I’ve been here before. You care about your teaching, so you give the class a form asking for anonymous evaluations, with criticisms welcome…because you seriously want to hear what you can do to improve learning. And then there are always a few students who blow it off with stupid remarks and irrelevant ‘witticisms’ — I’ve been told the class needs more Jesus, for instance (I do not preach religion or atheism in my classroom).
But I’ve never had to face the special challenges of teaching while female.
Later that afternoon, I started going through the responses. It was encouraging to see that, in general, responses to the first two questions indicated I was getting better, which was gratifying given the amount of time and energy I spent re-developing the class. For the most part, students were surprisingly honest when responding to questions 3 and 4, showing they understood their responsibility in their progress, or lack thereof. Somewhere towards the end of the ~160 evaluations, I came across one that answered question #2 with: “Teach naked.” I can’t tell you what the rest of this evaluation said; this is the only part I remember. I was so angry, and embarrassed, and exasperated, and hopeless, all at once. I worked so hard. I am so knowledgeable. I take such care to present myself professionally. I care deeply about my students’ learning outcomes, particularly with respect to learning critical thinking skills. But none of that matters. I clearly will never be more than a thing to look at. How depressing is that? None of my work, achievements, or intentions matter to people like that—just because I’m a woman, an object. It’s maddening!
I can’t even imagine students sexualizing me, so I’d never had to think about how I’d handle such a problem. The Jesus thing? Easy. I just ignore it. But treating me as your own personal sex monkey? Never had to worry about it.
But now I know exactly how to respond to such an unlikely eventuality, and for those of you for whom it is far more likely, here’s an example of dealing with it strongly:
Almost two weeks later, before giving an exam, I announced to my class: “I want to take the first couple minutes to call out the person who used the anonymity of the mid-semester evaluations as an opportunity to sexually harass me.” The class was suddenly at full attention. You could hear a pin drop. My voice trembled. I felt humiliated having to admit that some people see me as an object. I had decided not to make eye contact, so as to not implicitly accuse anyone, and instead stared towards the back. I proceeded with increasing audible confidence:
“Now, I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt and assume this was not a malicious comment. Now here’s where the teachable moment comes in: these types of comments, as well as things like catcalls, are not taken as compliments. They constitute sexual harassment, which is a form of bullying, and like any bully, you are a coward. An adult would own up to it and face the consequences. For those of you who may have heard about it afterward and snickered, high-fived, or didn’t in any way condemn it publicly, you are complicit in condoning such cowardly behavior. Now, here’s a good rule of thumb if you are unsure whether you are harassing or bullying someone—ask yourself: would you do or say this to your mother, sister, or eventually your daughters? If the answer is no, then, it is inappropriate to do or say to a person you do not know very well.”
Hey, isn’t that a well-spoken truth even outside of the classroom?