Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contrapower harassment in academia

This afternoon I was talking with a colleague about a problem in academic work that rarely gets discussed: the personal harassment of professors and teaching assistants by students. Now, I think it's a difficult topic to broach for two related reasons: "personal harassment" is difficult to define, and what definitions we do have of harassment are often predicated on the assumption that 'superiors' cannot be harassed by subordinates or 'inferiors.' In other words, despite disagreement on what actions or events actually constitute harassment, in academia it is almost always considered an abuse of power. This means that if an instructor claims he has been personally harassed by a student people respond with vague suspicion and questions like "Doesn't a student have to have power to do that?" - or with vague mockery and questions like "How can a professor lack the power to stop it?"

But isn't power more complex than that?

When I got home I looked up Carleton's Discrimination and Harassment Policies and found that, like most workplaces in Canada, they only address human rights violations.

"The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits harassment related to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability, pardoned conviction, or sexual orientation. Disrespectful behaviour, commonly known as 'personal' harassment is not covered by human rights legislation. While it also involves unwelcome behaviour that demeans or embarrasses an employee, the behaviour is not based on one of the prohibited grounds named above."

Most research describes personal harassment as workplace bullying, and "disrespectful behaviour" may just be a polite Canadian way to describe the assholes we all work with. But did you know that workplace bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment, and that less than 15% of workplace bullies are punished? More insidious still may be the psychological or emotional effect over time. As Robert Sutton explains, one of the main problems with workplace (and I'd say all) bullies is that "their uncivilized interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions — five times the punch, according to recent research ... It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole." In other words, it's hard to do good work in a hostile environment.

Returning to the university context, workplace harassment is possible between colleagues, and between faculty or staff and students. Student harassment of professors, or any harassment by subordinates, has been referred to by researchers as contrapower harassment. Apparently it happens most often to women, even more often to women of colour, and it is not only males who do the harassing. Matters of age and class only compound these issues, not least because they increase the number of socially and professionally subordinate positions that can be used to encourage or justify harassment. While sexual harassment garners the most attention, most contrapower harassment occurs in more subtle ways--it can include everything from being consistently dismissed or ignored to verbal abuse and overt threats. At the institutional level, anonymous teaching evaluations regularly provide students the opportunity to make accusations that have real (i.e. professional) impact but that never need to be supported, and cannot be verified. Private meetings also offer students the opportunity to say and do things that can easily be denied.

My own experiences of contrapower harassment at Carleton have ranged from (rare) sexual advances by male students to (quite common) encounters with hostile students, both female and male. In fact, I have never returned marked assignments without at least one student becoming so agitated that I have had to end the conversation. I've had students here crumple up their paper and throw it at me, yell at me, call me a bitch, accuse me of setting them up to fail, and threaten to report me to the chair or dean. But most simply demanded, not requested, better marks--as if good grades are a right and not something that is earned--and then became aggressive when I did not accommodate them.

Are these students assholes, mean or just lacking maturity? Are these behaviours part of Carleton students' habitus--and if so, what is it about the structure of education here that encourages these attitudes? If it isn't just a problem here, but also at other universities, then is it a problem with higher education or is it better connected to broader societal shifts?

Update 30.01.08: Since posting this, I've received over a dozen email about this problem from faculty across North America - including stories that make my experiences pale. Ed Bilodeau's thoughtful blog response takes a closer look at why the problem persists, including an unwillingness or inability to discuss the issues publicly. I can certainly appreciate this, but I also try to remember that silence begets approval.

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Blogger Soccer Womyn said...

Hey Ann!

A friend who taught highscholl in vermont had his house egged, and he has been threatened by parents with their lawyers if their kids do not pass, irrespective of whether or not bobby did any work or completed any assignments. It is a culture of entitlement! It is ubiquitous.

Anonymous rocketboytom said...

Maybe it's an Ottawa thing. I have TA'ed at Ottawa U and now stick to RA work because I have found the student attitudes very difficult. I have seen students pressure a sessional into quitting and another into calling campus security. I'm not sure what it is, but there seems to be this sense of entitlement that particularly extends to grades. Just paying tuition doesn’t get you A's but some students seem to think it does. I don't really see why I deserve to be yelled at for giving an A- anyway!

Anonymous Catface said...

The commoditization of higher education leads to the inevitable sense of entitlement. It basically comes down to students believing that by paying to study, they are paying for a degree -- not paying for an OPPORTUNITY to EARN a degree through hard work and strong ability. The level of commoditization has reached the point where not only do students feel that they have paid for a degree, but that they have paid for A's. The ONLY way around this is to nationalize all educational institutions, put in place free tuition for all, and then things will revert to the way they once were in England, for example, where standards were nearly uniformly high and students treated profs with a modicum of respect.

Blogger Jean-Louis Trudel said...

Hey, you do know about RYS? Reading it can be a nice outlet...

I don't think it's an Ottawa thing. I've taught a dozen courses over the last two and a half years at U of O, and I can't recall more than two or three instances where I felt the students were close to the edge. (Though I could tell stories about different kinds of cases...) Of course, I'm a man, though not particularly big, and visibly older, but it might be worth considering other factors.

Many of my students are engineers who are unused to the humanities, but who are used to tough marking. Many are also taking my class as a degree requirement. That might make them more reasonable. I've also made most work as objective as possible to avoid arguments. I'm also willing to talk things out, argue, yield on a minor point, but define clearly what is non-negotiable. I'd have more to say, but, hmmm, perhaps privately...

I do think a sense of entitlement is a factor, and, frankly, I find the current level of student fees quite excessive. I also teach in Québec, though not as often, and I haven't been faced with the same personally intense animus. (Though the classes can be difficult in different ways : I'm at a university where profs have to negotiate the syllabus with the students...)

Anonymous Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

Bullying of Academics in Higher Education - The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public. Despite the anti-bullying policies (often token), bullying is rife across campuses, and the victims (targets) often pay a heavy price. "Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence." Leonardo da Vinci - "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing." Winston Churchill.


OpenID epweissengruber said...

Do you have any stats on the kind of harrasment (of a criminal, not civil kind) university teachers face? The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation did some research: #1 harrassers are other teachers, #2 is parents, #3 is students

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