How weird was this interaction in my undergrad lab today?
September 20, 2016 3:00 AM   Subscribe

I had an interaction with my lab partner that I thought was weird today, but I'm having trouble parsing exactly how weird it was (if at all!) and if I should do anything about it.

In my undergrad physics lab today, my lab partner, who I had never met before, grabbed some equipment out of my hands, and then, a few minutes later, grabbed and pulled my arm while I was working with the equipment. He thought I was using the equipment incorrectly- we were doing the common electric field mapping lab and he thought I had the probe on the conducting paint. I'm not mad at the kid or anything, but I don't want to work with him again either. Am I overreacting? Is this just a thing that happens in labs in some places?

In labs I've gotten brushed or bumped and everything (I've taken seven or eight at this point), but nobody's ever grabbed or touched me intentionally. But maybe I'm overreacting because I'm a woman and he's a dude? Or because I'm a returning student so I'm older than everyone, plus I find physics in particular super stressful so I overreact to everything I don't like in lab, plus I'm just congenitally grumpy and difficult? This is also my first lab at this particular school, and I keep thinking maybe this was just a culture thing- like, at my old school(s) this would have been Totally Not Done, but here it's just A Little Odd? Because that has happened before.

I want to email the lab instructor and say, like, "NBD, everyone gets stressed, but please don't partner me with this guy again." But is that going to come off as weird and childish and the lab instructor is going to be like, "Well, you WEREN'T supposed to touch the conducting paint"? Or alternately is the lab instructor going to be like, "A male student touched a female student without permission in my classroom, I have to report this to [someone?]."

Undergraduate lab instructors of AskMe, HOW weird was this? Was it weird at all? Is this just something that happens in lab and I'm overreacting in wanting to tell the instructor not to pair me with him again? Has this happened in your labs and if so, what did you do?

(PS: I know I sound extra-anxious about this, but it's because I'm at a particularly stressful point in my academic program this semester and I'm anxious and angry about everything, not because I feel, like, threatened by my lab partner. I'm asking for outside opinions because I know I'm stressed about everything and extra jumpy as a result. Thnx v much.)
posted by Snarl Furillo to Education (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would find it inappropriate to be touched like this too, especially since this person is a stranger. I think it might be best to talk to your lab instructor in person. You can have a discussion about it and not have the added worry of whether they've misconstrued your tone or whether they have to report it because there's a paper trail, even if you don't want them to report it.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 3:05 AM on September 20, 2016 [15 favorites]

He took things from you without asking and touched you without your consent. Go to the Lab instructor, if s/he blows you off, to the head of the dept, to the title ix dept if you're ignored there.
posted by brujita at 3:24 AM on September 20, 2016 [12 favorites]

(Perspective: many years ago, I was a lab instructor/TA for a few undergraduate general chemistry labs)

The only reason it would be acceptable to grab somebody's arm and pull them away is if they were about to put themselves or somebody else in imminent physical danger. Based on your description, and the description of the lab, it sounds very, very unlikely that was the case.

Your lab partner's actions sound completely inappropriate, not conducive to learning, and unsafe. You are not overreacting. I'd second brujita's advice above - take it up with your instructor, and if they blow it off escalate to the faculty member in charge of the course.
posted by penguinicity at 3:43 AM on September 20, 2016 [42 favorites]

Let's side step the returning student thing, the male-female thing (relevant though it may be), and your stresses about school culture for a moment.

A neutral path you can take when you talk to your lab instructor about this is that you (not you-you, but anyone) can't learn in an environment where they're getting equipment snatched away and worried they're going to get grabbed. How could you possibly learn anything or complete the goals of the lab when your partner won't let you do it?

When I was 15 and learning to drive, my dad had a habit of reaching over and yanking the steering wheel whenever I did something he didn't like. We actually ended up in the median a few times because he is a terrible person to learn to drive with, not because I was so bad I put us there. Is it any wonder I didn't learn how to drive with him?

I would go to your lab instructor and explain what happened and explain that you want to be placed with a different partner so you can stand some kind of chance of actually participating and learning the material.
posted by phunniemee at 3:45 AM on September 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

I am a Physics professor. I am (probably) not your Physics professor.

I would absolutely want to know this and I would be happy to put you with another partner. I also would hope that I would be aware that your current partner was kind of an asshole in this way. There is sadly an archetype of a young male physics student that shares traits with the IT guy in those SNL sketches. It can be particularly noticeable when they're paired with women or more senior students who like to take their time in lab to understand what they're doing vs. just powering through as fast as possible. It's a trait that I try to squash in these students as early as I can. Please do talk to your lab instructor or professor.
posted by Betelgeuse at 4:27 AM on September 20, 2016 [54 favorites]

But maybe I'm overreacting because I'm a woman and he's a dude?

Not a lab person, don't know anything about that, but from reading the title onwards I was waiting for this. I find it extremely unlikely that he would have touched another man in the way you describe unless what they were doing was actively dangerous.
posted by threetwentytwo at 4:46 AM on September 20, 2016 [29 favorites]

I've TAed lab courses, although that was many many years ago. This kid is being a sexist, possibly also age-ist ass. If you told me honestly what happened, I'd be sure not to rearrange the partners so you didn't have to work with him again.

I'd also be thrilled if you told me the full story, because I'd want to make sure not to put someone else more vulnerable (read: not willing to speak up about his bad behavior) with him.
I would also want to watch him more carefully, so that if he did it again to someone else I could correct the behavior immediately (for its risk to safety, its damage to the learning environment, and its bullshit assumption that he knew better than you how to do the lab).
posted by nat at 4:56 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is completely inappropriate and disrespectful. I would have told him to stop immediately both times. This is essentially a work enviornment. Both of these actions are never ok in a work enviornment, and you should get used to saying stop immediately.

If you want to ask for a new partner, paste the paragraph about his behavior in an email to your TA. As somebody who has TAed labs, I would tell this student to knock it off.
posted by Kalmya at 4:57 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Former undergrad science student. This is super inappropriate behavior. You should definitely bring this up with your prof or TA. It's also completely fair to ask not to be partnered with this guy again, his inappropriate behavior is interfering with your opportunity to learn during lab.

You're not trying to start a conflict and frankly it's not your job to spend your lab time teaching this dude how to not be an asshat. College-aged adults definitely know it's not cool to grab or touch other people without permission. If he doesn't know this, someone charged with leading the lab needs to spend the time and effort to make this clear to him.
posted by forkisbetter at 4:58 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

What this guy did was not appropriate at all.

1. Women (nay, adults) don't grab and handle other people in the workplace without their consent unless it's an extreme "YOU'RE ABOUT TO BE STRUCK BY THAT ANVIL" level of threat.

2. He most certainly would not have done this to a man.

I'm sorry this happened to you, and I'm sorry you're in a situation where you feel anxious about his stupid inappropriate behaviour. I'm furious on your behalf.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:02 AM on September 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

P.S. I wanted to ad, I have worked in many, many labs (Both undergrad class and undergrad and graduate research). I have never had either of these things happen. I am a woman who has worked with hundreds of men. I HAVE said something similar happen in industry. The man was a jerk and completely sexist. So one man in 15 years of similar situations.
posted by Kalmya at 5:08 AM on September 20, 2016

I am also a Physics professor, though definitely not your professor (at least this semester). I agree completely with Betelgeuse. I teach lab as well, and I would definitely want to know about this. I would happily honor your request not to work with this student in the future, and I would want to help eliminate that behavior.
posted by q9f9A at 5:21 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Lab professor here to third what Betelgeuse said. Please tell someone in charge. We can't do a thing until you do.
posted by Dashy at 5:43 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

As another person who has worked in a lot of labs, I also totally agree with Betelgeuse. Grabbing tools out of someone else's hands for non emergency reasons is something I train out of elementary schoolers. I expect much more understanding of bodily autonomy from college students. I've never had materials removed from my hands without permission.

I don't expect that it is a mandatory reporting situation. I do expect that you are likely to get an awkward non-apology from the kid in lab along the lines of "I'm sorry that I surprised you while you were doing the wrong thing," because he's not likely to learn his lesson immediately. There's also a chance that you got put with the kid in the first place because the prof knew he was a mess and thought an older adult would be able to handle him, but that's not your job as a student.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:44 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a former (female) physics lab TA, I might point out that most lab TAs are first or second year grad students, and perhaps less likely to be able to manage this situation than a professor, who has more years of experience and authority. (And at least in my undergrad/grad labs, there would be likely to be less of a language barrier with a professor.)

This doesn't mean "don't tell your TA," but it does mean "if you don't get action from your TA, don't give it up as a lost cause."
posted by instamatic at 6:03 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

A note potentially relevant to your interaction with the lab instructor (if your college is in the US): according to Title IX and the Clery Act, instructional personnel who learn about sexual harassment, violence, or assault are required to report it to the institution's compliance officer.

This procedure, when possible and when implemented by competent people, is generally carried out in a way that respects the confidentiality of the complainant (and in most cases ends up going no further than the Title IX compliance office). That said, if your instructor perceives this as a sexual harassment/violence situation and reports it, there is the possibility that it ends up sprawling a bit outside the confines of this course's own administration.
posted by jackbishop at 6:03 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another physics professor agreeing with Betelgeuse. The student needs to be told by the instructor that his behavior is not appropriate, and you need to be not paired with him again until he has demonstrated a pattern of keeping his hands to himself. If your lab instructor is a grad student, they may not have the experience to recognize what needs to be doneā€”or maybe they'll respond appropriately, who knows. If talking to the lab instructor doesn't get an appropriate response, escalate to the professor running the course.
posted by BrashTech at 6:04 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Physics Ph.D. here who TA'd undergraduate labs as both a senior undergraduate and a grad student.

Concur that you're not out of line to be upset and not out of line to speak up. This is whack for a non-immediate safety situation. I would certainly find (or allow you to find) a new partner, and current me would say something to this student. (I admit then-me would probably just pair him up with a guy and hope the problem became not mine--I've grown up since then.)
posted by stevis23 at 6:20 AM on September 20, 2016

Technically, grabbing your arm was felony assault and you could have had him arrested.

Of course you would not do that in this situation! I'm just adding it for context as you consider what happened.

Another person should never ever ever ever ever put their hands on you, especially grab you. Nthing he would not have done this to a man in the same situation. Please feel confident reporting this! It was entirely inappropriate! Also, potentially dangerous depending what kind of materials you were handling. Geez.

Please lead with the fact that he grabbed your arm. Grabbing stuff out of your hands was rude, but grabbing your arm in conjunction with bossing you around was agregious, like this person might need a close eye and counseling at some point because his lack of maturity and impulse control is considerable.

He grabbed and admonished you, a stranger to him. He was unprofessional and he's unsafe. Report the incident, please do it in writing. Be brief and clear and do not add opinions or offer insights into anyone's character (even tho I did in the paragraph above, oops.)

By college, everyone knows to keep their hands to themselves, and if not, then they are not ready for a group setting. Don't feel bad, you are doing the right thing by speaking up. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 6:21 AM on September 20, 2016

But maybe I'm overreacting because I'm a woman and he's a dude?

I think you are not overreacting, and I think it is entirely likely that sexism (conscious or not) contributed to his taking equipment out of your hands.

I'm a woman and back when I was in college I found myself subtly, reflexively assuming that my male physics lab partner knew what he was doing more than I did and sometimes (especially when I had read the lab manual the night before and he hadn't) that was totally not true. We were both science (but not physics) majors.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:55 AM on September 20, 2016

Moreover, just to be totally clear about my above comment, it is almost always the case that the students who do this do not have anywhere as near as good a handle on the material as they think they do. So, putting an end to this crap not only prevents a toxic lab environment, but actually can lead to the offending student learning more.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:10 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

But maybe I'm overreacting because I'm a woman and he's a dude?

You've got this backwards. He's doing it because you are a woman and he's a dude. "Do not touch me" is a fine thing to say.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:14 AM on September 20, 2016 [11 favorites]

In my undergrad physics lab today, my lab partner, who I had never met before, grabbed some equipment out of my hands, and then, a few minutes later, grabbed and pulled my arm while I was working with the equipment.

Nooooope not cool, I wouldn't put up with this from a family member or partner let alone a stranger. I would be absolutely incensed and I'd report it to the appropriate people as soon as I could. In the moment, I probably would have yelled or elbowed him just out of sheer instinct. It's never okay to invade a person's space unless they're in imminent danger, someone else is in imminent danger, or it's unavoidable (e.g. crowded subway).
posted by AFABulous at 7:20 AM on September 20, 2016

I get the sense your lab partner has something going on, like mild autism. I say this as a parent of a child with Asperger's. I would not feel bad about requesting a different partner.

"Technically, grabbing your arm was felony assault and you could have had him arrested."

posted by mecran01 at 7:58 AM on September 20, 2016

"NBD, everyone gets stressed, but please don't partner me with this guy again."

I'd do it. When I was a TA, we were told to honor requests like this at face value. I'll not debate whether it's the best course of action to pursue what may have been "technically" criminal, since that's up to you, but rather remind you that it is common for lab partners to mix like oil and water and wish to be separated. You're an adult, and your request will be honored.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:03 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Someone who does that is frustrated (normal, even with an awesome partner) and doesn't know how to handle it appropriately (not normal). Something needs to happen to make sure he doesn't get worse.

In a way, it's not your responsibility, but then it's really nobody's responsibility and then he might just get angrier and angrier until he hurts himself, which would be a shame; a lot of love goes into educating someone to the university level, and making sure he's OK (and doesn't hurt, physically or emotionally, others at this level) is kind of everybody's responsibility.

Take care of yourself first, of course; don't put yourself in harm's or anger's way.

You could talk to his subsequent partners and see if he seemed angry or tense; if so, let the professor do whatever he needs to do about reporting, etc.
posted by amtho at 9:07 AM on September 20, 2016

I get the sense your lab partner has something going on, like mild autism. I say this as a parent of a child with Asperger's. I would not feel bad about requesting a different partner.

"Technically, grabbing your arm was felony assault and you could have had him arrested."

posted by mecran01 at 7:58 AM on September 20

Oh, I immediately thought this guy was somewhere on the spectrum. However...

I included the info that technically this can be interpreted as assault (and added that of course you probably would not make a police report) because something similar happened to me in a professional setting a few years ago. Like the OP, I had trouble parsing what happened exactly and how I should react. I'm also a woman, like the OP, the other person was a man. I wish I had known in the moment the nature of the violation instead of being confused about social niceties, just because it might have helped me advocate for myself a little more swiftly and succinctly. I might have been able to voice a boundary and desescalate instead of feeling speechless and shocked.

Being on the spectrum does not absolve an adult from violating another. This situation was fairly benign, what happens when this fellow feels more deeply confused and frustrated? He doesn't have healthy boundaries and he needs those for a career, at the very least. Keeping quiet doesn't help him longterm. That's it.
posted by jbenben at 9:43 AM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would respond to this by telling him some variant of "Please don't touch me," "You're violating my personal space when you do that," or "Could you please use your words rather than grabbing people?" Ideally in the moment when it happens, but also potentially if we have a further lab partner interaction.

To me, this sounds like typical 18 year old sheltered kid behavior. It's not acceptable, but some people really do grow up with alarming gaps in social skills. When I was an undergrad I had a (female) friend who would grab people inappropriately in a similar way. She eventually stopped when people started complaining to her that they didn't like it.

I would not email the lab instructor or otherwise involve authority figures. This is college, and as a returning student, you're an adult. If someone is transgressing boundaries with you, you should tell them about it, not find the nearest grownup to tattle to.
posted by Sara C. at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a professor and as such a mandatory reporter. If you were my student and came to me with this set of details I would be required to write up whatever I was told and pass it along to our Title IX Coordinator and related team and I would not be the person deciding what to do with the overall resolution of the matter.

There are likely campus counselors available to discuss any issues who do have to prioritize confidentiality and therefore may help you explore all your options without necessarily reporting it if you don't want to. You would need to ascertain that for sure prior to opening up the conversation, however.

I have had a somewhat similar circumstance arise in one of my courses and the impacted student came to me with it (and I did report it, as required; I do not know what if any official response took place as again I am not a part of that system). I also tried to keep those two students as separate as I could for the rest of the course.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:12 AM on September 20, 2016

I would talk to the prof about it. Say that you don't want to work with him again, and let the prof know to keep an eye on this guy in the next lab to see if it's an ongoing issue they need to address with him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:20 AM on September 20, 2016

Maybe I'm violating Title IX all the time or something, but this is never something I would think I was required to report to higher-ups. If the student bringing it to me wanted to move it up the chain, great; I'll support her/him. But if a student came to me and said, "Look: my lab partner is being an obnoxious asshat who doesn't know what appropriate social norms are. I don't want to make a big deal about it, but could I switch partners?" I would just move things around and tell the obnoxious asshole to stop being an obnoxious asshole. If he continues to be an obnoxious asshole, I'll kick him out of the lab and report him to the student discipline board.

When we say stuff like this is "technically felony assault," I think we allow no grey area that can be occupied by well-meaning, socially awkward teenagers on their way to figuring out how not to be obnoxious assholes.

That said, the idea that talking to your professor about this is "tattling" in any way really makes me bristle. I'm ultimately responsible for the environment in my classes. If you don't take this stuff to me, it is much harder for me to address these issues and make it an environment in which everyone feels comfortable to learn.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:22 AM on September 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

I get the sense your lab partner has something going on, like mild autism.

It is ridiculous to jump to this conclusion. Even if the person is on the spectrum they shouldn't be touching people and I'd bet any amount of money they wouldn't have if the OP had not been female.

OP, you can and should report this to your lab TA and ask not to be partnered with him again. You could if you wanted just ask not to be partnered with him again - this is a normal request and shouldn't raise any eyebrows.

As a data point, I went through my entire science undergrad without anyone touching me as you described so no, you're not wrong to think this is weird and bad and not want it to re-occur.
posted by winna at 11:45 AM on September 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

You should definitely share this story of inappropriate behavior with your instructor.

Strategically though, I would recommend keeping your explanation unapologetic, brief and fact based, and close with a specific request. So a sample script could be:

"Yesterday in lab, Bob grabbed the equipment I was working with out of my hands and then grabbed my arm to stop me from doing my part of the experiment. I felt uncomfortable with this and I'd like to request being paired with someone else for the rest of the semester."
posted by latkes at 2:57 PM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Latkes has it covered, the instructor can and should address it. This is not a Title IX matter, it is interpersonal - if he had touched a bathing suit area, that would be green-lighted for title IX. He did not. Tell your lab partner to knock it off and not touch you. (Expect him to deny it, the point here is to underscore the boundary clearly) Tell the faculty what you want - a change in lab partner, don't make them guess, chances are, with attendance & drop/add/withdrawal, they can work it out. Remind them you want to be successful in the class, and re-shuffling lab partners will help.
posted by childofTethys at 5:43 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assault may be a bit extreme, but a habit of being grabby in a lab could certainly be a safety hazard if it startled you. I'm more a fan of "Dude, do. not. ever. grab something out of my hands/me again. Use your words." Escalate if that doesn't work.
posted by ctmf at 8:44 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

THANK YOU for all of your answers. It was very very helpful to hear so many outside perspectives. It also helped me to get out of an anxiety spiral about various possible undesirable outcomes and focus on the outcome I did want, which was just to not work with this guy again. I spoke to my instructor today in person, and he assured me that I will not (the instructor assigns partners weekly). I feel comfortable with that and the instructor didn't require any convincing, which I had been nervous about.

Thank you especially to phunniemee, for helping me articulate that even if I am extra jumpy or sensitive, no one can learn if they can't use the equipment and might be grabbed at any moment, and to latkes for the suggested phrasing- I used it nearly verbatim and it was much easier to say because I thought of it as "Recite the script from AskMe." And thank you to all of the professors and lab instructors who reassured me that this was not okay and a perfectly fine thing to tell the instructor about.

(In my defense, I did react at the time- I pulled my arm away and said (paraphrased), "Is this so stressful for you that you need to take a break?" I could have been more assertive and direct, but he could have kept his hands to himself. I still don't want to work with him again. I called him a kid about 30% to indicate that I found him childish and immature but not unforgivable and 70% because he was stymied by the carbon paper. I said I was congenitally grumpy.)

Thank you again for all of your kind answers when I was stressed and upset.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:10 PM on September 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

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