separate the ick from the harm

The controversy over Colorado’s response to Patti Adler’s exercise, in which undergraduate teaching assistants role played various types of prostitute to consider the stratification of deviance, has produced a wide variety of opinions among academic sociologists. Many here on the blogs and on twitter have raised questions about the appropriateness of this exercise, which is a fair point, but one that requires a bit more scrutiny, in my view.

Sexual topics of all kinds have to deal with the “ick” factor. Many forces in our culture encourage us not only to be critical of, but also to be viscerally repulsed by, sexuality. So, I worry that the administration’s reaction, as well as that of my colleagues, is magnified, triggered, or made more extreme by the ickiness of the topic, rather than by the actual harm done. I am not saying that it is not possible for lectures/exercises on sexuality to harm students or teaching assistants. Of course it is. Sexism, as well as sexual violence and exploitation and harassment, are real phenomena and should be concerns of university campuses. Students and employees should be considered and cared for, and not subject to harassment. Period.

However, I am concerned that the sexual nature of the lesson itself makes it highly suspect to administrators, and I fear that the ick makes it seem obvious that such a topic must therefore be harmful. If the sexual nature of the topic–and our repulsion to it–gives us permission to skip the step where we weigh the benefits against the harms, then we are heading down a road to total censorship of sexual topics in sociology. And it is my view that, as sensitive as these topics can be, more harm comes from being silent about sexuality than discussing it openly. So, that is why my response to the news–which of course hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out–is to express great concern for administrative intrusion in the classroom and academic freedom. I am worried that it is all too easy for everyone to agree that this exercise is icky and assume, therefore, that it is also harmful.

47 thoughts on “separate the ick from the harm”

  1. I’m very much with you, Tina. I think the institutional response to, e.g., sexual harassment, has often been to reflexively fear anything having to do with sex. To some extent this is blowback for what’s probably been too much avoidance of offending people, but mostly I think it’s institutional tendencies toward over-caution.

    I also often use “edgy” examples to illustrate social theory, in part to liven it up for a population of students who, let’s face it, are as a group pretty focused on sex and sexuality at their age. I’m careful not to make it personal or verge on harassment, but I do think it would be a shame if we were unable to use such examples for sound educational purposes.


      1. Well the most obvious ones are in teaching Foucault and governmentality by reference to sexual categorization. But that’s kind of cheating because so much of F’s work addresses sexuality directly.

        Further afield, I often introduce questions of authority (Herrschaft) in Weber by asking what boundaries are placed on legitimate authority are placed by different types of authority, and authority over sexual behavior is a good way of marking those distinctions.


  2. What is troubling to me is that the admin’s initial response to this case (before the walk back) shows how both the production and dissemination of sexuality related knowledge is being squeezed. IRB applications are too burdensome to begin with, even more so when proposing to study people’s views/behaviors related to sex/sexuality. And if someone wants to collect data from kids or teenagers, add another pile of TPS reports.

    Now, if teaching soc of sexuality get’s the same institutional treatment, then we’ll be constricted not only in what we know (constraints on research) but how much of that limited amount we can share (in the classroom).

    I’m also disheartened by my suspicion that the wider debate on this topic will get mired in the details of Patti Adler’s “skits.” Instead of pushing for reforms via the now stalled OHRP revision process (remember those hopeful days?, we will be left with chronicle articles debating whether prostitutes still wear fishnet stockings these days.


  3. The reporting on this leaves much unknown. From one account, I gathered that 1.) Adler has been doing this skit for years, apparently without complaint, and 2.) that the new chair of the department was the one who first made an issue of it, maybe because he had complaints for TAs or ATAs. Is that correct?

    Also, maybe it’s not just the ick of sexuality. The conflict between free speech or academic freedom on the one hand and people being offended or a hostile environment on the other crops up with race and gender.


  4. Right, and this is what administrative due process should achieve. The problem is that no one involved wanted to let it play out. The administration was probably right to tell Adler that she couldn’t teach the course next year. I think this is what was meant by earlier statements that there was “too much risk” allowing such a lecture in a “post-Penn State environment”. Sexual harassment is a very serious accusation so removing the accused from that particular situation for a bit seems like a no-brainer.

    The bigger issue for me is that Adler refused to let due process play out by telling everyone she was being “forced out” because she was told she couldn’t teach the course next year. Compounding this is the administration’s decision to simply offer a buyout for early retirement. Putting this another way: A professor accused of sexual harassment was quietly given the option of a buyout in order to make a perceived problem go away. That sounds a bit unethical to me.

    I’m less worried about administrative intrusion into the classroom. It seems like the administration started off trying to gather more information (or weigh the costs and benefits as you said) but as soon as Adler publicly cried “academic freedom!” all due process stopped. The administration was put on the defensive about removing an accused sexual harasser from the classroom and promptly put its tail between its legs trying to make it all go away. I don’t have much respect for Adler or the administration.


    1. I’m hopelessly naive and insensitive on these matters, but I’ll ask anyway: who was Adler sexually harassing? If it was the ATAs in the skit, we have only the word of the provost that they felt pressured. If they were, I wish we knew just how Adler pressured them. As for Penn State, I see the differences as hugely greater than the similarities, so much so as to make comparison irrelevant: a teacher having students play hookers in a skit for a lecture class; a coach anally raping a 10-year-old boy alone in the shower of the locker room. (Or has Jerry Sandusky/PSU been added to Godwin’s law?)


    2. “The bigger issue for me is that Adler refused to let due process play out by telling everyone she was being “forced out” because she was told she couldn’t teach the course next year.”

      According to her reports, she was also given a take-it or leave-it retirement/buyout contract with an expiration date in early January, coupled with a threat that she would be fired if there were further complaints. If accurate, that’s a bit more like being ‘forced out’ than just being assigned to teach a different course. And if that’s the case, it’s not entirely clear to me what the ‘wait for due process’ option was supposed to be. But a lot hinges on how much of a threat was behind the buyout offer.


  5. Your hard and fast distinction between “ick” and “harm” reminds me a lot of Haidt’s moral foundations model, and in particular the extent to which us WEIRDos downplay sanctity (aka “ick”) as a morally legitimate, or to a large extent even ontologically legitimate, issue. What I mean by the latter is the assumption that culture drives us to be repulsed by sexuality, whereas the WEIRD/MFT model implies that the truly distinctive aspect of educated Western culture is to minimize the sacred.

    To put it another way, for some people the “ick” is the harm.


  6. I suspect that this is less about ick than it is about chickenshit administrators. Relevant details are scarce, but from what I’ve read, I get the impression that what students did or saw in the skit was no more sexually explicit or exploitative than what they could see on network TV in prime time, to say nothing of afternoon soaps.


  7. Thanks for bringing this up, Tina.

    Sexuality courses attract boundary-pushing instruction. But that’s a good thing! (confirming Gabriel here live and direct) The whole point of a sexuality course, no matter dildo demonstrations or prostitution skits, is by definition a cultural exercise in showcasing the distinction between purity and danger, and to — yes — persuade students that the dangerous isn’t actually dangerous in order to empower them of their own sexualities and break down discrimination and shaming of non-traditional forms of sexual expression.

    The whole *point* is to make them go through the ick!

    The only remaining issue then is whether students enter into the ick-abating ritual *consensually.* The administration has no business evaluating the content of Adler’s lectures — their job is to evaluate whether students are being coerced.

    What kind of precedent does this set? We have here a slippery slope — under these premises virtually any academic content in the university can be scrutinized and delimited for content if it makes a student feel “unsafe.” Christ, save us.

    This is the trouble with dealing out social justice with hierarchical force — it seems so inviolably legitimate to stamp out these new-cast demons that we unthinkingly undo historical precedents on limits of force within institutions.


  8. I think the Penn State point is clear evidence for administrative over-caution and overreach. The only thing that connects the two is that sexuality is somehow involved. The ages, personnel, organizational responsibilities, purposes, and activities involved are all very different. So the only way Penn State is relevant at all is to invoke “ick”.


  9. It’s not just Penn State. Students have been rallying around racial and sexual discrimination at a lot of schools.

    But let’s be really, crystal clear — administrations who are bad about letting blacks in, or about reporting rape to the police, is an entirely different issue than a few over-sensitive students being allowed to undermine the liberty of the liberal arts because they don’t have enough spine to challenge arguments and sentiments they’re uncomfortable with, and instead throw trigger words like sexual harassment at department chairs.

    What’s next? Johnny doesn’t like talking about race so he calls the professor’s lecture hate speech and gets the course suspended pending administrative review by a bunch of deans whose scholastic education on race ended with watching Roots in elementary school?


  10. I think Tina is right about this. Unless we are going to hear something new and shocking, it is pretty clear that the university administration and human rights oriented staff used sexual harrassment rules to stop a classroom skit they were worried about in terms of legal action and student complaints. And they did this in a heavy handed way. And it is not very nice, or fair. Whether the faculty member wants to take a package, or should do that skit or could have handled it all differently (including the media strategy) is not really the issue, for me. The fact that they (the university) tried to expand research ethics board jurisdiction to blame the professor shows the mentality. And it not a mentality that puts academic freedom, student learning or allowing space for challenging ideas about sexuality at the center of their focus. That is for sure. I would not do this kind of skit, myself. Maybe I am old fashioned, and lack creativity. Or maybe there is too much pandering to students. A difference of opinion. But it does look like this instructor is a tough grader, at least from Rate your Profs ranking. On that question, we can trust student reports! Hopefully this can be resolved without too much conflict in the sociology department there, and without legal action. Seems like it is something that could have been resolved with a more subtle approach. I can see why an accomplished scholar nearing retirement would not want to be threatened like it sounds happened. I have not seen evidence of coercion on her part, with the TAs. They felt their would be consequences? Come on. That is not enough. Setting up clearer assurances that participating in the skit is NOT in any way required or rewarded, other than than from what one gets from the experience, seems like not a very difficult thing to do. And the students in class…. When do we want to let them leave, if offended? Tina and others teaching on these issues will have thought it through more.

    So I am not going to man or women the baracades for academic freedom on this one, but I do think the issues are real.
    And they do especially involve and potentially damage the area of sexuality, in our classrooms.


  11. I can imagine a young woman, perfectly reasonably, feeling uncomfortable with doing a skit in her underwear in front of 500 students. I can also imagine a young woman ginned up on nanny state politics and gender studies courses creating a universe in her head where Adler viciously retaliates and punishes her for refusing to undress in front of the class. She tells herself that she’s not just understandably uncomfortable and needing to talk to her professor — no she’s being *harassed* by a threatening and powerful person and needs to assert her institutional rights.

    The carte blanche license of victimhood is one step away from a weapon of oppression.


  12. Tina, thanks for the post. My comment is not about your post.

    My understanding of the case is that the person who brought this issue to the chair’s attention was a graduate student in the sociology department. If that is the case, I would expect that there’s a good chance that he or she is aware of this post, and may be reading it.

    Two thoughts, based on the assumption that :

    1) To the the TA: Thanks! TAs should file complaints when they think something wrong is going on. Tina is right that good sociology can be icky, but not all icky stuff is good sociology. The CU administration may be a mess, but I hope this doesn’t dissuade the next TA or RA from speaking up.

    2) I think comments like, “I can also imagine a young woman ginned up on nanny state politics and gender studies courses creating a universe in her head” are not useful. At a minimum, this is not about a hypothetical “young woman”. She (or he?) is a colleague of ours, the same way Adler is. To assume that a colleague of ours made a complaint, which was affirmed by her Chair, Dean and HR, was brainwashed by feminism is insulting to both the individual and graduate students.


    1. The political and theoretical implications of undergraduate sociology education have material impacts on the behavior of students – indeed persuasion, and the conveyance of tools for students to persuade one another and continue learning, is the goal of all education. When that framework of thought begins to inspire behaviors that degrade liberal debate, it undermines its own intent.

      But you seem perfectly complicit and encouraging of such behavior, and indeed hope to set an example for such debate-ending by reaching for ad hominem. “I find that offensive,” isn’t an argument — it’s a personal appeal to pity and has nothing to do with the correctness (or not) of my statements.

      The people acting in the skits are assistant TAs of Adlers and are undergraduates. Other commenters here and every where else in the public discussion have been perfectly willing to impugn and conjecture on the motives and behavior of everyone involved in this incident, so my comments are not without precedent.

      Everyone is perfectly happy to blame the administration in this case, when their hands are essentially tied to a huge mess as soon as undergraduates come around accusing professors of sexual harassment.


  13. A lot in your response, but could you provide a cite for, “their hands are essentially tied to a huge mess as soon as undergraduates come around accusing professors of sexual harassment”? I’m more familiar with policies on sexual assault. In those cases, as student activists (and faculty allies) have made clear over the last year at UNC, Occidental, UConn, Wyoming, Swarthmore, USC et al., university administrators have been negligent despite very clearly federal rules. This suggest that even when their hands are legally tied, administrators still exhibit a great deal of agency.


    1. Yeah, that’s what I was citing above when I said “it’s not just Penn State. Students have been rallying around racial and sexual discrimination at a lot of schools.” So I should have been clearer and said that given that environment of administrative negligence, and given that the reporting students suggested it was sexual harassment, they really had no choice but to go nuclear or risk a blow-up at the hands of some likely activist students. Campus protest and slamming administration on the internet has become a growth industry.

      You’re an administrator — what do you do when an organized group of very upset students come knocking and dropping veiled threats with legalese about sexual harassment?

      I thought my reading of the complaint filers’ motives was rather charitable considering it’s entirely possible that this was a premeditated and organized effort by a cadre of particularly activist and A-earning sociology undergraduates to police the content of gender instruction based on their newfound fascination with definition-bending terms like “micro-aggression,” and the expansion of the definition of “sexual harassment.”


  14. My understanding is human rights or university officials were in the classroom, taking notes on the skit.
    How is this relevant?
    The content of the skit?

    If there was coercion of students to do a skit of this nature (the basics are well known regarding what is in the skit) that is serious.
    And sexual harassment is serious.
    Evidence from involved students is key here, not the skit.
    And what has the ethics review got to do it – something the university brought up.
    If there was real harassment or coercion, not going through the review process is irrelevant.

    Looks to me like content was being policed…

    Students should not be discouraged (in fact they should be encouraged) to speak up about real abuses of power and breaches of policy.

    Not offering a class until students are sure about their rights not to do the skit makes sense.

    But clearly this got way out of hand….
    And could have been handled better…

    But again it looks to me like the content was being challenged, not just student rights not to participate.
    A right the professor seems to fully accept…

    And all this does make it harder to teach sociology of sexualities, no?

    Note to self: Don’t do skits in class. I would not anyway, but maybe that is a loss..



    Update: the administration is now claiming that the concern was that “maybe there are cell phone videos being taken” without performers’ consent. But the original complaint was over students feeling they had to perform without consent.

    The University’s resolution — Adler will teach the course in the spring pending that “a review of the course by the sociology department finds the class to be appropriate.” So even though the discussion is (rightly) narrowing to issues of consent, Adler’s course is being audited for content by her department.

    The Deans also tried to make clear that it’s not what she’s teaching, but the way she’s teaching it that raises issues. This is a favorite go-to of people who want to police content. The form of an argument *is* its content. That’s a lesson from Freshman year rhetoric.


  16. Shoot. I had my facts wrong — apparently a graduate TA took it upon himself to speak for the undergraduate assistant TAs who were doing the performing. So it looks like no political conspiracy, just an over zealous graduate student. Whether that student claimed it constituted sexual harassment we’ll never know. The University’s is still a pretty mind-blowing response to hearsay.

    Apparently students had opted out of the performance before without consequence, and it was completely voluntary. Or so says a CU commenter at Inside Higher Ed
    I can speak on behalf of the ATAs as I had the honor of being part of Patti’s last group of ATAs. I was involved in the skit and there was absolutely no basis for the statements regarding ATAs being uncomfortable with participating. Like Patti said it was completely voluntary. Sure some of the participants were a little nervous because of the fact that we were going to be “performing” in front of around 500 students, but NO ONE was forced to participate. One of the ATAs actually opted out because she didn’t want to get up in front of the entire class. Also, Patti’s publisher, as well as several ATAs from previous semesters participated in the skit as well. Participation was in no way influenced by the fact that the current ATAs were receiving a grade (Patti graded us mainly on attendance, exam question writing, and overall effort in the labs). . . . . It is disheartening that we, the ATAs, were spoken for by a graduate student TA, when NONE OF US felt obligated or pressured into participating WHATSOEVER!


  17. 1) I agree that everything should be done to encourage victims to report sexual harassments incidents. Things get murkier when complainants are not victims (as it seems in this case).

    2) There is no doubt that the skit is a bit out there. As an instructor in the sexualities area, i would not do it. My own class, including my lecture on prostitution, is exceedingly dry by design. I’m also a male professor, so I am cautious. That said, if Adler can pull it off successfully, then I would say more power to her.

    3) the most recent news update appears to suggest that this was a bit of an ambush. It will be interesting to see if admin did in fact try to deal with this in a professional way by simply meeting with Adler. However, the news suggests otherwise. I would interpret administrative silence as evidence that they failed to meet with adler to discuss this issue and instead pursued a set-up. This raises the specter of professional malpractice/incompetence in the department or college.


    1. Sensible comments from socprofessor.

      This is not going to the academic freedom issue of the debate, for sure, given
      the out there-ness of the skit, and the fact this is not life or death for the professor.

      But it seems important to stay focused on the big issues for academics, and students and free exchange of ideas, especially as Tina stressed on questions of sexuality.

      It is looking more and more, yes, that this was badly handled, and could have been avoided.

      And as soon as the administration or a chair (complicated relations between these actors, as anyway knows who has observed the process from inside departments) starts talking about firing a professor, broader academic freedom issues need to be looked at.

      The university letter in Huff does talk about the environment for the students in the class, not just TAs possibly pressured to participate.

      I do think concerns about pictures of the skit circulating do raise a complicated new wriggle.
      I had not thought of that myself. There are reasons to give people the benefit of the doubt, as they try to address potential harm to students.
      Harm, not ick as Tina puts it.

      But this could have been resolved informally, and in meetings not with investigators in the classroom.

      And there are real issues to discuss regarding how much control administrators have over “offensive” talk in the classroom.
      Especially but not exclusively with regard to sexuality.
      Race and ethnicity also…..

      For example, I have played Cornel West’s rap CD in class, on the N word.
      I am careful how I do it.
      But I would not want administrators getting involved, even though the possibility for offence is real.

      There are big issues here, despite the media circus.

      And living in Toronto, I know all about media circuses!


      1. Modally, sure. This case was a unique opportunity for administrators, though. Less of the he said she said problems with determining material details of harassment accrued, because the alleged harassment was taking place in full view of 500 people for twenty years, giving administrators a potentially lucrative evidential basis to establish their institutional legitimacy in an environment where universities, disappointingly, have mishandled individual sexual discrimination and, rightly, lost legitimacy because of it. Barring alternative explanations like the chair (another gender scholar) having it out for Adler, it seems like they did jump all over this opportunity because the initial assessment indicated they’d be able to safely and transparently establish Adler’s fault in creating a hostile work environment.


    1. Agreed to Philip. The issue here seems more about administrative involvement in classroom content.

      Some details about how to make sure 110% sure TAs don’t feel coerced.
      Some administrative bullying, perhaps or incompetence.
      Some professional conversations with the professor could have addressed the consent question.
      Maybe there is a question here about pics, with the new technology and moral-professional questions flowing from that.

      We can all agree to disagree about the academic value of the skit.


    2. If grahamalam is correct that the hooker sketch has been running for twenty years without incident, the response of the administration has disingenuous aroma worthy of Capt. Reynaud.
      They are shocked, shocked to discover that Prof. Adler had ATAs play-act prostitutes. What changed?
      And do we yet know what pressure Prof. Adler exerted or how many ATAs protested and in what way and to whom?


      1. I am going to go out on the line here, and suggest that I really doubt the professor pressured students. But maybe there are things that could be done to make double triple sure they don’t feel pressured. Fair enough.

        My guess is the administration mishandled complaints, in a heavy handed way….


        Student have a right to express their concerns.. Does not sound like this was handled well..


      2. “you’a winnings, sir.” “oh, thank you veddy much.”

        There is no evidence, not even conjectural, to suggest that Adler exerted pressure. A grad TA, who wasn’t doing the performing, spoke in place of the ATAs, who were doing the performing and for whom there is no evidence they complained, suggesting that they *might* feel pressured or fear consequences from bowing out of the skit. This in spite of the fact that ATAs *had* bowed out of the skit without incident, and the fact that participation and performance were not a graded exercise. So this really appears to have arisen because of a daydream that got cooked up and imputed onto the ATAs without consulting them.

        And that, folks, is grounds for threatening a woman’s job and canceling one of the most popular courses at a major university.


  18. The great irony of this case is that we wouldn’t have sexual discrimination laws in the first place if not for academic freedom.

    A host of the initial movement toward gender equality took place within the University, and those subscribing to dominant ideology at the time certainly weren’t not hurt emotionally by the rise of second wave feminism. Charles Murray said something obnoxious the other day – that men have been psychically demoralized by women’s entry into the labor force. Imagine a world in the 1960s and 70s where male students could have successfully petitioned their departments to shut down consciousness raising on campus because it hurt their feelings and caused to much cognitive dissonance with their frames of women.

    I understand the need for the hostile work environment portion of sexual harassment laws. But the vagueness of the clause makes available the interpretation that legitimate discussion of social issues (not individuals), which hurts too many people’s feelings, constitutes harassment.

    We have a problem in social science that inheres intrinsically because of our subject matter — our ideas, which are about people, are thus exponentially more likely to offend people. But if we conflate legal guarantees against personal abuse with a guarantee of emotional security and unoffensive human science — we’re not going to have human science anymore.

    The greatest contributions to human science have necessarily involved severely offending people’s sense of themselves and their communities — from the preposterous suggestions of secular humanism in the early modern period, to a retelling of history that – gasp – included the systematic oppression of women, all the way down to the idea that family dynamics and education can be better understood if we compare children to refrigerators, to durable goods, and understand people’s human capital investments.

    By all means available, we need many more Patti Adlers in sociology.


  19. I don’t really buy the narrative that administrators jumped all over this, as an opportunity to restore legitimacy and establish a transparent case of hostile work environment over a 20 year period. There is a danger of making too much of this. Dealing with student complaints, saving money, protecting from lawsuits, and there is a human rights office creep that does happen. These are the dynamics I see. And perhaps some differences of opinion, personality and ideas inside the department that contributed to not handling this more smoothly, making sure students feel protected students from doing things they don’t want to do AND allowing free debate and faculty autonomy over the classroom. Perhaps there are some local dynamics that flow from this being the ward churchill incident university. I also don’t think faculty have a right to teach the classes they want every term….


    1. No, faculty don’t have a specific right to teach whatever they want. The issue is the reason they can be denied that privilege. Obviously if the department has other needs for what is to be taught, too many instructors for a given course, etc., there are appropriate curricular reasons. But that’s very different from being prevented from teaching a course because of the course’s intellectual style or content, which are clearly matters of intellectual freedom.


      1. Agreed Andrew.

        It feels to me that it is not unreasonable, given the complexity of this skit, the issue of pics, ensuring full awareness of not having to do the skit, ect, to ask a professor not to teach a class or a skit, until the details can be addressed.
        I saw somewhere the professor was willing to do the class without the skit.
        Maybe until these details could be worked out? I don’t know..

        This could be dealt with internally, and without threats of firing, and the like.
        Which do seem to have been made.

        So yes, agree.

        When the university gets heavy handed, and is dealing with content and style there are academic freedom issues involved.
        And there clearly are here…


  20. I think we should start a separate post/thread for a constructive discussion on “strategies for dealing with controversial material in the classroom” which I think a lot of us could contribute to. But that would only be productive if disentangled from the debate about the Adler case. We might also have an interesting thread about the good and bad ways administrators have responded to student complaints about inappropriate content or actions in the classroom.

    Tina’s post has a lot of good ideas about these two topics, and I have some of my own, but this thread has gone down the Adler path and not the more general path that would be useful to everyone who teaches.

    Maybe I’ll launch one or both myself in Jan if no one beats me to it.


  21. The Support Patti Facebook page is really delightful. These were the comments of an older CU alumn:

    “Here’s the difference in our times. In the 70s in that class we had real hookers from bunny ranch and we could ask them questions. Now you get a ‘skit’ about prostitutes and the PC police close the place down. Very lame generation, you guys should tear the bookstore down.”

    A question for olderwoman’s post: when does instruction become too real? The logic used to define harm in this instance is entirely arbitrary. There is no difference in kind, only in degree, if students were exposed to written material about prostitutes’ experiences. The very same harassment arguments could be made about emotional safety if students are “forced” to envision prostitution by reading stories about it in a class they voluntarily signed up for.


    1. The instruction probably isn’t “too real” when undergraduates with no experience with prostitution are asked to dress up and pretend like they do. And if you have any doubt that an undergrad might not feel comfortable coming up to a professor to talk about these issues, you might read back through this thread and ask, “would I, as an undergrad, want to face this?” The answer is most certainly “no.” Why? You have evidence from others in the discipline that your feelings would be called arbitrary, you would be accused of being part of some kind of police state, and told that your position failed to understand sociology (which you are being graded in) and somehow corrupting of the classroom experience. In short, if you feel uncomfortable not only is it your fault, but you’re a bad person. Some of rhetoric here really doesn’t suggest anything other than making it harder for an undergraduate to express their position.


      1. While I find myself more convinced by Neal than the alternative, I do think that there is a real opportunity for “offensive” to be an all-encompassing term that silences speech. Minority and marginalized speech is, frankly, more vulnerable to such use. Ideally, I would think the best option would be a thoughtful, dialogical process by which expressed concerns could be considered, exchanged, and evaluated: in which, that is, the expression of discomfort is the beginning, not the end, of the process.


  22. Ha. I’ve been called a lot of things, Andy, but I ain’t never been called The Alternative. ;)

    Look, I’ll reply to shakha’s and Neal’s comments with what I think is some candor and contrition. I’m sorry I hurt some feelings; I really do feel badly about that.

    And I’m not insensitive to the realities of victim blaming. I’ve been a victim myself: “Oh, I thought you wanted it. I really hope you don’t feel the need to talk to anyone about this — I could get in a lot of trouble.” I’ve counseled girl-friends through confronting their rapists: “bitch, if you press charges I’ma get a lawyer and sue your ass for defamation.” I had an invigorating conversation with a woman the other night who deals with actual harassment and abuse and macro-aggressions on the south side of Chicago for a rape advocacy organization. Chicago detectives have a nasty, unpunished habit of interrogating victims until they cry (and coercing sex from prostitutes by letting them go without charges in exchange for blow jobs).

    But harms must be quantified; accusations have consequences; what’s more and less needs to be quantified. We give the accused, or should at least, a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. We investigate claims. That unavoidably involves questioning the motives and material justifications of accusations themselves. It’s simply not the case that in order to avoid Type I errors, we ought to assume every complainant is wholly accurate and leverage the full force of any and all institutional resources to pursue great injustices and the lock down of liberties of the accused.

    Indeed that’s how we get a tyranny of the second kind — a tyranny of the minority. If we encourage vague definitions of harassment in order to throw a wide net and catch all cases, false positives be damned, minority interests in the academy have and will abuse the opportunity to use institutional force to move academic conversations in their preferred direction. This is, in my opinion, the trouble with a politics that privileges the liberty of minorities over equality before law — or in this case, equality before institutional universals — academic freedom.

    Even *if* there were uncomfortable undergraduates, which it’s not at all clear there were considering administration waited several weeks after a graduate student spoke on “their behalf” whence no one came forward, said undergraduates possessed an unbelievable amount of (academic) freedom to write or speak with Patti before sending a graduate TA to file harassment complaints.

    Sexual harassment policies were designed to protect women in the academy. There couldn’t a clearer opportunity to reevaluate how these policies are enacted when they ultimately end up abusing . . . a woman in the academy. Or as Mikaila linked above, when racial harassment policies end up abusing black people in the academy.


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