plain-language harassment policy

My university’s sexual harassment and consensual relations policies are written in bureaucratic legalese. Here’s my attempt to create a departmental plain-language statement. Comments appreciated.

The plain language version of our policy is: Don’t date your students, and don’t try to date your students. There are no conditions under which it is acceptable for you to date a student in your class. This includes cases where the student takes the initiative: if a student asks you on a date, or makes romantic overtures to you, you must decline. Moreover, even if you imagine that your interest is entirely friendly and non-sexual, you must not initiate particularistic social relationships with students in your own classes. You should understand that when you undertake the role of instructor, you are entering a hierarchical relationship. Actions that would be acceptable among peers can be problematic and even illegal in a hierarchical relationship. Attempting to create a social relationship may impose a burden on the student of implicit coercion: they may worry that they cannot say no. Further, particularistic social relations with some students creates an environment of favoritism, in which students may justly worry that personal liking rather than academic performance is affecting their grades. You must not only treat everyone equally and fairly, you must give the appearance of treating everyone equally and fairly.  If you want to create a friendly relationship with students, you must treat them all equally. If you see someone in the class you would like to get to know better on an individual basis, you must wait until the semester is over and grades have been submitted before initiating contact.

It can happen that you already have a particularistic relationship with a student who is enrolled in your class. It may be a cousin, someone you know from a political or social group, a member of your church, someone you have previously established a friendship with. If this relationship is romantic or sexual (or could be seen as such), by campus policy you MUST notify your supervisor and make arrangements for alternate supervisory relations. There is no absolute prohibition against grading someone you are related to or have a non-sexual personal relationship with, but if you do find yourself in this situation, you should consult with your supervisor to discuss the degree of relationship, your feelings about whether you can be objective (including the social consequences that could ensue from giving the person a low grade), and work to devise a plan that ensures academic integrity and avoids any appearance of favoritism.

Personal remarks can be considered demeaning or harassing, even when they are meant to be friendly. In general, you should avoid all personal remarks about your students’ physical appearance or attire. You should be aware that many women object to any remarks about their appearance from men who have authority over them, and personal remarks about body types (e.g. tall, short, fat, thin) are likely to be heard as offensive by their targets regardless of gender. Many people, especially women, also object to being told to smile or be friendly.

You should also generally avoid personal remarks that are linked to a particular person’s gender, class or race/ethnicity/nationality or to remarks that imply that you are stereotyping someone, especially in the classroom. (For example, Black male students resent the assumption that they are athletes, Asian students resent the assumption that they are good at math.) Of course, there are contexts in which acknowledging a person’s gender or race/ethnicity is part of treating them as a whole person, and in one-on-one conversations, asking people questions about their identities or discussing how they affect their experiences as a student can be both  appropriate and supportive.

It is also worth noting that general discussions of gender, class, race, ethnicity, or nationality are common in sociology classes and need to take place, but can still feel threatening to the students, especially students who feel they are a minority in the classroom or who feel that they disagree with the instructor. One of the important jobs of an instructor is to learn to teach such material with honesty and sociological depth while still respecting the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of students in the classroom.

You should avoid sex talk and sexual innuendo in a classroom setting unless sex itself is the topic of instruction, in which case you have hopefully previously created an appropriate context for this discussion.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

7 thoughts on “plain-language harassment policy”

  1. 1. The statement justifies required avoidance of stereotypes based on universal assertions about what black male students and Asian students resent.

    2. Stylistically, it might be better to organize the statement with headings or a better flow between sections. I’d put the dating students part last because that part should be less relevant for the median academic, compared to personal remarks about students. Also, it might be a good idea to have an introductory paragraph outlining the goals and/or principles that inform the policies.

    3. The statement is light on penalties for violating the policies, but the statement claims that “actions that would be acceptable among peers can be problematic and even illegal in a hierarchical relationship.” If there are such actions that can result in legal trouble for academics, then these actions should be described or referenced.

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    1. Thanks for the editorial comments. Re dating students, you’d be surprised. But perhaps you are not remembering that many instructors are graduate students who are only a couple years older than the undergrads they are teaching. Re penalties, yeah I’m just trying to spell out what is ok and not ok, and why. Setting norms, not describing the penalties for breaking them, which actually vary widely depending on circumstances and seem to be a moving target right now.

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  2. This sentence in the second paragraph seems problematic: “If you see someone in the class you would like to get to know better on an individual basis, you must wait until the semester is over and grades have been submitted before initiating contact.” It almost seems like it suggests a strategy for capitalizing on one’s position. That is, the instructor could spend the entire semester trying to get the student to like him/her–and giving good grades–in anticipation of approaching the student as soon as grades are turned in. I don’t think the power dynamic goes away when the semester comes to an end–especially for a graduate student or for an undergraduate student who is in the instructor’s discipline. An instructor can still influence outcomes for the student outside of a classroom situation (e.g., discussions with peers, recommendations for fellowships, departmental awards, etc.

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  3. I imagine that someone like Laura Kipnis would argue that as long as an instructor can’t use tangible pressures – i.e., as long as the student is not “your” student – these are matters of the heart.
    Still, I share Rory’s reservations about the “wait until the semester is over” rule. I don’t mean to go all psychoanalytic here, but the more important aspect of the “power dynamic” may be not grades and other crude tools of inducement, but transference.
    A long time ago, when I was a grad student, I knew some of the junior faculty who taught sections of a “group dynamics” course. These sections were run like what was then called a “T-group,” with the instructor as a non-directive, therapist-like leader. This set-up was almost guaranteed to elicit strong feelings, especially towards the instructor.
    One of these instructors was known for having affairs with undergraduates. “You can’t do anything while they’re in your group, but then the next semester, you can give them an Independent Study . . . .” (I didn’t directly hear him say this. Another instructor in the course mentioned it to me, but I believe it was accurate.) He probably could have gotten along without the independent study ploy. To paraphrase Rory, transference doesn’t come to a sudden stop at the end of the semester. Legit under the rules, but still creepy. What can you do?

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    1. Well by our campus policy, an independent study would ALSO be a supervisory relationship. Offering an independent study to someone you are involved with is, I’d say, not only close to but well over the quid pro quo line, which is manifestly illegal as well as unethical. But again, I’m impressed that it is the older men who are calling out the problems with the idea that waiting until the semester is over is an OK policy. Upon reflection, I think you are right that using your class as a hunting ground is just all wrong in too many ways. That is really different from meeting a student at a bar or party and getting involved that way.

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