Wednesday, July 14, 2010

 

When Students are Homophobic

This happens about once a year, even here in blue-state land.

A student shows up to complain that his professor is gay, and that s/he is “trying to convert everybody.” When I ask for specifics, the student quickly shifts gears to clarify that “I don't care what you do at home, but you shouldn't wave it around in my face.” Seeing a complete lack of response, the student then asserts victimhood, alleging that the professor won't give a fair shake to students who don't agree with her.

I've tried a number of different responses over the years, with varying degrees of success.

There's the basic “well, you know, we don't discriminate. If you have a concern with the professor, you should talk to her directly.” There's a certain legal clarity to that, but it doesn't seem to defuse the anger. Since it essentially replaces one accusation with another, it doesn't do much to build trust.

Then there's the “Columbo” approach. “Help me understand. How, exactly, is she trying to convert you?” This works a little better, since frequently “efforts to convert” amount to little more than “acknowledging the existence of gay people in the historical record.” When I've allowed students to try to piece together a bill of particulars, I've seen them slowly retreat in embarrassment when they realize that there's really nothing there. Sometimes it's nothing more than a short haircut on a woman. (I'm also struck at how frequently the accusations are false, but that's another post altogether.)

Once I even decided to roll with the absurdity to see what would happen. “What solution do you propose? Should I write a note to the professor asking her to stop being gay? Would that help?” The student's eyes were the size of dinner plates for a moment before he backed down, even laughing a little at himself. In retrospect, this approach probably assumed a little more common cultural ground than was wise, and I haven't tried it again, but it worked pretty well the one time I used it. I don't recommend it, given the potential for ruinous misunderstanding, but it made a hell of a teachable moment.

Lately I've been experimenting with the “put it in writing” approach. It's only fair, I explain, that a professor being complained about has the right to respond. Please write out your complaint, being as specific as possible, and we'll go from there. So far nobody has actually taken me up on that.

As silly as the complaints are, though, they inadvertently raise a real issue. Most of our discrimination procedures and policies are based on the idea that bias occurs between peers, or from the top down. Those are both real, of course, and they need to be addressed. But bias from the bottom up exists in a weird nether zone.

At some level, of course, students have always complained about professors, and always will. There's a certain degree of gossip and static that simply goes with the job, and a certain thickness of skin that any authority figure – in the classroom, the professor is clearly the authority figure – has to have. The student grapevine is real, and inevitable, and even healthy to some degree. But to me, there's a difference between students in a class blowing off steam together and a student complaining to a dean. The former is a cost of doing business, but the latter is serious.

In my cultural studies days, I learned that discrimination was really about power. But in these cases, the bias is among the disempowered. That doesn't make it any less real, but it does put many of our policies in an odd light.

I've read that student bias frequently surfaces in course evaluations, where students will punish non-traditional gender performance. Alpha males and nurturing females do well; nurturing males and alpha females get punished. But this is both more specific and more severe than that. There's a difference between 'liking someone a little less than someone else' and 'going to her boss to get her fired.'

(For the record, no, nobody gets called on the carpet here for 'suspicion of gayness.' I recognize that there may be regional variation in this.)

It has also occurred to me to wonder if I get more of these complaints since I look 'safe' -- a straightlaced, short-haired white guy. There's no real way of knowing, but I've been discomforted by some of the assumptions the complainers exhibited when they tried to bond with me.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or do you have a suggestion for) a more graceful way to handle the next student who takes grave offense at a visibly (or apparently) gay professor?

Comments:
I have a slight twist on this story; I had a student in an ethics class who came in loaded for bear w/r/t homosexuality, who used "faggot" in a formal paper, cited to all kinds of insane "opinion" sites on the internet that were white text on a black background with pictures of Hitler and animated flames, who wrote quite earnestly about how "those people" whose sexual habits were "disgusting" are trying to turn other people gay, blah blah blah. Of course I didn't allow any of this, spoke to him repeatedly, gave him the option to resubmit papers, suggested he choose a different topic since homosexuality was obviously so charged for him that he was having difficulty doing good research and identifying strong arguments. (Which I suggest to all my students when we discuss the paper in class: That they select an issue for their major paper that they DON'T already have super-strong opinions about, so they don't have exactly this sort of thing happen.)

Well, his answer was to turn in a final paper loaded up with words like "faggot," and then, when he failed, to go to my dean and demand I be fired for discrimination against straight students and Republicans. (I'll note that I'm heterosexual, married, and at the time I taught this particular class, I was HUGELY pregnant.) Fortunately I'd documented and saved his papers, the dean agreed with my failing; so he went to the (very conservative) college president, who was totally alarmed that I was failing students based on their political beliefs ... until he read the student's papers and also agreed with my failing of the student.

So the student turned to a defamation campaign on the internet, saying truly disgusting things about me, which was particularly ugly since I'm a minor public figure. Some of it's gone, but he also created several accounts on Rate My Professor and repeatedly rated me as low as possible, posting about how I discriminated against gay students. RMP removes them all periodically, and then he comes back and does it again. It's probably still the first several ratings listed for me on RMP and it's been two or three years now. His defamatory web pages still come up nice and early in any googling of my name.

The whole thing was extremely upsetting. I frankly can't imagine what it would have been like dealing with this student if I had actually been gay, although I imagine my case for harassment would have been stronger and the college probably would have backed me up against his defamation and threats (which they told me to "just get over it" when he suggested sexual violence should be done against me, on the internet, while I was pregnant and full of hormones, because I loved gay people and therefore needed a cock. Only more vulgar; the college felt the only way to deal with it was to ignore it. Which on the one hand I sympathize with; feeding trolls makes them more frenzied. On the other hand, this was crossing the line into criminal).

The whole thing was enormously upsetting. Still is upsetting. And ... I think I'll be anonymous on this one.
 
Sorry, "posting about how I discriminated against gay students"

He was posting about how I discriminated against STRAIGHT students. Claiming absurd things like I failed every straight student in the class. And that I failed every Republican. Blah blah blah.
 
Anonymous, that looks like something that calls for a visit to a lawyer. Even anonymous web postings can be the cause for legal action. I've seen it done via a legal ad in the paper, where I suspect the next step after a default judgment would be taking a court order to the ISP(s) involved on the other side.
 
What are your organization's policies in handling any complaint - not just "suspicion of gayness"?

I suspect that your "put it in writing" is the best option. Most companies that I have worked for have this type of policy. It saves you time from having to talk with the complainer, keeps the complainer from changing his/her story, and helps to filter out unfounded complaints.

P.S. Dean Dad, I hope that your comment about "even here in blue-state land" isn't showing some sort of bias. What I mean is, I hope that you aren't making the assumption that there are more bigots in red-states and less in blue-states. From personal experience I have found the opposite to be true.
 
There's always the option of starting with assuming the student has a point, that is, ask: "how is he/she treating you compared to other students? Why do you think that is?" and "how would you like him/her to treat you?"

It's very difficult for professors to *not* let their opinions show, particularly on something like this. No matter how fair you try to be, the impulse to not give positive reinforcement to antisocial behavior is understandable and probably wise (mind, I view homophobia as much more antisocial than, say, arson).

But then, I don't suppose there's any diplomatic way a dean can say 'yeah, I think you aren't going to get a fair shake, and I wouldn't give you a fair shake either, you dumb bunny'.
 

P.S. Dean Dad, I hope that your comment about "even here in blue-state land" isn't showing some sort of bias. What I mean is, I hope that you aren't making the assumption that there are more bigots in red-states and less in blue-states. From personal experience I have found the opposite to be true.


Umm--not to put too fine a point on it, but there are in fact more bigoted people in "red" states than "blue" ones. There is a mountain of social science data that demonstrates this. It's great that you've met less bigoted people in the red states, but your anecdotal experience does not reflect the general pattern of overt prejudice and discrimination in our society.
 
P.S. Dean Dad, I hope that your comment about "even here in blue-state land" isn't showing some sort of bias. What I mean is, I hope that you aren't making the assumption that there are more bigots in red-states and less in blue-states. From personal experience I have found the opposite to be true.

Well hey, as long as we're treating anecdotes as data, I'd like to assert that my own experience was precisely the opposite of your experience.
 
I disagree that "in these cases, the bias is among the disempowered."

Every time I've heard a student talking about going to a dean with a complaint about a professor, the student has assumed that simply by telling the dean their story, they can get the professor reprimanded or fired. I have been listening to a lot of students recently, and there's a lot of "Go tell a dean. I bet that professor won't have a job much longer." This happens when professors allegedly behave really badly; it also happens when professors allegedly give midterms that include questions about topics covered in the readings but not discussed in class; it happens when students do not believe they are being treated with enough respect; and it happens when students don't think it's "professional" for a professor to shout at them after being dressed down, loudly, in the middle of class, for not living up to a student's expectation and providing hours of 1-on-1 tutoring on how to write a paper so as to get an A. So I don't think that students going to a dean perceive themselves as disempowered. If they didn't have the option of going to a dean, then sure, they would probably see themselves as being disempowered; but a dean has more power than a professor and the students I've been listening to recently seem quite confident that they can harness that power for their own uses.

To some extent I think this has always existed -- the idea that to be a professor one has to meet certain standards and that by reporting a failure to meet those standards to a dean, a student has the power to punish failure to meet the standards in question. To some extent I think it has to do with the recent shift toward understanding students as consumers -- the whole "I pay your salary, so you do what I tell you to do" dynamic is absolutely not one involving student disempowerment.

Second, as the first and second comments on this post illustrate, students who do not succeed in drawing down institutional ire against their faculty targets still have the power to be quite disruptive, to inflict quite a bit of harm on their targets, and to ensure that some of that harm is long-term.

Plus, as I understand them, anti-harassment policies that explicitly acknowledge that it is possible to harass one's peer or one's superior within the institution are one way institutions recognize that "bias among the disempowered" can be quite powerful. I've invoked an anti-harassment policy only once in my life: it was when a colleague, a man at the same level I was in a particular company, who was sometimes the only employee on site for 8 hours at a time, began to repeatedly threaten to rape me. As far as I can tell, his reasoning was that I would enjoy being raped so much that I would stop being gay and start wanting to have sex with men. He was bigger and stronger than I was, which he liked to demonstrate by grabbing me and holding me while I fought to get away from him. And he sometimes invited his friends to come early "to pick him up for work" so that he could stage his demonstrations for an audience. Once we got to that point I stopped trying to handle it on my own and filed a complaint that I was being sexually harassed. The company's response was that as neither of us was farther up the official hierarchy than the other, it was impossible for him to sexually harass me. My supervisor then informed me that my complaint showed that I wasn't "a team player" and that no man -- and I was the only woman who worked at that particular site at that particular time -- could ever possibly feel safe working alone with me again, and my hours were cut dramatically. I consider that a complete failure of the sexual harassment policy because the organizational chart is not the only determinant of who has power over whom -- and I think that my supervisor's response shows an awareness that the organizational chart is not the only determinant
 
I disagree that "in these cases, the bias is among the disempowered."

Every time I've heard a student talking about going to a dean with a complaint about a professor, the student has assumed that simply by telling the dean their story, they can get the professor reprimanded or fired. I have been listening to a lot of students recently, and there's a lot of "Go tell a dean. I bet that professor won't have a job much longer." This happens when professors allegedly behave really badly; it also happens when professors allegedly give midterms that include questions about topics covered in the readings but not discussed in class; it happens when students do not believe they are being treated with enough respect; and it happens when students don't think it's "professional" for a professor to shout at them after being dressed down, loudly, in the middle of class, for not living up to a student's expectation and providing hours of 1-on-1 tutoring on how to write a paper so as to get an A. So I don't think that students going to a dean perceive themselves as disempowered. If they didn't have the option of going to a dean, then sure, they would probably see themselves as being disempowered; but a dean has more power than a professor and the students I've been listening to recently seem quite confident that they can harness that power for their own uses.

To some extent I think this has always existed -- the idea that to be a professor one has to meet certain standards and that by reporting a failure to meet those standards to a dean, a student has the power to punish failure to meet the standards in question. To some extent I think it has to do with the recent shift toward understanding students as consumers -- the whole "I pay your salary, so you do what I tell you to do" dynamic is absolutely not one involving student disempowerment.

Second, as the first and second comments on this post illustrate, students who do not succeed in drawing down institutional ire against their faculty targets still have the power to be quite disruptive, to inflict quite a bit of harm on their targets, and to ensure that some of that harm is long-term.

Plus, as I understand them, anti-harassment policies that explicitly acknowledge that it is possible to harass one's peer or one's superior within the institution are one way institutions recognize that "bias among the disempowered" can be quite powerful. I've invoked an anti-harassment policy only once in my life: it was when a colleague, a man at the same level I was in a particular company, who was sometimes the only employee on site for 8 hours at a time, began to repeatedly threaten to rape me. As far as I can tell, his reasoning was that I would enjoy being raped so much that I would stop being gay and start wanting to have sex with men. He was bigger and stronger than I was, which he liked to demonstrate by grabbing me and holding me while I fought to get away from him. And he sometimes invited his friends to come early "to pick him up for work" so that he could stage his demonstrations for an audience. Once we got to that point I stopped trying to handle it on my own and filed a complaint that I was being sexually harassed. The company's response was that as neither of us was farther up the official hierarchy than the other, it was impossible for him to sexually harass me. My supervisor then informed me that my complaint showed that I wasn't "a team player" and that no man -- and I was the only woman who worked at that particular site at that particular time -- could ever possibly feel safe working alone with me again, and my hours were cut dramatically. I consider that a complete failure of the sexual harassment policy because the organizational chart is not the only determinant of who has power over whom -- and I think that my supervisor's response shows an awareness that the organizational chart is not the only determinant
 
"Umm--not to put too fine a point on it, but there are in fact more bigoted people in "red" states than "blue" ones. There is a mountain of social science data that demonstrates this."

I'm quite certain that this isn't the case. What you mean to say is that there is social science showing that there is more bigotry in red states than in blue states on the specific fronts that you care about.
 
As a gay adjunct, I gauge my audience as to my outness. Sometimes it never comes up. If anyone has ever complained, I'm not aware of it, and I have always told them to come to me first (easier just to work it out and placate the student if you're an adjunct - at most schools, if the administration knows who you are, it's never a good thing).

In one very liberal private liberal arts college years ago, it didn't come up until the last week, when we were doing an essay, I think, on homophobia (in the text edited by, among others, the department chair). A student made what was a mildly homophobic remark: "He [the essay's author] can't say he's discriminated against the way I am. I didn't choose to be black."

I replied, rather blandly. "I don't think Sullivan chose to be gay. I know I didn't; I was always gay."

He just said, "You're gay?"

I smiled. I think he thought I was going to really take out his comment on his final grade, but of course it didn't. I find that if anything, I bend over backwards to be lenient with papers with bigoted comments about gay people.

Usually the arguments are flawed, or there are other problems with the paper. I have never really received the kind of bigoted stuff the first commenter did ("faggot" - not even a long time ago) except on one paper where I basically went ballistic. But the bigotry was directed toward French Canadians. And I don't think at that point I'd ever met a French-Canadian! But it was so vile, it enraged me totally.

I think a lot of us are actually more forgiving of bigotry against groups that don't include us.

Back to my student, the weird thing was that all term, I'd assumed he was gay -- he was a dance major (!) in a program affiliated with a professional dance company named for its founder, a very prominent gay man. And there was another student, also black, in the same class, who I'm absolutely certain was gay.

I just viewed that as a teachable moment, and the student continued to say hi and smile when he saw me in his remaining years at the college.

I really don't see any reason to tell students I'm gay if it doesn't otherwise come up. If they google me, they will immediately see I'm gay. I don't tell them my religion, either, unless it comes up. Or my politics, either. I was really happy one day when I discovered my students thought I (a very liberal Democrat) was a conservative Republican. In a really liberal atmosphere, it's at least important to play devil's advocate (some students are secret conservatives and they need support, too).

As someone whose job security is most important, I do know that students you will always stop complaining if you give them an A.

But that's another issue, related to contingent faculty staffing and its discontents.
 
"I'm quite certain that this isn't the case."

I highly recommend you read The Authoritarians ( http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/). A couple of relevant selections based on decades of research:

"But social psychologists found long ago that people who are
prejudiced against one group are usually prejudiced against a whole lot more as well. Prejudice has little to do with the groups it targets, and a lot to do with the personality of the holder. Want to guess who has such wide-ranging prejudices? Authoritarian followers dislike so many kinds of people, I have called them “equal opportunity
bigots.” They will not win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics (we’ll find out who does in a later chapter), but high RWAs will definitely be on the podium.
...
Right-wing authoritarians are prejudiced compared to other people. That does not mean they think that Jews can’t be trusted at all, that all Black people are naturally violent, or that every Japanese is cruel. High RWAs may, as a group, even disagree with these blatantly racist statements. However they don’t disagree very much, while most people strongly or very strongly disagree. So authoritarian followers are relatively prejudiced, which means it would presumably take less persuasion or social pressure to get them to discriminate than it would most people.
...
this selective exposure is probably one of the reasons high RWAs do not realize how prejudiced they are “compared with most people.” If you spend a lot of time around rather
prejudiced people, you can easily think your own prejudices are normal.
...
Generally, the Social Dominance scale predicted such unfairness better than the RWA scale did, and
so gets the silver medal in the Prejudice Olympics over the bronze medal I awarded the RWA scale in chapter 1. Furthermore I found that these two scales could, between
them, explain most of the prejudice my subjects revealed against racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and so on.
...
Social dominators and high RWAs have several other things in common besides prejudice. They both tend to have conservative economic philosophies--although this
happens much more often among the dominators than it does among the “social conservatives”--and they both favor right-wing political parties."

The 'prejudice gold medal' he reveals later are the 'double highs' - the combination of RWA (Right Wing Authoritarian) and social dominator in the same person. All three of these types favor conservative political parties.
 
"it happens when students do not believe they are being treated with enough respect"

HA! I had a student who was utterly convinced she would get me fired for calling her "pink sweatshirt." I took over a colleague's class when that colleague could not finish the semester, and on the first day this young woman talked incessantly and, of course, having come in as an emergency employee with one day's warning, I had no idea who she was. Every time I talked, she talked. Finally I said, "Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me, Pink Sweatshirt?" Which got her attention and led to her throwing a fit in class that I was so disrespectful as to not know her name and to call her Pink Sweatshirt. I told her to simmer down and take it to the dean if she had that big a problem. Which she did, convinced she'd get me fired for disrespect. The dean said something like, "Don't wear pink sweatshirts if you don't want to get called pink sweatshirt," which sort-of made me dread what she MIGHT show up in! ("Fuck Authority T-shirt? Hey, Fuck Authority T-shirt, do you have that paper to turn in?")

Which is a very silly story compared to the seriousness of many stories here, stories that make me very sad. :(
 
first Anonymous here:

CCPhys, in retrospect, I should have spoken to a lawyer -- both about the student, and about the college's inadequate response. However, I gave birth a week or so after the semester ended, via surprise C-section, and then had a very difficult recovery combined with new parenthood. I was on maternity leave for the next semester, and by the time the issue came back on my radar, it was relatively stale and it was hard for me to get the energy up to cope with something that old, that ugly, and that had dropped to just periodic internet postings about how I was the worst professor in the world determined to fail all Republicans.

(You know, and the thing is, I rarely have this kind of problem with my students because I'm of the school that when you teach ethics, you're open with your students about your biases. If I feel strongly, I always say, "I feel strongly X about this issue, but thoughtful people can and do disagree. I'll try not to oversell the side I agree with!" My students learn early in my classroom that they are graded on their arguments, not on whether I agree with their arguments, and most of my students respect that and one of the most common comments I get on my teacher reviews is along the lines of, "I like that even though I really disagreed with her, she respected my point of view and was fair about it." This kid just had no concept of the difference between making an argument about something, and shouting "faggot" repeatedly at the top of his lungs and assuming that was an academic paper.)
 
"
"But social psychologists found long ago that people who are
prejudiced against one group are usually prejudiced against a whole lot more as well. Prejudice has little to do with the groups it targets, and a lot to do with the personality of the holder. Want to guess who has such wide-ranging prejudices? Authoritarian followers dislike so many kinds of people, I have called them “equal opportunity
bigots.” They will not win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics (we’ll find out who does in a later chapter), but high RWAs will definitely be on the podium."

Ah, yes, so people who are prejudiced against gun owners are more likely to be prejudiced in general?

No? Because prejudice against gun owners "doesn't count"?
 
.” They will not win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics (we’ll find out who does in a later chapter), but high RWAs will definitely be on the podium."

So that makes socialists in the UK academic sphere RWAs?

There is a large anti-israli/jew element in UK academia and the left. Calling for bans on israli academics visiting UK universities, unions calling for bans on israli imports.

How about the we know what's best for you and will enforce it by law if we can Fabians.

Authoritarianism and self righteousness aren't split on a left/right basis.
 
"Authoritarianism and self righteousness aren't split on a left/right basis."

No, they most certainly are, as is lying about it to oneself and on the internet.

It's interesting how quickly the "plantation" meme morphed into the "conservatives face discrimination from the evil black people and liberal enablers in power" meme. In both cases, the statement was pure projection.

Anyways, great example of how conservatives create poorly reasoned theses, then fail to comprehend the idea of supporting them -- then allege bias against conservatives in the folks who respond to them.

Conservatism is about hurting people and lying about it. Higher Education is always going to be biased against both of those priorities.
 
Anonymous 9:11 - you qualify for sexual harrassment under the "hostile environment" umbrella. You should have contacted an EOE lawyer - they would have helped you nail your employer to the wall. While your co-worker's behavior was not "traditional" sexual harrassment, your supervisor's behavior was. Retaliation is against the law.
 
I think being a gay is no longer an issue now a day... People are already open-minded when it comes to them even if he is a professor or whatever the profession or status in the society. For as long as you are not harming anybody I think respect is what you always deserve.
 
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