and institutional support early in the experience of harassment, bullying or intimidation, when the escalation of inappropriate behavior became obvious to the professor but was not yet criminally actionable or obvious to colleagues.

    Preventative measures include surprisingly easily made modifications to professors’ routines. Just cutting back on drop-in office hours and asking students to make appointments is often effective in reducing the sense that students have complete access to their professors and/or a special understanding between them and/or power over them. Replying to emails after taking some time to think about them, rather than replying instantly, also reduces the access of dominating personalities to one’s psychological space.

    We try to stress formality in communication as opposed to the actual reduction of communication. Unfortunately, men and women who are harassed, especially after it escalates to stalking behavior, tend to reduce faculty-student interaction across the board, which can diminish learning and teaching. Structuring and formalizing communications early can prevent cutting back on them after bad experiences.

    Moderators: Please remove my name from this comment or post it as your own? There are few of us who are both victims and researchers in this field. I’d rather not actually be identified as more than this.

  • Charles Pigden says:

    There is something to be said for professor’s ‘great-souled woman’ approach to the problems of gender-based disrespect, veiled hostility, inappropriate familiarity and outright bullying by students. She thinks (If I understand her correctly)
    a) that in general women professors should see sexual harassment in the classroom as an instance of the problematic behavior that is all too common for both women and men
    b) that they should deal with it on a daily basis using a variety of de-escalating strategies (though she’s not very specific about these)
    c) endeavoring to ‘rise above’ it at the personal level.

    Now I am at one with Nietzsche and Aristotle in thinking that it doesn’t do to be the sort of person who worries about (or even notices) minor slights from people in a subordinate position. BUT it seems to me that her overall stance rests on a false premise – that ‘every single teacher faces [problematic behavior] every semester, one way or another’. No they don’t. Even if you take into account the fact that I am a man, so that some of this stuff simply *could not* happen to me, I can honestly say that in twenty –five years of teaching I have hardly ever experienced *analogues* of the kinds of thing she seems to be talking about. Though I tolerate a lot of familiarity (it is quite common in New Zealand to address professors by their first names) my students are almost invariably polite and respectful. I won’t say that I never experience problem behaviors as this would be tempting providence to curse me with a class-room riot and a brace of stalkers in the upcoming semester, but the biggest class-room problem I have faced in recently is a class a couple of years back that simply would not talk. (None of my usual tricks for encouraging class-room discussion seemed to work and I had to fall back on the mechanical strategy of dividing them into small groups with an elected spokespeople.) *That* was my biggest problem! But then I am a man and not merely a man but a middle-aged, white-haired and well-muscled man too (I do weights). There isn’t much in my personality or appearance to tempt my students’ inner bully. However, so far as I know (perhaps an important qualification) the kind of thing ‘professor’ is talking about is not very common even for youngish female lecturers at my university. [I just checked with my daughter who studies here. She says that she has NEVER encountered the kind of bad behavior discussed on this thread in any of the papers she has taken (she’s in her fourth year of study), despite the first name familiarity between lecturers and students that prevails at Otago.]

    What does this suggest? One of three things. Either
    1) That there is a sexist culture at ‘professor’s’ university which needs to be fixed by institutional action:
    2) That there is a general culture of disrespect and (and even incipient violence) at her university affecting both men and women professors which needs to be fixed by institutional action
    3) That there is both a culture of disrespect at her university affecting men and women AND a culture of sexism affecting women in particular and that both of these need to be fixed by institutional action.

    Of these 3) seems to me that most likely. Thus the ‘take it in your stride’ attitude suggested by both ‘professor’ and ‘aravistarkheena’ seems to mistaken. This is feminist issue, a political issue and a trade-union issue (since it affects safety and well-being in the workplace) and it should be tackled I suggest by establishing very publicly a code of conduct for students as a matter of university policy with the sanction that persistent offenders can be removed from a class without financial compensation for the teaching that they forgo. Of course this sledgehammer should not be used to crack the nuts of small time bad behavior, but if it were very publicly on display there would not be so many nuts to crack.

    Absent institutional (and cultural) reform, ‘professor’ strategy may well be the best one for dealing with these problems at personal level. For the sake of my women graduate students who might go on to teach in the US , I would be interested in a bit more detail about the de-escalating tactics that she and other teachers have successfully employed. But it really seems to me a disgrace that you if you are a woman (and perhaps if you are a man) there are universities in the US such that you can only survive in the class-room with a forceful personality and a battery of defensive inter-personal skills.

    • ptittle says:

      Yes. To everything.

    • professor says:

      Thanks Charles Pigden, for this. It makes a lot of sense and I agree with a lot of it, maybe all of it. I never intended to say that people should just grin and bear it. And I certainly don’t think that this kind of behavior is acceptable (or ‘fun’ as one person has put it) or that people who righty object to it are in any way not being strong enough (or as one person has put it, enough of an ‘adult’) to deal with it productively.

      Before I answer your excellent call for concrete examples of how I (and I love to hear others!) have dealt successfully with these issues, I feel I should say that my colleagues are very supportive and that the culture at my institution is very good. I do teach exclusively undergraduates, almost all of whom are 18 – 21. That is a big difference, I think: these issues coming from graduate students poses all kinds of difficulties that are very different from those posed in undergraduate institutions. This was what I was trying, but didn’t really succeed, in getting at by holding that these issues with students are very context-bound.

      First, when I am having a problem with a student I immediately tell my colleagues. That way, someone other than me knows. More importantly, I can determine whether my (all male) colleagues are experiencing the same behaviors. Most (though not all) of the time, they are having similar problems with the same student.

      This brings out two things that are super annoying about being a woman in an overwhelmingly male discipline: 1) you often find yourself wondering whether someone is being a jerk because you are a woman or because that person is just a jerk, and 2) pretty much only women (and people of color, and the disabled, queer, transgendered, etc.) have to live with that constant nagging “is it me” kind of question.

      Either way, my colleagues and I deal with it together. If we are all having the same problems with the same student (bullying, etc.) we make a concerted effort to have individual conversations with that student where we are mysteriously on the same page. If I am the lone person, my colleagues work hard in one-one-one meetings with the student to (again, mysteriously) make clear their expectations in terms of work and behavior.

      In addition, my colleagues and I regularly ask one another to be in the office (not the same office – in the office complex) and out and about when any of us have a meeting that could get difficult. This is to protect us, protect the student and to allow us to debrief together after.

      I’ve never had an incident at my own institution like I did when I was a graduate student – when a student exposed himself to me. In that instance, it is very clear, as K. Ludwig has pointed out, to move to the student code of conduct, at the least.

      The fact is that I am very lucky indeed to be surrounded by such wonderful colleagues. I know that isn’t the case for everyone.

  • Jender says:

    Posted anonymously on behalf of a reader: I want to make clear that I didn’t complain to anyone about how these jerks in my logic class behaved–much less think in terms of legal action. I sucked it up. And I agree that that’s all one can, or should do about this kind of obnoxiousness.

    But this kind of thing isn’t entirely a personal matter because in many places, including mine, students are customers and faculty are assessed on, among other things, their ability to please. I got flak from colleagues for students’ complaints about my appearance. Students in the aggregate ARE in a position of power over untenured faculty.

    My inability to meet students’ standards for personal aesthetics almost cost me my job. For some people it seems like a trivial, easy thing to present a socially acceptable appearance (“why can’t she just try a little harder”) but I have significant physical deficits and so it wasn’t easy or even feasible for me.

    I am not a whiner. I sucked up students’ crap and didn’t complain–if I had my department would have just taken that as another strike against me. And I do not think this sort of behavior should trigger any legal or other disciplinary. But this kind of middle school garbage isn’t acceptable, and I’d be interested in ways to address it.

    • Tim Kenyon says:

      “I didn’t complain to anyone about how these jerks in my logic class behaved–much less think in terms of legal action. I sucked it up. And I agree that that’s all one can, or should do about this kind of obnoxiousness.”

      I am not saying that this choice wasn’t the right one, all things considered, for you in your situation. Context makes a lot of difference. But I would be slow to recommend this view generally. The behaviour you describe strikes me as utterly beyond the pale — especially the note, and especially its “Will you go out with me” element. Here I incline to think one really is enfranchised to confront it, for many reasons. I will briefly mention just three. Other things being equal:

      1. The students doing this have to be told, in as many words, that this is unacceptable, and *why* it’s unacceptable. In general, we don’t expect students to learn things without teaching them.
      2. Professors are entitled to be treated with respect and courtesy, full stop. Just like students! An intervention to remedy a situation in which one is treated with contempt is perfectly appropriate.
      3. Students who don’t poison the atmosphere nevertheless have to breath it. Those who are not (yet) ringleaders might become aggressors of the same sort if they see this behaviour normalized and tolerated; or, if they are horrified by it, may themselves feel alienated and trapped by the sense that there’s nothing that can be done when sexists and bullies band together. There may well be students in the class who have never seen someone stand up in public, identify sexist behaviour explicitly, and clearly locate it within a wider constellation of unacceptable or disgraceful conduct.

      None of this breaks new ground, I understand. It also might sound glib, as if I imagine such an intervention to be easily pulled off, in the event. I don’t. But there are a lot of options for when and how to make it happen — end of class, next class, next week; in class, or by email; professor does it, Dept Head does it, equity officer does it; etc. — that go beyond sucking it up. Again, I don’t dispute the correctness of your call, in your case. The general reasons for speaking up, though, are worth keeping on the front burner.

  • ptittle says:

    I second this poster’s comment about students being in a position of power over untenured faculty. The sexist attitudes and behaviors CAN cost people their jobs.

  • Elizabeth says:

    The first comment on this thread makes me sad. I’m sad that the woman who was not supported by her colleagues feels responsible for protecting their feelings by not letting them know how isolated she felt (rather than their being responsible for having isolated their colleague who they’re also chummy with).

    Mind you, this isn’t, at all, a judgment on the woman who commented. In her shoes, I bet I’d feel the same. But that makes me sad, too.

  • Susan says:

    I cannot speak to why these incidents occur because I have no good answer. However, I want to add something in light of other comments above: please do take these incidents seriously, keep a record, and report to others when necessary. This is your responsibility as an educator, not just to yourself but to others at your institution who have to interact with the harassing student. If a student is harassing you, it’s very likely that you’re not the only one. Your actions can help prevent this from happening to others.

    Most of my students are delightful and I feel privileged to work with them. A few have been difficult or troubled, though, perhaps with serious psychological problems. If my professional response can hasten treatment or make it less likely that they bother anyone else, then it’s very important to address the situation appropriately. On two occasions in particular I was worried about the behaviors exhibited by students who were trying to intimidate me. When I inquired further, I discovered in both cases that the student in question had a prior record of such behavior. One already had several legal problems stemming from his harassing, aggressive behavior. The sooner you nip these situations in the bud, hopefully the less likely they are to become severe. In my experience, the kind of student who thinks it’s okay to hit on you, belittle you in class, or attempt to intimidate you physically or otherwise, is quickly shut down once he realizes that you will respond immediately, vigorously, and publicly. What might seem to you like mature “blowing it off” is actually, in this context, an invitation to further trouble.

  • Jender says:

    Posted on behalf of a different anonymous commenter:

    There is a good body of literature on what is called “contra-power harassment,” which may or may not be sexual harassment. I have been looking at papers on this as a variety of incivility having experienced a good deal of it (the non-sexual variety) when I was a graduate student and later a new faculty member (though not as much now). My male colleagues definitely thought that I was too sensitive about student behavior and told me they tended to let similar behaviors slide or that they didn’t experience them in their classes. In one case my chair pulled an offending student out of my class and took him into his own class since he thought he could manage him better than I could. In another instance, my chair preferred to talk to a hostile student about his “communication difficulties” (read “scary aggression and hostility”) despite the fact that the chair himself has aggression issues.

    I think the best advice is to go through student advising or the dean of students or another administrative office. It is important for male and female faculty to report incidents, even small ones, since behavior may escalate over time. I also now begin the semester with a brief presentation on incivility that seems to have been successful at curbing behavior. The disruptions in class bother the other students in the class, interfere with their learning, and make them uncomfortable. I have found that they appreciate the stand I have taken against inappropriate behavior. I also hope that students gain a better understanding of the types of behaviors that are or are not acceptable in civil society.

  • ptittle says:

    The problem with going to your colleagues, Chair, Dean, or what have you, for assistance is that you are, therefore, letting people in power know you’re having trouble teaching/with your class. And if you’re a sessional, it’s likely you just won’t be asked to teach again. You’re (too much) trouble; they prefer sessionals they never hear about/from (except to hand in the grades) (which had better conform to the university average). End of story.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is not specifically about student harassment, but it’s nevertheless about student perceptions of female lecturers. I recently was one of two women (non TT) lecturers at a large European department with 20+ tenured male faculty. A male student wrote to me asking if I was interested in being interviewed for the student newspaper. The interview was preceded with the following text (paraphrased a little) “There are now two female lecturers at our department. Your journalist was intrigued by this flood of estrogen, and decided to interview them”. Flood of estrogen is quite an overstatement for 2 contingent faculty in a large male pool! Then, during the interview itself, most of the questions he asked were about affirmative action “How do you feel about affirmative action?” “Aren’t you worried people will think you got your position through affirmative action?” “Do you think affirmative action is fair to men?” To be clear, the faculty has an affirmative action policy, but given that in their last 10 hires of tenured faculty or TT faculty they only hired *one* woman, I can only assume that they do not take this seriously.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think that it’s worth noting that while some male professors have been the victims of harassment themselves, female professors face this kind of abuse far more than their male colleagues. Whether one pursues legal action or not, this kind of experience is unnecessary, exhausting and causes a level of self doubt that is difficult to describe. Worse yet, when a woman tries to relay her experience to one of her peers, or a higher up, this often means talking to a male. (Usually it does, if one is a philosopher.) Some men are indeed very sympathetic and understanding about such things. But many are not, simply because they have never had this kind of experience themselves. When met with an “oh you must have misunderstood” or “that doesn’t sound that bad” the already awful experience is elevated to an even worse one. Now the level of anxiety and other-ness is multiplied.
    An academic career in Philosophy is already anxiety-inducing. But women face a layer of obstacles their male colleagues most often just don’t. This needs to be recognized. And perhaps this will help. It’s helpful to realize the way you are being treated is not because of your characteristics per se, but your membership in a group. It’s also helpful when you can rest assured that your colleagues have come to this realization too.
    I think extensive training with HR and Department members, and a positive relationship with the Dean are key to stopping these patterns of behavior in their tracks. This requires that those who are in the Department or giving the training aren’t perpetrators themselves, however. And, there is no guarantee of that.

  • A Graduate Student says:

    I think a contributing problem here–probably with all types of sexual harassment cases and not unique to philosophy departments–is the desire of faculty to deal with harassment ‘in house,’ so to speak. As noted by a previous commentator, there are often resources on university campuses such as HR departments or harassment offices that can effectively aid those suffering such treatment, but I’ve seen (and heard about) those resources going underutilized.

    More pertinently, those offices are in a better position to deal with incidents in much more sensitive manner. Yet it seems that all too often the issue is brought to the Chair or another colleague, where it is then belittled or dismissed. Especially considering the gender imbalances among senior faculty members and the well known epistemological gaps concerning harassment that follow, I don’t believe that philosophers are in the best position to address claims of harassment and related issues, especially complex cases like student harassment.

    Now, I know we as a profession like to think of ourselves as hyper-rational, but the testimony shows that we are often failing to make the right calls. I think a greater emphasis by senior faculty/administration to turn over cases to those who deal with this for a living–or with colleagues, counselling victims to go to harassment offices for advice instead of saying something stupid–is at least a step in the right direction for a better climate and more effective coping.

    Personally, given the stories I’ve heard and what I’ve witnessed, my first instinct would be to ignore the Chair and others if I found myself (or a friend/colleague) and go straight to a harassment office, unless I happened to have prior confidence in the senior faculty’s judgement and sensitivity. Incidents like these are too persistent and damaging to blunder about like amateurs.

  • Q says:

    See the AAUP: Academics (especially women) are facing more and more organized harassment in the classroom.

  • hbaber says:

    Let me tell you about student harassment…

    Years ago, one of my classes decided to ridicule and humiliate me, and follow up with evals more or less saying that I was an incompetent buffoon and a freak. They made me the butt of jokes in class, doing things, like on one occasion, putting a note on my desk saying, ‘Dear Dr. ___, you are so cool and logical, won’t you go out with me…’, etc. and, when I read it all that class giggled appreciatively.

    Sometime later I met a member of this class socially. It came out in the discussion that when I’d been teaching the class I’d been pregnant. He was embarrassed and apologized saying, ‘I’m sorry! We thought you were just built that way’.

    That was the only class where it got that bad. But I’ve been consistently trashed about my ‘wardrobe’ as a course eval put it, and my appearance. In one eval, ‘She doesn’t talk, walk, or dress like a women. Whoever hired her should have used some commonsense’.

    I am, frankly, an ugly woman. I try to dress respectably, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m now, laus deo, tenured. But before that, my chair, citing evals, made a fuss about my appearance. In one of this chair’s supervisory letters, he made a statement about how ‘while I wouldn’t advise other junior faculty to emulate Dr. ___ I think it might be valuable for our students to learn that someone of her appearance may have something valuable to say’.

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