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Professor calling female students beautiful- is that bad?
June 1, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

A professor singled out a (blond, pretty) female student in a relatively small class and asked several male students and one female student to describe her beauty. The men were asked to describe her as though they were trying to tell a male friend how beautiful she is, while the woman was asked to describe her as though she was a family member. Should I register a complaint with the university?

This professor went on to single out almost every female in the room over the course of the class. He something about their beauty to each one (mixed in with what he was teaching), with the exception of an older-looking woman and an overweight woman. (And me. He ignored me almost completely, but I am not considering complaining because I feel hurt- I have had enough time to cool down. I expect he ignored me because I was making eye contact throughout the class and probably started looking pissed off after a bit.)

He also asked two of the women whether they cooked. He did not ask any of the men whether they cooked, nor did he talk about their physical beauty or ask other students to describe their looks. He did not call on the men unless they indicated they had a response, but he asked for responses from women and asked a few of the women to read out loud.

This was in an English class, by the way, and all the comments he made were somehow related to his lecture. The incident in the first paragraph was apparently a demonstration of descriptive language.

I'd like MeFi's opinion on this because of a few things: this was my first class with the professor, and I have already switched into a different class- I don't know if two hours of this nonsense is enough basis to make a complaint. The class did have more women than men- I think it was something like 5 guys to 10 girls. The professor brought up discrimination, specifically related to race (he's black, and from Nigeria) at one point, and towards the end of the class said that when he started teaching at the university, some girls from one of his classes reported him for calling them "ladies"; he said he explained to them that he uses the term to honor women, not insult them.

I don't know that any complaint I make will stay anonymous and I plan to major in English, so I don't want to get on any of the other teachers' grudge lists. If I stayed in the class I would have made these comments on the teacher/class evaluation sheet, but I've decided to switch out (different teacher, same class). No one complained during class and I don't know that anyone else will be complaining to the university. So, is he harmless and should I just forget it, or should I complain? Also, my mother suggested that I explain what happened to the professor of the class I switched into if she seems nice- to me that screams DANGER! but I suppose it's an option.
posted by Baethan to Education (75 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Harmless. Ignore it.
posted by unixrat at 12:24 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


His approach strikes me as somewhat culturally tone-deaf. However, you indicated that the man is from another culture so a certain degree of cultural tone-deafness is not unexpected.

I probably would have taken a different approach than he did, but nothing that he did strikes me as actionable or even all that objectionable.

You've switched out to a new teacher because you didn't like his approach; that seems reasonable. Anything beyond that, in the situation you describe, seems inappropriate.
posted by DWRoelands at 12:27 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Not harmless--the guy's an asshole. So now you know, and can avoid him.

But it probably doesn't fall under the university's sexual harassment guidelines. Which doesn't mean the guy wasn't an asshole.

Write up the incident on ratemyprofessor.com or some other similar venue, so that those who would prefer to avoid sexist assholes can have the information.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:27 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I would make notes about it - and then hold on to them.

Certainly sleep on it before you do anything. Also, you might want to finish the class before you do anything. And, you might want to give the prof. the benefit of the doubt before you get him in trouble - see how other classes go, what other students think.
posted by Flood at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's harmless, but I don't know that there's anything you can report at this point. I think you did the right thing by switching classes. It might be more productive to send the instructor a note letting him know why you left his class and how his examples made you and possible others in the class uncomfortable.
posted by Kimberly at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2009


Can you explain how the questions related to the material? And, what exactly is your complaint?
posted by iamkimiam at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Messed up. Report it.
posted by hazyjane at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2009


Not harmless.

Ignore it.

(Advice I'd rarely give, but since what you're describing seems inappropriate in ways that are a little hard to describe and since you don't know how the class will pan out AND since you probably don't need to spend time scaling the ivory tower with a complaint form in your teeth, it seems ok here.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2009


I don't think with a class size that small that you can complain anonymously. Unless you lie and stay your are still in the class.
posted by smackfu at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2009


Was it instructive? Could he have done it differently?
posted by P.o.B. at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2009


descriptive language

Sure, there are other ways to demonstrate descriptive language, but beauty is something everyone can understand and describe in a different way. He could have held up a book or an apple and asked people to describe that, but it's a pretty limited exercise.
posted by poppo at 12:33 PM on June 1, 2009


I dealt with an analogous situation as a grad student at XXXX Private Research University and had similar concerns about protecting myself from retaliation. I hope my experience will shed some light on what your options might be.

Different universities are differently equipped to handle issues related to sexual harassment and misconduct, and sometimes these overlap with departmental and divisional protocols for handing misconduct more generally. I'm not labeling your professor's behavior has harassment or misconduct, nor do I want to label what you experienced. However, what matters here is that this professor is behaving inappropriately and creating a hostile learning environment for his students -- so much so that one of them, namely you, has already transferred out of his class. That's enough to merit making a complaint.

What's critical is that you do this in a way that will not compromise your prospects in the department. And that's where your university's policies on sexual harassment come in. Your university want to nip issues like this in the bud, before this guy crosses a legal line and they find themselves with a lawsuit on their hands. Your mom is wrong: you should not bring this up with your new teacher. It's not their responsibility, they are not equipped to handle the information, and they may react badly or in a hostile fashion.

There should be a dean or assistant dean or ombudsperson who is designated by the institution to handle issues like this -- ask your RA or place a call to the dean's office. Ask if you can speak to them confidentially and informally. Give them the outline of the scenario as a hypothetical. Ask if you can insure that your name will not be leaked to anyone connected to the department. If they can't offer you a degree of assurance you are comfortable with, you don't have to proceed.

They will want to prevent this professor's behavior from escalating into something potentially more extreme that might merit a formal harassment complaint and a lawsuit. If you can tell them what happened, they can communicate their concern to his department head, who can have a heart-to-heart with this professor outlining what's inappropriate about his behavior and also making it clear that it's being noted and is considered unacceptable.

Good luck.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:33 PM on June 1, 2009 [14 favorites]


Oh, and write down word for word as much as you can remember about what happened ASAP.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:34 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


From your description, I would also be mad.

Is there an ombudsman that you can talk to, preferably in the department, but maybe for the university at large? The ombudsman would probably be another professor who (check this first) is required to maintain confidentiality and is there for consultation wrt gender/race/sexual harassment issues. Even if you decided not to pursue the complaint further, at least there would be some record of the incident if more students file complaints in the future.
posted by ecsh at 12:39 PM on June 1, 2009


I doubt your professor is aiming to offend people. Considering he's from a different culture, he may have no idea he's upsetting anyone unless someone talks to him about it. I second the notion to send him a note first.

The professor brought up discrimination, specifically related to race (he's black, and from Nigeria) at one point, and towards the end of the class said that when he started teaching at the university, some girls from one of his classes reported him for calling them "ladies"; he said he explained to them that he uses the term to honor women, not insult them.


This is a little confusing. Why did he bring up discrimination? Was it part of the lesson? If so, was it possible that his actions were meant to be demonstrations that he simply took too far? Or did someone already complain about the lesson, and his talk about discrimination was his explanation that he meant no harm?

Either way, someone has apparently already addressed him directly over a previous faux pas, and I'm going to guess he corrected it if he's telling you all about it now. Maybe this is one more lesson he needs.
posted by katillathehun at 12:40 PM on June 1, 2009


I was in a similar class and stayed because I needed the credit. I knew several of my female classmates well and we were all increasingly disgusted by the guy as class went on, but all were in the same boat as me. In addition to the department chair, HR, other professors, and any gender rights organizations on campus, see if you all have an Ombudsman. They stay in touch with the other people I mentioned on these sorts of things and would appreciate a FYI on someone, and can keep it anonymous.

Sadly I once watched an sexual harassment investigation on a college employee go from two people to well over 90 women. It is tolerated till someone speaks out. Anonymously is better than nothing. Frankly my alarm bells are going off. It sounds like he's been cautioned on this before and is trying to work around the past complaints. I wouldn't tip him off at all for fear he'd try to discredit you to preserve himself, even if you weren't a threat directly. Let the ombudsman know.
posted by jwells at 12:44 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've had this happen a number of times throughout my extended academic career. On one hand it can be very frustrating and once escalated to something I considered actual harassment, on the other, one has to take into account cultural and generational differences in how professors interact with their students.

In most of the cases I've seen, it's usually a very innocent and unintended offense. The professor is either from a culture that relates to the sexes differently, or they are much older and haven't thoroughly adapted to the times. Either way, I tend to avoid a confrontation unless it becomes blatantly hostile or truly offensive. Mainly because these sorts of things can really damage the career of both the reporter and the reportee, and because most of the time it's just an over-reaction on my part.

If I can't drop the class or it seems to happen more than once, I may mention it to the other students to see if they see the same thing as me. If they agree with me, I'll make mention of it to the Student Affairs department or the department chair. If the other students don't see it as an issue, then I'll most likely drop it.

In one case, I had an older professor who was from Germany and he continually made inappropriately sexual remarks in class. However, he'd been sued so many times that he started each class with the statement "I may say something that offends you. Please tell me. I'm old and unable to determine when I'm out of line. I will not punish you in any way, I will just try to do better." And he did. He'd almost always say something out of line once a week and we'd gently remind him that it was offensive and he'd apologize profusely and try to do better.

It's really difficult to know where to draw the line between someone who is harmless and clueless about their offensive comments and someone who is using it as excuse to get away with being a shit.
posted by teleri025 at 12:45 PM on June 1, 2009


I'm with foxy_hedgehog: Whether or not it crossed a particular line is not the issue. You left the class because of this event and that information should be useful to someone at the school, but it can only be useful if you give that information. I don't necessarily know if your taking such an action will have meaningful or observable results, however.
posted by odinsdream at 12:45 PM on June 1, 2009


This is totally inappropriate in an American university, and, I suspect, in many other places as well. It doesn't matter what it is (ie harassment or not), because it is inappropriate and probably made many women and at least a few men uncomfortable.

Someone needs to tell this professor to lay off. But that person is not you.

I nth trying to figure out if there's a university ombudsman or a women's center where you can speak with someone confidentially.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:47 PM on June 1, 2009


I dealt with this kind of situation. Because my undergrad department was small, I preferred to stay anonymous. I wrote a review on Ratemyprofessor.com (and these do get seen, trust me) and detailed my concerns in his end-of-class review, which gets stripped of identifying information, seen and typed up by the department head before he gets a chance to see it. That way, I felt sure that someone in charge was reading it. The nice thing about this is that you can plan out an eloquent statement, instead of writing a hot-headed letter that may go nowhere. You may not get closure from this, but it could help.
posted by theraflu at 12:48 PM on June 1, 2009


Was his behavior unbelievably culturally tone deaf? Yes. Uncouth and unprofessional? Yes. Should you get more involved? Probably not, but it's your choice. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, you have already exercised your best remedy, which is to get the hell out of the class. Second, as unprofessional as his behavior was, it was not illegal, and it's unlikely it was against university policy. Absolutely nothing is going to happen to this guy because of this. You do not want to go to other professors, or a department chair, or a dean if there's nothing to be done. They, by definition of the problem, can not help you and they probably already know what's going on with this guy.

Now having said that, as has already been stated several times, you can always register your dissatisfaction in person with your university's ombudsman. They'll probably ask you to write up your account of what happened. Your identity will be protected as much as the law allows. The ombudsman has no affiliation with your department and he/she reports directly to university administration. So, while they won't take action (because there's almost certainly no action to be taken), they will genuinely listen.
posted by mrmojoflying at 12:48 PM on June 1, 2009


Also, I noticed that you've left the class. If the review is the route you choose, you can still provide one despite leaving the course. At my school, you can still write a review at the end of the semester and turn it in directly to the department.
posted by theraflu at 12:50 PM on June 1, 2009


I would write a detailed and calm letter about what happened- no anger, no hyperbole- with as much context as possible. Don't mention yourself in it, or identify your own gender. Then create an anonymous email account and send the letter to the dean. That will keep your hands clean, and also help deal with the problem- which I agree sounds more like cultural tone-deafness than real malice, but should probably still be nipped in the bud.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:50 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you are friendly with one of the women that he singled out in the lecture, you might consider getting a read on whether they are upset by the behavior. The only good reason, I think, for you to get involved is if the people directly affected are afraid to lodge a complaint.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 12:50 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Your professor needs to learn not to insult or "honor" women, but to teach them English as he is paid to do.
You can help him; Foxy Hedgehog's advice sounds very good to me.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


I didn't think much about cultural differences because he says he's been in the US for twenty years, but true, maybe that's why.

As for the context of his questions- it was stuff like, he wanted a demonstration of descriptive language, so he asked two or three guys to describe the woman he picked, and pushed for more detail when they repeated what he had said- that she was beautiful. No one knew exactly what kind of description he was looking for, so he eventually wrote on the board "[Her name] is stunningly beautiful." He called on some of the women by saying things like, "the beautiful girl over there with her head down" until he learned their names. He came up with hypothetical situations: "you're dating that beautiful girl over there but your parents don't agree" and "I want to date that beautiful girl, [her name], but I'm not her father or she's already dating someone and I can't own her, so I make a persona or character of her that will satisfy me". That last example is completely true, and the moment after he said that was very awkward.

He went on a lot of tangents, often only vaguely linked with what we were talking about. I don't know why he was talking about discrimination, and his discussion of his use of "ladies" came out of nowhere (especially as I don't remember him ever using that term during the class).

My complaint: just that he doesn't seem to be acting the way a professor should. I've never had a teacher who made comments about his/her students' looks. My intention is not to get him fired, or even really to get him in trouble, but to have someone make sure that he knows that at least one student has been made uncomfortable by the way he teaches.

On preview: thanks for all your replies! I've been searching through the university website and there doesn't seem to be much information on this sort of thing, but I might send a not-very-specific email to the gender/sexuality equality to see if they deal with stuff like this or if they know who does.
posted by Baethan at 1:13 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really disagree with the posters who are discouraging the OP from doing anything since she is now out of harm's way, so to speak. Saucy Intruder, she has been "directly affected": she withdrew from the class due to this professor's behavior. The fact that she is no longer subject to further incidents doesn't neutralize his behavior or make it acceptable, and she shouldn't have had to switch classes to avoid it.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:16 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nthing contact the relevant ombudsperson. It is possible there is a department ombudsperson as well as a university one.

Even if you don't decide to take any of the actions the ombuds office presents, it is probably helpful for you to know what options are available, if only for future use.

Also, cultural tonedeafness or age are not really valid excuses for continued behavior, only for initial misunderstanding. However, if no one informs this guy he's out of line, how is he to know?
posted by nat at 1:16 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah he's Nigerian and has different standards but his standards should be what the school demands, not what he learned as a kid. I'd report him but not expect the school to do much unless it becomes an ongoing thing. That "honor" thing is BS btw.

Note: I'm a guy. I don't really get to tell you what you ought to do with regard to sexism.
posted by chairface at 1:19 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Second, as unprofessional as his behavior was, it was not illegal, and it's unlikely it was against university policy.

At the large university where I was recently a TA, all employees are required to take a sexual harassment training seminar that details exactly why this type of behavior is against the university's best interests and, further, against university policy. In fact, their "sexual and other harassment policy" states:
Actions, words, jokes, or comments based on an individual's gender [boldface mine], race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, veteran or family status, or any other legally protected characteristic will not be tolerated. Sexual harassment, for example, can occur in a variety of situations which share a common factor – the inappropriate introduction of sexual activities or comments in a situation where sex would otherwise be irrelevant.
This is a pretty standard university harassment policy, almost identical to the one at my undergraduate university and a community college where I was previously employed.

You did the right thing by switching out of the class--and you would be doing an even better thing if you listen to foxy_hedgehog's advice and approach the dean of students about this issue.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:20 PM on June 1, 2009


No one knew exactly what kind of description he was looking for, so he eventually wrote on the board "[Her name] is stunningly beautiful." He called on some of the women by saying things like, "the beautiful girl over there with her head down" until he learned their names. He came up with hypothetical situations: "you're dating that beautiful girl over there but your parents don't agree" and "I want to date that beautiful girl, [her name], but I'm not her father or she's already dating someone and I can't own her, so I make a persona or character of her that will satisfy me". That last example is completely true, and the moment after he said that was very awkward.

Very awkward and completely inappropriate. This sounds almost exactly like the examples of harassment and "hostile environment" defined in my university's sexual harassment training.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2009


Harmless. Ignore it.

wow, I guess i'm a radical feminist, but my only interpretation of what you said that made any sense was that he was deliberately attempting to provoke people or discussing something to make a point. But if that's not it, I don't see how this is harmless. I've known teachers who have talked about offensive things in order to illustrate something. If a teacher were to pick out black students and ask white students to describe their athletic prowess (and other blacks to describe their team value), but introduced this as an example of / discussion about racial stereotypes, that would mean something different than if he just did it as a way to get people to use adjectives.

But if he categorizes students according to his own stereotypes/ opinions, and then asks other students to use his metric, I find it hard to believe you're the only one being made uncomfortable. I can understand there's a cultural gap, but if he's going to teach in American universities, he has to be made more aware of it, so that he can do his best to correct for it.

It doesn't need to be a harsh complaint, and you could consider going to the department or even the professor himself rather than registering the complaint with the university (as things become more bureaucratic / hard to control once they're official) but I wouldn't just "ignore it".
posted by mdn at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I want to date that beautiful girl, [her name], but I'm not her father or she's already dating someone and I can't own her, so I make a persona or character of her that will satisfy me".

What. Um, I can't own her? I want to date her but I'm not her father??

I think you'll find that most of the women in the class (and probably quite a few men, too) were not happy with this. It was not a compliment, even though it was framed as one.

My instinct is that you (perhaps collectively -- many of the male and female students in the class) should talk to the professor about this, but I defer to the people up-thread who have more experience within universities.

It's a good, but unfortunate, lesson that your class is learning right now -- these types of things still happen sometimes, even in professional (and scholastic) settings. Ridiculous, but true. It's most successful when nobody speaks out against it, to anyone.
posted by Houstonian at 1:30 PM on June 1, 2009


In my experience, plenty of University professors challenge the rules about discrimination. Tenured faculty can get away with a lot, and some percentage of them, like any other population, are jackasses. You shouldn't have to leave a class because a professor treats male and female students so differently. In all your actions, be polite, neutral and factual. Write to all or some combination of the Dean of Students, Department Chair, Ombudsperson, Equal Opportunity officer. Then let the system deal with it.
posted by theora55 at 1:31 PM on June 1, 2009


The professor sounds like a nice man, with a convivial nature.

Let him be.

-
posted by General Tonic at 1:36 PM on June 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


I know another student who chose to champion a similar situation. Turned out later that the people the comments were directed two never took offense in the first place and my friend ended up having to transfer out of the class because they held it against her that she pulled them into a situation they had no interest in pursuing. I would definitely suggest talking to the people that were the subjects of this before proceeding lest you become the victim of backlash from them more so than the professor.

Also, have you considered talking constructively directly with the professor? This is something I have done before and while I didn't agree with my professor I believe I gained respect for talking to him about it directly. Our society is becoming more and more inundated with litigation in favor of direct contact culminating in parties resolving their own issues. Maybe direct communication would alert him to the issue and a resolution can be found without getting anyone in trouble? Especially if there is an inherent cultural difference it would seem right to tell him he made you--and possibly others--uncomfortable, explain why, and see if it continues before taking it to the 'authorities.' Make no mistake, professors are people too and make mistakes as we all do. They are also your peers, peers with more education, but peers none-the-less and can be interacted with as such.

Good luck with this situation, I know it is a tough one.
posted by Gainesvillain at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you have an academic advisor, this would be a good person to run this by before doing anything else. He/She should have a good idea of how the university typically handles things like this and, if this has happened before, what will happen.

I complained about a prof for a similar offense to a faculty member (program advisor), and got the scoop about the dept's attitude toward the professor ("yeah, he's old, he should retire, he's been talked to about this before, not much we can do") and it was immensely helpful. Mostly it gave me a chance to vent and feel heard even though technically the university's hands were tied.
posted by messylissa at 1:41 PM on June 1, 2009


As for the context of his questions- it was stuff like, he wanted a demonstration of descriptive language, so he asked two or three guys to describe the woman he picked, and pushed for more detail when they repeated what he had said- that she was beautiful. No one knew exactly what kind of description he was looking for, so he eventually wrote on the board "[Her name] is stunningly beautiful." He called on some of the women by saying things like, "the beautiful girl over there with her head down" until he learned their names. He came up with hypothetical situations: "you're dating that beautiful girl over there but your parents don't agree" and "I want to date that beautiful girl, [her name], but I'm not her father or she's already dating someone and I can't own her, so I make a persona or character of her that will satisfy me". That last example is completely true, and the moment after he said that was very awkward.

Okay, THAT is probably a violation of the university sexual harassment policy. I would definitely share this information, in this degree of detail, with the appropriate parties in the administration.

The professor sounds like a nice man, with a convivial nature.

Let him be.


I'm sorry, WHAT THE FUCK? Evaluating the appearance of students in class is not "nice" or "convivial" in any way.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:41 PM on June 1, 2009 [17 favorites]


Don't bother reporting it. He's made an ass of himself and will do so throughout life. If you really think it's stupid, you'd laugh at his stupidity. But don't waste your energy over this. Write him an anonymous letter or something saying kindly that you wanted to advise him that students were thinking that that exercise is antiquated and you know he had good intentions, but that everyone thinks he's a weirdo. You'll get a lot farther getting him to quit it if you don't take him seriously. Otherwise he's going to justify it to himself and write boring articles about why he's right and everyone else is wrong...then it'll get posted as an FPP and we'll all fight about it...Put it on RateMyProfessor or something.
posted by anniecat at 1:41 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Turned out later that the people the comments were directed two never took offense in the first place

Please note that it is spectacularly inappropriate for professors to comment on the physical appearance of students in class, whether or not it offends the individual students who are singled out for comment. Saying "Jane is spectacularly beautiful" may not offend Jane herself, but it creates an inappropriately charged environment for everyone.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:43 PM on June 1, 2009 [8 favorites]


Why don't you meet with him during his office hours and indicate that you found his lecture offensive? Be sensitive to the fact that he's from another culture and could perhaps use some further acclimatization to American peculiarities (if this is in the states). I'm sure he never meant to offend anyone, and if he was aware that it upset people perhaps he would change his style. Or at least he could then expect complaints if he continues.

As a note, I'm an English major and at my school there are about 10 women for every man (I'm in the latter) and there have been a couple lectures wherein I felt alienated and unwelcome. I brought that issue to my professor (who I was otherwise relatively comfortable with), she (an American born woman) was not aware that what she said could be taken as offensive, apologized profusely, and promised to change the method she used to encourage discussion of the topic.
posted by nameless.k at 1:46 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


This guy's behavior is not okay and not harmless. It is discrimination and creates a hostile environment. Don't let anyone brush this aside as "a cultural difference". Fuck that. He's teaching in an American institution and has been here 20 years. By now, he should have had diversity training or sexual harassment training and should be abiding by it. By not doing so, he's just being hostile towards women. His blurb about discrimination was (most likely) intended as "Oh, I'll be offensive but now you can't do anything because I've admitted my discriminatory tendencies."

Take foxy_hedgehog's advice and report this. For years, women have been subjected to shit like this and they haven't reported it because "Oh, it's just a cultural difference" or "Oh, it wasn't really a big deal". The cycle can't end if the administration doesn't know about it.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 1:50 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm sure he never meant to offend anyone, and if he was aware that it upset people perhaps he would change his style. Or at least he could then expect complaints if he continues.

It sounds like he's already gotten complaints, from his "ladies" anecdote. Really, if OP isn't comfortable talking to the professor directly (and frankly, I wouldn't be--kudos for you if you were, but you would have been within your rights not to), she should follow the normal procedures established at her university to make a complaint about this sort of thing.

The professor sounds like a nice man, with a convivial nature.

Let him be.


This is so ridiculous that my head just exploded.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:50 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Be sensitive to the fact that he's from another culture and could perhaps use some further acclimatization to American peculiarities (if this is in the states)

That's not her job. It's the job of the department chair or dean or ombudsman or whoever is in charge of enforcing the university's sexual harassment guidelines to explain to this professor how to do his job in accord with said guidelines; it's not the job of individual students.

The right thing for a student to do here is to report concerns to the appropriate administrator(s) and let them evaluate the concerns and take whatever steps may be necessary.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:57 PM on June 1, 2009


Be sensitive to the fact that he's from another culture and could perhaps use some further acclimatization to American peculiarities

OP has already clarified that the jerkoff has been in the US for 20 years. He's using his background as an excuse. Needs to be fired.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:12 PM on June 1, 2009


1. It was probably harmlessly intended.

2. That doesn't make it right or ok.

3. Send an anon letter to the dean or some such.

4. If you know other women in the class, encourage them to send a letter or speak up if they wish to.

5. He sounds like a terrible teacher anyway. Seriously, his only addition, in a descriptive language class, was to add "stunningly" in front of beautiful?! I'd switch classes on that alone.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:13 PM on June 1, 2009


Really, if OP isn't comfortable talking to the professor directly (and frankly, I wouldn't be--kudos for you if you were, but you would have been within your rights not to

I'm sorry, but if you're not willing to speak up it is either faux-outrage or you are part of the problem.
posted by nameless.k at 2:18 PM on June 1, 2009


At the very least give other students a heads-up at Rate My Professor.
posted by mecran01 at 2:44 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Really, if OP isn't comfortable talking to the professor directly (and frankly, I wouldn't be--kudos for you if you were, but you would have been within your rights not to

I'm sorry, but if you're not willing to speak up it is either faux-outrage or you are part of the problem.

I disagree. There are many reasons people are not willing to speak up against harassment and chilly climate besides "faux outrage." I think it would be disingenuous NOT to acknowledge that there is a power imbalance between teachers and students that makes confronting this guy a tricky proposition and could put the OP in a risky situation.

I think going to an ombudsperson is a good first step. This person should be able to guide you through the process of bringing this prof's conduct to the attention of people who can do something about it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:19 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm sorry, but if you're not willing to speak up it is either faux-outrage or you are part of the problem.

Going through the proper channels to address this is speaking up. There are numerous reasons why someone wouldn't want to talk to someone behaving this way directly, including fear of the professor badmouthing her to other department faculty members--something that the OP is already concerned with. It's a completely valid concern and also a completely valid reason for wanting to stay anonymous.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:21 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't write an anonymous letter. They will ignore it.

If you want to do something -- and I think it's the right move to do something -- go to the ombudsperson, or the chair of the department, or whoever it is who can do anything. In person, and with a written statement. Write an editorial in the student paper. Leave a paper trail.

And if you feel that you will suffer retaliation from this, the ombudsperson should be safe and anonymous; if it isn't safe, the newspaper might be able to find a reporter to get info from other students in the class. You can always leave info on ratemyprofessors, or whatever is most popular in your school. These are less likely to have any effect but you're not required to risk your academic career on this. (Note: I do not think that speaking to someone would put you at risk, but if you think it's likely, I defer to your judgement.)
posted by jeather at 3:31 PM on June 1, 2009


4. If you know other women people in the class, encourage them to send a letter or speak up if they wish to.

Nthing the confidential complaint to an ombudsperson (preferably) or dean (if your university has no ombudsperson). It's important to create a paper trail even if no disciplinary action is taken right away.
posted by Orinda at 3:36 PM on June 1, 2009


Utterly inappropriate.

And from his little "ladies" speech, he knows better.

Report it, and not anonymously. Calmly, objectively, staying focused your role as a student (i.e. you are there for an education), no personal attacks, no speculation as to his motives, explaining why you left the class. It's probably too vague to be against the sexual harassment policy, but the college should know that this guy is taking advantage of his position to go into reveries on the beauty of his prettiest female students.

He could have pointed to famous pieces of art, the trees outside, almost anything, rather than single out particular women in class as objects of beauty.

And for the love of god, don't meet with him alone to discuss his behavior, lest you get into some ridiculous he-said/she-said. He's not your prof anymore, let the school handle it.
posted by desuetude at 4:04 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The professor sounds like an ignorant man with a warped nature.

Do not let him be.
posted by ambient2 at 4:10 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I am very sorry you had to experience this in a learning environment. This professor's behavior is NOT OK.

I'm sorry, but if you're not willing to speak up it is either faux-outrage or you are part of the problem.
This is an incredible thing to say-- incredible as in jaw-droppingly insensitive. Sexual harassment is a complicated issue that cannot be reduced to black-and-white pronouncements. The OP is not "part of the problem" whatever she decides to do.

foxy_hedgehog and PhoBWanKenobi make good points. As PhoBWanKenobi said, this incident virtually defines sexual harassment in the classroom, for it created a hostile environment.

The choice to report it is your own. I'd encourage you to do so. When I was an undergrad in a conservative society that devalues women, I let incidents like this slide all the time in work and classroom situations. In retrospect I wish I had not.

The question we can help you with is to whom you should report it. Typical avenues are the ombuds office and the women's center. Of course it is a delicate situation.

You have thought through all the possible ramifications of reporting it. I can see how you would worry about how reporting it would affect your future as an English major.

I would not go straight to the department chair or to your present instructor. On the one hand, I'd bet the department would want to know about this teacher's "methods." On the other, the department might be a mess and would not care. It's impossible to say.

A mentor or advisor might have insight. In fact, if you have a close relationship with a mentor or academic advisor, you might discuss the situation with them first.

If you want help figuring out the best office to contact, please me-mail me. I could take a look at your university website and give you my two cents. I'm a professor, for what it is worth, and would keep our correspondence in confidence.

By the way, your maturity is impressive. I sure didn't have it when I was your age.
posted by vincele at 4:24 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is what department chairs are for (I speak as one). Send a polite explanation of your concern to this professor's chair, and ask her/him to respect your desire for confidentiality. If this is a pattern, the chair will know about it. Make it clear you will take the complaint to the dean or make it public if you are not satisfied with the department's response. But the chair is this professor's immediate boss, and if your goal is to change his behavior, the person who can call him on the carpet for it is, first and foremost, his chair. It may not help -- the chair may be a schmuck or pals with this professor, but it's step one.

Speaking as a professor, his behavior was totally unacceptable and has nothing to do with academic freedom. Singling out students for commentary from others on the basis of their physical appearance is a violation of basic pedagogical standards, as it would be in a kindergarten class as well. You have every reason to complain, and other students have a right to be protected from shit like this.

I speak as someone with a pretty provocative pedagogy myself. This isn't provocative; it's sexist bullshit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:07 PM on June 1, 2009


(Also, if you could muster a few other students from the class to co-sign the complaint to the chair, it would help.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:08 PM on June 1, 2009


I see nothing wrong with this, but then again, I've never heard of "ladies" being used in a bad context either.
posted by reductiondesign at 6:09 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Everything I would have said has been said in this thread already (conduct decidedly NOT okay, no harasser ever intends it - doesn't make it right, cultural relativism != condoning harassment, definitely go to an ombudsperson or dean) but I just wanted to add to the number of people who support you in speaking up about this. Don't let a few clueless types make you second-guess yourself.

Seriously, people: "harmless?" "convivial?" Were you utterly perplexed by this post too?
posted by AV at 6:13 PM on June 1, 2009


> nice man, convivial nature.

When he publicly announced how pretty each girl was, but excluded the fat one and the old one? He wasn't actually being very nice. Sounds like something that would happen on The Office to me.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:49 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


fourcheesemac, as junior faculty I have a question about your advice.
you say: if your goal is to change his behavior, the person who can call him on the carpet for it is, first and foremost, his chair. It may not help -- the chair may be a schmuck or pals with this professor, but it's step one.

Since she can't know whether the chair is a schmuck or the department is dysfunctional, wouldn't she be better off seeking confidential input from outside the department? A mentor in particular could clue her in to the politics of the department, a woman's center could advise her of her rights and procedures, and so on.

There are some pretty dysfunctional departments out there, and not all department chairs are "good guys," like you seem to be.

I do not mean to challenge your advice. I'm genuinely interested in learning how to best help students in situations like this in the future.
posted by vincele at 8:07 PM on June 1, 2009


I went through something similar in grad school in which the professor was also from an African country which had been colonized by Britain.

I had a problem with my printer and needed an extension for a paper. The professor called me at my home and agreed to do this, but I got the impression that he wanted more than a teacher/student relationship with me, and he was saying things which made me uncomfortable: "You need me to come out of your shell. Let me help you come out of your shell" "Sugar" " I don't want you sitting in the back" " I want you to participate in the reading I'm organizing ( which was a forum for the black students on campus at a university which was over 90% white; I did not think my involvement would be appropriate)" " You don't want to wind up like Jane Austen, do you(having taken an Austen course by someone considered one of the top scholars in the field, it's my understanding that she was fairly social within her community)?" He DID NOT proposition me,but I felt that the things he was saying were inappropriate.

It didn't quite fit what had happened to me, but I called a local rape hotline. The woman on the other end suggested that I speak to a campus ombudsperson, who told me to speak with the program associate in my department. The associate agreed to handle the paperwork for dropping the class so I wouldn't have to deal with this professor face to face.

After I earned my degree, I read this man's autobiographical novel, in which he described how he and a friend raped a woman from their community when they found her by herself. He wrote that he did so because he didn't want to look bad in front of his friend. Had I read this beforehand, I would have never signed up for his class.
posted by brujita at 12:03 AM on June 2, 2009


vincele, most departments -- certainly at decent universities -- are not so dysfunctional that the department chair would risk retaliation for a student complaining about sexual harassment -- which is what this professor is doing. In any case, universities have a chain of command, effectively, and the chair of the department is the professor's immediate superior for things like this. If you're going to take it up above the department, it would be wise to have taken it up with the department.

Deans' offices -- hell, entire schools -- can be dysfunctional too. Unless the OP has some real reason to fear retaliation, and a basis for the fear, talking to the department chair (and registering a complaint in writing if feasible) makes the most sense as a first step in a "gray area" case (since you don't know if this is a pattern, or even if it occurred exactly like the OP says it occurred).

Also, don't assume the chair is a man. Women chair departments too, you know. If for some reason the OP doesn't want to report this incident to a male faculty member, another possible step would be to talk to a sympathetic but *senior* (tenured) woman on the department's faculty first. If the offending prof is a serial harasser and sexist, trust me that his female colleagues will know about it, or will want to know about it, and will likely lend a sympathetic ear. One of them is likely to be willing to carry the confidential accusation to the chair's attention.

The problem here is that the complaint is rather non-specific in terms of individual injury. Other than her feeling that she had to drop the class, it's hard for the offended student to demonstrate that she was personally harassed, although I agree it doesn't matter in this case. Her best bet is to make it a class action complaint -- that is, to confirm or initiate what will be a pattern of abuses if the prof is as sexist and offensive as he sounds from her report.

I'm not saying *don't* go see the ombudsman or the dean; in fact, every major American university and college has a) a specific sexual harassment policy and b) specific institutional procedures for such a complaint to be made and addressed. She should look those up. My suggestion that she see the chair first considers that she may not want to be, individually, at the center of the shitstorm that will follow a formal complaint above the department, and that her case will be weak and hard to prove on its own without a pattern being established or other students coming forward.

If the department and/or its chair is/are fucked up too, then that becomes part of the complaint to be taken to the next level. But trust me on this -- a department chair worth her/his salt will not want this to happen, and will want to be seen to have responded firmly and forcefully to such a situation. The department will be injured if it shelters a serial harasser; I can think of a dozen lawsuits that prove my point off the top of my head.

But I reiterate from a professor's perspective that I can think of no legitimate scholarly or pedagogical reason why an instructor would do what this OP says her professor did. If he were my colleague, and I learned of this, he'd be in my office the next day explaining himself, and on notice to cut the shit.

OP didn't say if the prof in question has tenure, which is a significant variable. If he doesn't, he's going to be in a world of hurt if a sexual harassment label sticks to him.

Also, I will say this: I have numerous male colleagues from Africa, and other more patriarchal societies. That's no excuse. If he doesn't like calling women "women" or following the general standards for equitable treatment in an American university (assuming that's the case here), he can get one of the many fine tenure-track teaching jobs available in Lagos.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:06 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Should have said: I have numerous male colleagues from more patriarchal societies who do *not* act like this, and who understand that an American university is not their home town.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:10 AM on June 2, 2009


One more thought: between official student evaluations and the (useless) ratemyprofessor.com level, many larger universities have some "unofficial" online teacher evaluation site -- I know mine does. As much as faculty members hate these projects, they have their uses, and while we don't admit it, we read our evaluations on such sites and are affected by them (whereas I don't give a flying crap what someone writes about me on ratemyprofessor, where anyone can say anything and there's no quality control at all, although as it turns out my r-m-p evaluation is a good one). A firmly worded and civil negative comment on such a site would help start the snowball of "enough is enough" rolling. And that would also be a good place to discover if this is a pattern for the prof in question.

I am strongly opposed to the trivial or cavalier use of charges of harassment or discrimination, which can sometimes fly like feathers at a duck slaughter at American universities, and sometimes tar the reputations of good and decent faculty members. At my university, such charges have been used to attack professors who support an unpopular political position by students who represent the other side of this (very divisive) question and who claim they have been attacked, harassed, or ignored because of it, when in reality they have just been on the losing end of an intellectual argument or perceived hostility because of their own ideological fervor on the other side of the issue. If you don't like the content of a professor's teaching on ideological grounds, it's not harassment for you to have to sit there and listen to it when you have a choice not to do so, or to respond without the expectation of retaliation in your grade, etc. But that's not what this OP is reporting. This sounds to me like a clear case of sexual harassment, not only of the students not singled out as "beautiful," but perhaps especially of the ones who *were* singled out. I bet you they were even *more* uncomfortable, and I think the OP should ask a few of those students how they took the comments and whether they would co-sign her complaint to the chair.

And I repeat, if it's a problem, it's a pattern. The OP should be thinking about confirming or revealing a pattern, not ameliorating her personal injury, which is relatively unprovable.

posted by fourcheesemac at 4:23 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the clarification, fourcheesemac. I agree with you about getting more students involved, and I agree that this is a clear case of harassment for all male and female students in the classroom.
By the way, I did not advocate taking this to the dean-- a totally inappropriate course of action. I do think that starting with a trusted mentor (ideally, as you state, a senior, tenured woman) or the women's center would work best for this student. She'd likely receive advice about how to approach the chair-- and information about the chair's reputation.
posted by vincele at 7:40 AM on June 2, 2009


You are in College and luckily in control of your coursework. There are many reasons that a particular class or professor or even a whole department will not be to your liking. This sounds like a clear cut case. You dropped the class. Great move. Now you should most definitely report your experience via whatever the common student reporting procedure is on your campus to give other students the heads up. Tell your friends. And once you find out where students review professors, read up on all professors before you sign up for their classes. Ask around. In fact if there was one thing I could tell every new college student it would be that.

If it continues to bother you perhaps you can speak to an adviser in the department and he or she can assist you to plan your coursework to avoid this professor and any others know to have caused past offense. Beyond that you now have your first crazy college professor story to tell. If I were in your situation I would leave it at that. People often say things I don't like and I prefer to pick my battles and choose the places I can do the most good. Taking on a (probably) tenured professor in the department of my major would not be one of them, unfortunately.
posted by tinamonster at 8:58 PM on June 2, 2009


(Also, if you could muster a few other students from the class to co-sign the complaint to the chair, it would help.)

In theory, great, but how do they all agree on the language without this becoming a three-week project, or hopelessly watered-down? One person will be more outraged than another, one will be willing to sign if she doesn't make it sound so harsh, one will be uncomfortable with any discussion of culture/race, one will agree in principle but not quite agree with Baethan's characterization, et cetera.

All due respect to the advice of fourcheesemac, but I'd say that Baethan should write her own letter from her own perspective (repeat: as objective as possible, not inflammatory, etc.) and get it done. Let the other students know that she has done so, encourage them to do the same if they agree, and offer to show them what she wrote to bolster their courage, if needed.
posted by desuetude at 7:36 AM on June 3, 2009


desuetude, on reflection I agree with you that she should write as an individually offended party. I'll bet she's not the only one who will do so. And that will achieve the desired effect.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:48 AM on June 3, 2009


you've got your knickers in a knot over nothing. simmer.
posted by phritosan at 12:21 PM on June 4, 2009


In case anyone is wondering, I sent an (anonymous) email to the university's women's center tuesday morning, but no reply yet. I'm currently considering calling them (aren't they supposed to be available to students for concerns like this?) or maybe very cautiously talking to my current teacher. More likely, I'm just going to let it die, as it wasn't outright sexual harassment and I wasn't one of the girls singled out. I looked through the professor's page on ratemyprofessor, and there were a fair number of comments regarding rude and offensive remarks made by him, so I wouldn't be surprised if the university already knows about it. Hopefully the people in his class will speak to somebody if they feel his behavior is inappropriate. Thank you all for your replies!!
posted by Baethan at 12:21 PM on June 6, 2009


More likely, I'm just going to let it die, as it wasn't outright sexual harassment and I wasn't one of the girls singled out.

I want to reiterate that what your professor did would qualify as the definition of sexual harassment at most US colleges. While I appreciate that it's a pain to pursue this, how would you feel if you found out that no one has officially reported his behavior (because they thought his actions seemed borderline, because they didn't want to take the time, because they assumed that the university already knew about it)?

Please search for the term "sexual harassment" on your colleges' webpage and find out what their protocol is for this. If none exists, contact the head of your department or the dean of students. Either is a much better idea--for numerous reasons, as discussed by several people above--than talking to your current teacher, cautiously or not.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:47 PM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree with PhoBWanKenobi...please don't just let this go. What this prof is doing is very unprofessional and inappropriate. He is creating an atmosphere where the students know he is assessing their appearance and attractiveness in addition to their work, and that is NOT OK. As the prof, he holds significant power over students, and he needs to be sensitive to that.

As for the women's centre, yes, they should be available for concerns like this--however, often the coordinators only work very irregular, minimal hours, especially in the summer semester. Do keep trying to contact them.

I also agree with PhoBWanKenobi's suggestion to talk to someone other than your current teacher. I know that ethically, I am not supposed to discuss other colleagues with my students, so even though I would be very sympathetic to a student who approached me in your situation, the most I would be able to do is suggest someone else to talk to or a possible course of action to take.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


update: The university's website basically just has a copy of their policy regarding sexual harassment, which mostly deals with what happens after a complaint is filed. I ended up asking my professor if she knew who I should talk to (I know you guys told me many times not to, but no details were mentioned- it wasn't an "omg, guess what someone in your department did" sort of thing), so she's finding that out for me.
posted by Baethan at 11:02 AM on June 11, 2009


Thank you for updating. I'm glad your prof was able to help you--the main reason I suggested finding someone other than her to talk to was not because telling her is bad, but because she's probably rather constrained in terms of what she can do for you. However, it sounds like she'll be able to find you some help, which is great. Good luck and good for you for pursuing this.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:18 AM on June 12, 2009


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