When the Classroom Becomes a Minefield

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Yesterday, my friend Dr. Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, tweeted that sometimes she wonders about “the vast, silent, unknown would-be networks of vulnerable students and scholars in academia who (a) have a harasser in common but who (b) don’t know that because harassers tend to choose & isolate victims serially and because we don’t talk about it.”

This hit me like a punch in the gut because she is right. As educators we don’t talk about it because we are afraid it will make us seem ineffectual, like bad teachers because we cannot control the classroom dynamic or inadequate professors because we cannot enthrall and stimulate our students. There is a pervasive culture of silence that allows the bullying and harassment to continue. Administrators are reluctant to take action because, after all, students are customers and the customer is always right. Schools, after all, rely on tuition funds to survive, and there is an endless supply of educators desperate enough for a paycheck that they will keep their mouths shut in order to keep their jobs.

But after my spring semester, I decided that if I didn’t speak up, nothing would change.

See, I was bullied repeatedly by the same group of students, and those with the power to support me did not defend me. In fact, some told me to acquiesce with the students’ demands. Luckily, as part of my school’s Diversity Committee, I was able to take action. One of the committee’s main goals is to develop a recruitment strategy in order to increase diversity and inclusivity on campus. However, recruiting diverse employees, faculty, and students is insufficient if we cannot retain them. This argument fueled a proposal we submitted to administration, spelling out the problem and suggesting solutions.

Academic Contrapower Harassment (ACPH) disproportionately affects and burdens women and minorities and occurs with increasing frequency. ACPH “occurs when someone with seemingly less power in an educational setting (e.g., a student) harasses someone more powerful (e.g., a professor)” [Ref]. ACPH can also adversely impact the already precarious situation of adjunct faculty, who often face the brunt of this behavior because of their contingent standing. I have spoken with colleagues at a wide variety of schools who have experienced ACPH but do not want to share their experiences for fear of retaliation or humiliation. They are also skeptical that speaking up will accomplish anything.

However, silence—either by faculty or by administration—signals that bullying is acceptable and effective in student-faculty relationships and allows it to continue. It also, as anyone who has experienced ACPH knows all too well, creates a hostile and unproductive classroom environment which does not encourage faculty retention, and it definitely destroys morale. It also affects the educational experience of other students in the classroom.

Addressing such misconduct is our duty as an educators. Students must learn that breaches of professional and institutional protocol have consequences. We are failing our students by ignoring acts which are gratuitously aggressive rather than civil and productive. We are failing our colleagues by not providing meaningful ways to address ACPH in the classroom. We are contradicting our claims of desiring diversity and jeopardizing our commitment to anti-discrimination.

Incidents of ACPHs have become more frequent, just as incivility has become more socially tolerated. Given such acts are frequently invisible to those who are not female or POC, and thus historically not the victims of ACPH, it is important to assess how we can make our campuses more open to productive debate, more supportive to diverse faculty, and genuinely inclusive in the long term, not just during the hiring process.

In an article about teaching in the age of Covid, Jackie Mallon writes that “Students face the daily challenge of separating fact from fiction in this era of disinformation. Performative outrage and virtue signaling are all over our social media feeds. Shaming is in vogue, nuance is no longer valued, and the noticeable rise in mob behavior on both the left and the right can’t fail but find its way into the classroom. This stomps out constructive dialogue, something upon which the creative industries and indeed third level education have traditionally thrived. Collectively students are immensely powerful as a force for change but when that power is misdirected, as many professors know, it can turn to bullying. Suddenly faculty and student body are opponents. Add to this the fact that schools are in an almost permanent emergency mindset of damage control and you have an academia in crisis.”

Professor Chavella Pittman, in an article for Inside Higher Ed points out that teaching “is a veritable minefield” that is taking its toll on minority faculty and, “if left unaddressed by institutions, has retention consequences.” In an article published by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, Diana B. Kardia and Mary C. Wright report their findings detailing how “teaching challenges are enacted along gendered and racial/ethnic lines in ways that significantly alter the teaching experience for women faculty and faculty of color.” Kardia and Wright discuss frequent dismissals of complaints of harassment by colleagues and administrators, denial or ignorance of the efforts required by minority faculty to establish authority, a lack of awareness by male colleagues of these struggles, and higher frustration with departmental dynamics for female/POC faculty. They conclude by emphasizing that “female faculty and faculty of color face unique challenges in the classroom,” challenges not typically recognized by their colleagues.

In another article by Pittman, published in the journal Teaching Sociology, she documents how male students in particular challenge the authority, teaching competency, and scholarly expertise of women faculty of color, “as well as offering subtle and not so subtle threats to their persons and their careers.”

Pittman quotes various women faculty of color describing difficulties related to their classroom experiences; one thread that comes up often is the concern that, as one faculty member describes, “the day will come when, whatever skills I have, I’m in a situation where if I want help, just what am I supposed to do?” If faculty members’ authority is being questioned in the classroom, the absence of institutional support serves to reinforce the students’ perception that their female/POC professor is an easy target, leading to a downward spiral of outcomes—professional, educational, and legal—rather than a learning experience that could benefit all.

In an article entitled “Stressing Out: Connecting Race, Gender, and Stress with Faculty Productivity” for the Journal of Higher Education, M. Kevin Eagan and Jason C. Garvey describe how hindrance stressors, including interpersonal conflict, resource inadequacy, discrimination, and hostile climates, “reduce job performance due to greater cognitive demand that detracts from workers’ focus and concentration.” Women are twice as likely to report some or extensive stress due to subtle discrimination, and Black faculty are 2.5 times as likely as their white colleagues to report this kind of stress.

In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alicia Andrzejewski details her own experiences being bullied and harassed in the classroom and the ensuing lack of support from her superiors, or, as she puts it, “coming up against administrative walls over and over.” She also quotes Sara Ahmed, from her book Complaint!, on harassment and bullying in higher education: “making a complaint is never completed by a single action: It often requires you do more and more work. It is exhausting, especially given that what you complain about is already exhausting.” In my particular case, the bullying made me contemplate giving up teaching. It made me physically ill. It required me to begin trauma therapy. And dealing with it most definitely consumed the entirety of the spring semester and my summer.

Andrzejewski writes that, when writing her essay, she looked up the verb “to harass” and found that it involves a process of “using up and wearing out.” Andrzejewski contines that “to harass is to tire, to exhaust through repeated attacks. One of the lesser-known definitions of harass is ‘to scrape,’ suggesting small, repeated acts of violence that add up to deeper wounds.” Everyone she interviewed for the piece, she says, “described this process, no matter the severity of the harassment they had faced. A kind of wearing away.”

How can we rectify this? The establishment of a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior could go a long way. These behaviors typically include inappropriately challenging BIPOC and female faculty members’ institutional authority and questioning their expertise, as well as various forms of threats and harassment. In order to do this, however, we must all speak up. We must rock the boat. Even I am hesitant as I type this. What will the repercussions be? But I remind myself that change never happens as a result of silence.