How wrong I was.
I should apologise, at this point, for turning a horrific and brutal attack against a young woman into something all about me. However, I want to address the belittling of male aggression and violence, and women’s experiences of misogyny, in academia by sharing my story because I am convinced that through speaking out we can make things better.
Also, in case you missed it, I am angry.
During my first seminar teaching on a module one male student arrived late. He had not watched the set film or looked at the set reading. With hindsight, I should have asked him to leave, but I’m not keen on excluding people without knowing their circumstances. The student, who I had not met before, sat next to me and tried to make conversation on various topics while the rest of the class carried out exercises.
Eventually, during a class discussion, the student interjected. He insisted on talking about minstrelsy in 30s America, which he was unable to link back to the class topic. He began making irrelevant and factually wrong claims about Irish slavery (for a brilliant dissection of the racism embedded in myths about white slavery, see Liam Hogan's blog) and was denying the history of racism against black people in the United States. Throughout his racist monologue, I politely asked that he rethink his position, that he reconsider his approach, that he be more critical of sources, and that he reframe his argument. Anything other than being accused of ‘shutting down’ a student, because I know how that plays out with management in an institutional culture motivated by student feedback scores (TEF, eat your heart out).
Shaken by the exchange, during which the student was incredibly disrespectful, I continued teaching. Then, during another group activity, the student began raising his voice at his classmates. When I intervened, he became increasingly aggressive, demanding that he be allowed to continue his one-man show. At this point, I snapped. I told him he could speak to me in office hours and I would recommend literature to help him better understand the problems with his argument (his response: ‘I could recommend some stuff for you to read’). I told him he would not be allowed any more time to speak in the class and that his derailment ended there.
At this point, I was worried. I’ve experienced enough violence and aggression at the hands of men to know when it’s coming my way. How? It’s a feeling. Of course it’s a ‘feeling’. I’m a woman. We haven’t yet invented a language that enables us to describe situations like this without using the syntax of emotion. Men like it that way.
Sure enough, the student proceeded to stalk me across campus, walking right behind me and never attempting to speak to me. I was immensely grateful to another student who walked with me back to my office and made me feel safer (and to the many students from the class who wrote to me or passed on messages of support afterward). Within half an hour, the aggressive student wrote me an email that was roughly 700-800 words in length that attacked me over again and made a veiled threat to report me for my behaviour towards him. Shaken and scared to see the student again on campus—yes, this kind of encounter is a massive trigger for me and brings up all kinds of issues beyond my immediate safety—I reported the incident to senior colleagues.
My colleagues, mostly women, some men, were wonderful. I got total support from them and they gave up an enormous amount of time to listen to what I had to say and consider how to address the problem. If anything, being new to the department, the incident brought me closer to many people whom I know regard as good friends. Having a close network of brilliant women got me through the weekends spent crying later on in the saga. Because my manager got wind of the report and that’s when things got worse.
My manager decided he should be solely responsible for dealing with the student. To start things off, he invited me to his office where he mansplained me about how to deal with aggressive male students (basically everything about my teaching, not the student, was wrong). He implied I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to deal with smart men in the classroom. He told me I should arrange to have a colleague PICK ME UP FROM CLASSES to ensure I felt safe on campus. He also said the only issue he could see with the student’s behaviour was his ‘disrespect’ for me. Because the student HADN’T SAID ANYTHING RACIST. No, definitely not. There was nothing troubling about his attitude to race. And of course, the WHITE PROFESSOR should know – he has a poster outside his door all about micro-aggressions and racism.
During the meeting he did not take notes. Following the meeting, I sent a full written report to him and told him that I was unhappy with his response thus far. I was being victim-blamed and made to alter my behaviour. Racism was something that had to be addressed.
Following my manager's meeting with the student, I received an email from a senior colleague saying that she would be observing my next seminar with the class. Not asking: telling. When I asked why, she said she didn’t know and to speak to my manager. I wrote to him asking what the outcome of the student meeting was and why my class was being observed. I explained that I felt I was being treated as though I had done something wrong. I asked for an explanation THREE TIMES by email. Each time he refused to clarify the situation because he didn’t want to put anything in writing. He set up another meeting with me and eventually told me ‘not to worry’. Yeah right. I spent two weeks tearing my hair out with anxiety.
In an attempt to find out more about my position I wrote to HR and gave them all the details. I explained that I felt unsupported and victim-blamed. HR didn’t respond to my concerns other than to tell me my manager had already invited them to the forthcoming meeting – so I was being ambushed. I spoke briefly to a union rep, however was told by others not to take the union to the meeting because that would ‘make things worse’. My head of department kindly agreed to attend in support.
At the meeting, I felt bullied into dropping the matter. HR and my manager repeatedly told me that making a formal complaint would be time consuming, require further formal statements, and might make things worse for the student. As my manager so eloquently reminded me, it was, after all, my behaviour that was the issue; ‘the student won’t come to class any more because he has a problem with you.’ Well, I figured that much. Yet despite me being the problem and the student just being ‘bright’ and not liking authoritative women, I had to have a teaching observation during my next class to ensure my safety. Even though I was safe because the student wasn’t really threatening. Even though it was all down to me.
Did I mention my manager lied twice during that meeting? He claimed he didn’t know the student had stalked me across campus (it was in the written report I sent him that he acknowledged by return email). He also claimed he didn’t know about other students showing support for me – or perhaps he conveniently forgot, given that he didn’t bother taking notes. Did I also mention that during all of this someone suggested I should go easy on the student because they had mental health issues? Of course, I was too scared to mention my own mental health issues—anxiety that is often brought on by aggressive behaviour—to such totally unsympathetic superiors. And, once again, there’s a dangerous narrative emerging that mental health problems excuse, or are synonymous with, violence in men, which undermines every person suffering mental health issues and creates damaging stereotypes.
So that’s my story. I was harassed by a misogynistic and racist student who faced no consequences for his actions because my manager ultimately ignored my complaint and covered the whole thing up – why risk a dissatisfied student when an anxious lecturer will carry on as normal? In fact, I was in no uncertain terms made to feel like the culprit rather than the victim because, as Sara Ahmed so succinctly points out, BY SPEAKING OUT I BECAME THE PROBLEM. I upset the status quo and that was not OK. I was asking for action and I got none, because even in academia men will often act only when it’s in their interests and to protect their own. Acknowledging that the university had a problem with racism and sexism was too hard to bear. So the university, as represented by management and HR, instead colluded in racist and sexist discourse, telling all the students in that classroom that discriminatory and intimidating behaviour was ALRIGHT, NOTHING TO SEE HERE.
I wrote recently (see ‘No Place in Higher Education’ on this site) about the racist and sexist discussions I had been party to at a conference. I refer again to Sara Ahmed, who resigned from Goldsmith’s University because of allegations that the institution ignores and covers up reports of sexual harassment. I’m going to come full circle back to the University of Sussex, who claim that they have ‘supported’ Allison Smith and yet failed to sack Lee Salter after his conviction for his barbaric assault on her.
To all these institutions, and to the men who perpetuate fear and violence in universities against not just women, but people of colour, LGBT communities and the differently abled by saying nothing, doing nothing, bullying, covering up or even being the perpetrators: know that we will NOT BE SILENT. We will SPEAK OUT. We will MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE. And we will not stop until you understand that it is you, not us, who are the problem.
To protect the student’s identity I have not included any details about the modules or levels that I was teaching.